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Gambling was known to the ancient world. Games of chance were an appreciated pastime, often turning into addiction, among the Greeks – Herodotus relates that the Lydians supposedly invented some games (History 1:94); among the Romans, who are known to have bet heavily on chariot races; and among the Teutons, of whose gambling habits Tacitus states that in their less sober moments they even gambled themselves into slavery (Germany, 24). While the Hebrews were also acquainted with gambling (Judg. 14), it was only from mishnaic days onward that the rabbis took a definitive attitude toward gambling.

Professional and Compulsive Gambling

Professional gambling in any shape or form, whether among Jews or non-Jews, was severely frowned upon. The professional gambler was considered a parasite who was engaged in a useless endeavor and contributed nothing to better the world. Some rabbis went so far as to declare the professional gambler a robber whom the Mishnah (Sanh. 3:3) disqualified from giving testimony; he was looked upon as a spineless wastrel who, instead of engaging in the study of Torah or in the pursuit of an honest livelihood (Maim., Comm. to Mishnah, Sanh. 3:3), frittered his time and efforts away on a demeaning occupation and unseemly conduct (Rabban (ed. 1920), 224d; Mordekhai, Sanh. nos. 690, 695).

The rabbis recognized the inability of the compulsive gambler to control his passion for the game (Shiltei ha-Gibborim, Sheb. 756), considered him a moral weakling, and consequently dealt with him severely. One medieval rabbi advised: "Do not show pity to the gambler who pleads 'pity me in order that I may not be shamed and disgraced by him who has won a gulden.' Better he be disgraced…" (Judah he-Ḥasid, Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by R. Margaliot (1957), no. 1026; cf. no. 400). So vehement was his opposition to the gambler that if the latter were to lose his money and require assistance from charity, it was to be denied to him.

Public calamities that befell the Jewish community were often considered the consequence of, and the punishment for, excessive gambling. In 1576, in Cremona, three scholars proposed a ban on gambling after a pestilence had abated. They maintained that the popular passion to gamble was the main source of all calamities that had befallen the community. A similar view had been expressed earlier by Judah Katzenellenbogen (Isaac Lampronti, Paḥad Yiẓḥak, 3 (Venice, 1798), 54a).

Effects of Gambling

Community leaders, keenly aware of the painful and destructive effects of gambling upon an individual's character, meted out severe punishment. Gambling debts could not be collected through the Jewish courts (Resp. Rashba, vol. 7, no. 445). The gambler was often placed under ban, dismissed from the burial society (ibid., nos. 244, 270; Resp. Rosh 13:12), at times prohibited from holding his wedding in the synagogue courtyard (Loewenstein, in JJLG, 8 (1910), 184f.), not called to the Torah (Finkelstein, Middle Ages, 282–95), etc. Family life was also disrupted by gambling habits, and there is much evidence readily available to show how difficult relationships were between gamblers and their wives (Resp. Rashba, vol. 2, nos. 35, 286; vol. 7, no. 501; Rosh, resp. 82:2, inter alia). Women refused to live with such husbands; wife-beating and drinking were common (Zikhron Yehudah no. 71; responsa Maharyu no. 135) and the education of children was jeopardized (Rosh, resp. 82:2). Repelled by the conditions under which they were forced to live, gamblers' wives often sought divorce. The gambler's desertion of his family was not an uncommon occurrence. One moralist even suggested that women should join their husbands in their acts of gambling in order to save their marriages (Moses of Jerusalem (Moses Henochs), Brant-Shpigel, ch. 10).

Gambling was denounced not only by Jewish law and by Jewish moralists, but its evils and terrible consequences were warned against by popular folk singers, in colloquial expressions, and in proverbs. "Gambling poems," describing the sorrow of a home where the man gambles, speak pitifully of the mental anguish of the gambler's "widow," the hidden tears, and the neglect of the children.

Curbs on Gambling

Jewish writings mention many gamblers who made conscious efforts to curb their passion and activities. A common practice among them was to take an oath not to indulge in games of chance, although this usually resulted in a double violation: gambling and breaking a vow. The vows varied: some gamblers set a time limit to their vows; others excluded specific days or special occasions; while still others only refrained from placing monetary stakes, but played, for example, for stakes of fruit (Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 305; Maharshal, resp. no. 185). Rabbis discouraged hasty vows, realizing that these did not lessen the lure of games of chance.


Communal restrictions to suppress gambling were often enacted; the frequency of these enactments, however, shows how futile the prohibitions were and how popular the games. Taking into consideration the attraction of games and gambling, the enactments were flexible: on many festive occasions (e.g., Ḥanukkah, Purim, the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot, and the New Moon) the restrictions were lifted (Israel Bruna, resp. no. 136). Special family occasions also received communal dispensation for gambling (Finkelstein, Middle Ages, 228–42, 284–91). In general, however, the prohibitions were enforced and accompanied by severe penalties: excommunication and flagellation were commonly meted out to transgressors (Resp. Rashba, vol. 7, nos. 244, 270); fines were imposed and honorary functions within the synagogue withheld.

