Everyone is familiar with the best-known game associated with Ḥanukkah: the dreidel, the Jewish adaptation of a medieval German device used in the game of teetotum, whose sides were inscribed with the letters N for “Nichts” (nothing), G for “Ganz” (= everything), H for “Halb” (= half) and S for “Stell ein” (= put in). When the game was adopted by European Jews they Hebraized the letters to spell out the familiar message Nes Gadol Hayah Sham: “a great miracle happened there.”
But the dreidel was not the only game that our ancestors were playing on Ḥanukkah. In fact, that festival acquired a reputation as the Monte Carlo or Las Vegas of Jewish holidays, and many Jews were risking their family possessions on assorted games of chance—but most prominently, on card-playing.
In fact, indications are that card games were not introduced in order to enliven Ḥanukkah’s special festive spirit; originally they enjoyed popularity throughout the year, but it was only on Ḥanukkah that they survived attempts by the community authorities to outlaw the vice, as they insisted that such frivolity is inappropriate to the sober mood that ought to govern Jewish conduct through the workaday year.
Following this line of reasoning, the rabbinic authorities excluded from the prohibition days that had a festive character. As a formal criterion for defining which days qualify as “festive,” the rabbis often looked for the omission of the penitential prayers (Taḥanun) that would otherwise be included in the daily liturgy. On that basis, the eight days of Ḥanukkah had the good fortune of being exempted from the anti-gambling edicts.
Some communities tried to stem the vice of card-playing by banning it even on most of the festive days. Nevertheless, dispensation would still be given for Ḥanukkah card games, most probably because the practice had become so entrenched that the rabbis were unable to uproot it. It probably also helped that Ḥanukkah fell during the break between terms in the standard yeshiva calendar, when idle youths were likely to be hanging around at home in need of some diversion. The frequency with which the communal decrees had to be reissued, and the increasing severity of the sanctions and punishments that were handed out for their violation, testify to how widely they were being ignored.
Typical of these decrees was the one enacted in Cracow in 1595 that forbade card-playing to householders, youths, visitors, and especially to the poor who resided in public housing. Evidently, card-playing was a particularly popular pastime among the bored ladies in the maternity wards. This might explain why the regulations specified that “women are forbidden to play, whether for cash or equivalent, other than on the intermediary days of festivals or on Ḥanukkah.
Any woman who is caught playing cards will be arrested by the communal authorities and imprisoned, to be detained from morning to night, and her identity will be broadcast in the synagogue. No consideration will be given as to whether the women happen to be from distinguished families, or pregnant or nursing.
In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Israel Isserlein was asked to issue a ruling regarding people who were not content with the games that they played during the Ḥanukkah week and wanted to continue their gambling into the following night. The relevant ordinance in their community was worded in the standard manner that tied the prohibition to the recitation of the Taḥanun prayers; and since those prayers would not resume until the morning service, it was suggested that the cessation of card-playing could also be postponed until then. Rabbi Isserlein conceded the point.
The noted seventeenth-century German authority Rabbi Jair Bacharach recalled how, when he was a child, his father had been very upset to observe how Ḥanukkah was being perceived as an occasion for frivolous play instead of a time to express our gratitude for the divine miracle. He therefore strove to change the established custom and have the game-playing transferred to the Christmas season when Jews were supposed to stay at home and refrain from commerce with their gentile neighbours. Of course the attempt was a failure.
That gambling on Ḥanukkah was an accepted practice in several Jewish communities can be inferred from a responsum by Rabbi Isserlein’s teacher Rabbi Jacob Weil. He was consulted regarding a woman who claimed that her spouse was squandering the family resources with his gambling habit. The husband, in his defense, insisted that his frivolous behaviour was all done within the permissible norms and “confined to Ḥanukkah as is customary.” Rabbi Weil accepted his plea.
Nevertheless, there were teachers who were impelled to completely do away with the gambling even during Ḥanukkah. In the early nineteenth century, the Hasidic preacher Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum of Ujhe, Hungary, lamented that Ḥanukkah ought to be a time for religious thanksgiving and prayer, not gluttony. He therefore castigated those who misused this sacred time and indulged instead in “fun and frivolity and various games, drinking from fountains of wine and stuffing themselves with meat, staying awake all night!”
Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona had similar observations to make about the unsavoury social gatherings that would convene “especially on Ḥanukkah and Purim and on the sanctified feasts of the Lord,” at which men and women, young and old, would assemble immodestly to participate in card-playing. People were acting as if playing games were an actual requirement of the holiday that had to be pursued with religious zeal. Rabbi Emden allowed only one exception to the prohibition: it was permissible to play a brief game of chess—if no wagers were involved—in order to sharpen one’s mental faculties.
The questions that we have been discussing so far were related in a general way to the moral stigma of gambling at any time. Some authorities, however, raised technical issues that were specific to Ḥanukkah. For instance, when Rabbi Isserlein observed that children were playing games by the light of the holiday candles, he noted that this might not necessarily constitute a formal violation of religious law, but nonetheless it is inconsistent with the lamps’ sacred purpose of proclaiming the miracle. Nowadays we are accustomed to sidestep such objections by explaining that we are really benefitting from the light of the extra candle, the shamash; but there were preachers who rejected that argument. Thus, Rabbi Hirsch Kaidenower complained that most people are accustomed to removing the shamash to use it for profane purposes, but “they will be held especially accountable for the grave crime of playing with cards or dice by the light of the shamash, not realizing that the shamash possesses even greater holiness!”
The most strident and creative opposition to Ḥanukkah gambling came from the Hassidic preachers who had a remarkable knack for turning everyday activities into profound metaphysical symbols. When it came to card-playing their task seemed almost too easy. For one thing, the Hebrew word for cards—ḳelafim—is related to “ḳelippah,” the term designating the shells or husks left over from the primordial “shattering of the vessels,” which are synonymous with evil in kabbalistic parlance.
And if that isn’t enough for you, then take note that the German or Yiddish word for cards—“karten”—has the same numerological value as “Satan” (that’s 359, if you want to verify the math).
You might well suppose that this alarming insight would be powerful enough to completely eradicate card-playing from our midst whether on Ḥanukkah or at any other time of the year.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.