To Bet Or Not To Bet: Jewish Concerns with Gambling And The Lottery
Tue, 08/06/2013
Jewish Week Online Columnist

Judaism is mostly a rationalist tradition that embraces free will, critical thinking, and the importance of the intellect. Most endeavors that mandate irrational and overly chancy behavior are forbidden by the Jewish tradition. Gambling is one of the prevalent modern activities that may make for fun sport in moderation, but when treated as a primary source of income it borders on the irrational.

The rabbis taught that a gambler cannot be considered a valid legal witness (Sanhedrin 24b-25a) and that his gambling is either considered theft or as a lack of commitment to doing real work. The Rambam teaches that even those types of gambling that do not create great harm and are not strictly forbidden by law should be avoided because they produce no benefit to society and is a waste of time (Hilchot Gezeilah v’Aveida 6:1).

I recently made the case against gambling and I also made the case for why we should not rely upon “signs” to make life decisions. But the problem today continues to get worse. Consider these numbers from the National Council on Problem Gambling:

  • About 50 million people around the world participate in online gambling at least once a month, and 6 to 9 million Americans have had a gambling problem at some point in their lives.
  • Addicts typically have a gambling debt twice their yearly income.
  • More than 313,000 people called the National Council on Problem Gambling’s hotline number last year, the highest yearly number on record.
  • When problem gamblers finally seek help or treatment, three quarters have already committed embezzlement or other types of fraud to finance their habit, and almost half have attempted or seriously contemplated suicide.

Research also appears to show a correlation between the degree of gambling addiction and tobacco use and nicotine dependency, illustrating a relationship between different kinds of addiction.

Gambling in the United States has traditionally been an illegal activity, and crime organizations earned a great deal of money from it, especially after Prohibition ended. However, spurred by organized crime in the second half of the last century, gambling casinos began to proliferate, especially in Las Vegas, which is still the casino capital of America. In spite of the continuing economic stagnation of the past few years, in 2012 the major casinos on the Las Vegas strip had a gross income exceeding $6.2 billion.

The legal gambling industry exploded in the last quarter of the last century, increasing in value from  $17 billion in 1974 to $482 billion in 1994. By the end of the century, gambling was taking in more money than the film, cruise ship, recording music, amusement park, and spectator sport industries combined. Today, gambling interests contribute heavily to state political candidates (most regulation of the industry takes place at the state level), further expanding their influence. In the meantime, organized crime has migrated from the open involvement in casinos to Internet gambling, where they have set up foreign websites to preserve the inflow of gambling revenue. In the futile pursuit of easy money, nearly 20 percent of pathological gamblers eventually declare bankruptcy due to their addiction.  

Today, the overwhelming majority of gambling revenue comes from state lotteries. In 2010, Americans spent more than $50 billion on lottery tickets. The titan of lotteries is the Powerball game, played in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. When the jackpot grows to hundreds of millions of dollars, the media flock to publicize the story, filling people's minds with the prospect of winning more money than an ancient king. However, in addition to the jackpot being slightly more than half the the jackpot listed (for example, $230 million is the cash the winner would take home from an announced $400 million jackpot), the odds of winning the Grand Prize in the Powerball game are 1 in 175,223,510; there are few things you can name that a player has less of a chance of winning than Powerball. The government plays off the dreams of the poor by furthering impoverishing the vulnerable when they consistently purchase lottery tickets. The Week reported that “Americans spent 50.4 billion on state lottery tickets and video kiosks in 2009. Households with take-home incomes of less than $13,000 spent on average of $645 a year on lottery tickets – about 9 percent of their income. Eleven states raise more from lotteries than from corporate taxes,” (Salon.com). Some have shown how the government preys upon the vulnerable poor with the lottery and how the lottery is really another form of regressive tax.

The Jewish tradition values hard work, not relying upon luck. In fact, the rabbis stipulate that people may not rely upon miracles but must operate in the rational world, working hard to achieve results. The gambling industry is not one that we should seek to support (beyond perhaps moderate occasional sports gambling for those who find rare, controlled, and modest enjoyment in it). In a time when many in our community have been blessed with financial resources, we should make sure to use those resources to take care of our families and communities. To throw it away irrationally is to reject many Jewish values, and to engender a deeply unhealthy habit. 

The Torah mandates “You shall be holy,” (Leviticus 19:2) and that we must affect society for the good. We must work to remove the potency of this negative force that pulls many below ground (financially and emotionally). The power and corruption of the gambling industry must be exposed and we must educate others to value work, healthy forms of leisure, and to trust in rational approaches to improving their lots.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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I found it amusing that this article on gambling appeared at about the same time that another article covered Rabbi Shmuly Boteach giving a Jewish Values award to Sheldon Adelson, who has made his fortune in the gambling business.

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