Types of Games of Chance

The medieval gambler was enticed by all sorts of games. Dice were known from ancient times, and games such as "odds or evens" played with pebbles, knucklebones, and bowling were also quite old. Games with nuts, although often played by children, were also a pastime for the gambler (Haggahot Mordekhai, Sanh. nos. 722–3; Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, no. 94). Not until the 15th century did cards capture the fancy of the Jewish masses (I. Abrahams, Jewish Lifein the Middle Ages (19322), 415ff.). Tennis, popular among the Jews of Italy during the 16th century, was, just as chess, not merely played as a pastime but enormous stakes were wagered upon the outcome of such matches (Henderson, in JQR, 26 (1935/36), 5; for cards and chess see *Games). By the 18th century, lotteries were very popular. The different types of gambling were not universal; each country had its own fads and favorite games.

Many authorities felt that it was permissible to indulge in games of chance on occasions (Mordekhai, Sanh. 690f.). Gambling, however, carried with it a stigma; but while public opinion looked down upon it, all the private and communal efforts to stem the tide of gambling did not stop Jews from indulging frequently. One scholar even urged the abolition of all decrees against gambling since men could not withstand such temptation (Mordekhai, Shev. 787).

Synagogue Gambling

Gaming in the synagogue was not uncommon; a sharp contrast was drawn, however, between the usual forms of gambling and cases where the primary motive was not personal gain. A multitude of responsa cite instances where the winnings at games of chance were not considered fruits of sin (e.g., Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, no. 493). One of the clearest statements was made by Benjamin *Slonik who differentiated between gambling for private gain and that in which the winnings, even if only in part, went to charity. He saw no violation in the latter case and demanded full payment of gambling debts to charity. There were many instances where the rabbis and communities joined in games of chance. One rabbi ruled that he who wins at a lottery should pronounce the blessing She-Heḥeyanu; should one win together with a partner, one must also add the blessing ha-tov ve-ha-metiv (B. Levin, Shemen Sason (1904), 53 no. 27; see *Benedictions). It seems hardly likely that any blessing should be required if the winnings were considered the rewards of sinful acts. It would thus appear that Jewish law proscribes the professional and compulsive act of gambling; frowns severely and condemns the occasional act of gambling when indulged in for personal gain; while occasional gambling, where all or part of the winnings go to charity, has never aroused condemnation and frequently even has had the approval of the Jewish communities.

These findings might have bearing on the modern controversy over congregationally sponsored bingo and card games organized to raise funds to meet the tremendous budgets of the synagogues. Jewish history and rabbinic literature shows that such methods are not new. Synagogues and communities have indulged in similar games in the past, and the revenues have been used to meet their financial obligations. Rabbis not only did not frown upon such acts but frequently encouraged them. The *United Synagogue of America at successive conventions has, however, ruled that bingo is a form of fund-raising not to be permitted by their congregations, the opinion being that it is not in keeping with the spirit of Judaism.


L. Loew, Die Lebensalter in der juedischen Literatur (1875), 323–37; V. Kurrein, in: MGWJ, 66 (1922), 203–11; I. Rivkind, in: Tarbiz, 4 (1932/33), 366–76; idem, in: Horeb, 1 (1934), 82–91; idem, Der Kamf kegen Azartshpilen bay Yidn (1946); I. Jakobovits, Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems (1965), 109–12; L. Landman, in: JQR, 57 (1966/67), 298–318; 58 (1967/68), 34–62; idem, in: Tradition, 10:1 (1968/69), 75–86; I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 397–422; ET, 2 (1949), 113; 5 (1953), 520–2; J. Bazak, in: Ha-Peraklit, 16 (1960), 47–60; idem, in: Sinai, 48 (1961), 111–27. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:193f, 576, 658, 665; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:218f.; 2:710, 814, 822; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'ah ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest), 1 (1986), 15; B. Lifshitz and E. Shohetman, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz, Ẓarefat ve-Italyah (legal digest) (1997), 13; Sh. Warhaftig, Dinei Ḥozim be-Mishpat Ivri (5735 – 1975), 212–31; idem, "The Contract Involved in Lotteries and Gambling According to Jewish Law," in: Sinai, 71 (5732 – 1972), 229–40; B. Lipschitz, Asmakhta – Ḥiyyuv ve-Kinyan be-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 81–83; A.C. Shapira, "Purchasing Lottery Tickets," in: Teḥumin, 5 (1984), 301–2; Y. Cohen, "A Married Woman's Winning the Lottery," in: Teḥumin, 5 (1984), 303–14.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.