This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Wagers of Sin*

News Item:

October 1998: Calgary. A plebiscite calling for the removal of video lottery terminals was narrowly defeated. This development called attention to the fierce controversy over the widespread use of bingos, casinos and other forms of gambling to finance religious and charitable institutions. Local Jewish institutions were among the beneficiaries of this problematic funding.

Calgarians have again been made aware of how dependant we are on various forms of gambling revenues, ranging from Bingo to casinos, in order to support our charitable and religious organizations.

Although the recent plebiscite on the banning of video lottery terminals was spearheaded by religious groups, the official Jewish community has stood on the sidelines, sheepishly aware of how much of our funding comes from those dubious sources.

It is clear that games of chance have never been sanctioned in Jewish tradition. The Mishnah singled out two games that had wide currency among the ancients–dice and pigeon-racing–as disqualifying their practitioners from serving as witnesses in a Jewish court. The Talmud questions whether the objection is because the winnings are treated as unlawful gains (in which case it would apply even to occasional gambling) or because gamblers make no useful contribution to society (in which case, only full-time professionals would be disqualified). At any rate, the need for such a law attests that the phenomenon did plague Jews in antiquity.

The lure of gambling continued to entice individual Jews through the Middle Ages. Documents from the Cairo genizah tell of a visitor to the Egyptian village of Minyat Zifta who had to be expelled from his rented rooms lest his gambling habit provoke a scandal. After being excommunicated by the local Karaite leader, the gambler tried to retaliate with a counter-ban of his own, but finally relented under threats of government interference.

This situation contrasts remarkably with that of another Jewish gambler in fifteenth-century Sardinia who was invited to join the gaming table by none other than king himself–even as the local rabbi stood by, perplexed whether he could impose sanctions for this outrageous infraction of communal ordinances.

From the early fifteenth century we come across frequent mentions of card-playing, a pass-time that ensnared Jews from all walks of life. There were some who made their livings painting playing-cards, and at least one sixteenth-century Jewish card-maker (who was also the shammash of the synagogue) sued a rival for infringement of his monopoly. Some ostensibly irreproachable games, like chess and tennis, also became morally questionable when Jews took to placing wagers on their outcomes.

Rabbinic and belletristic writings of the time preserve several different attempts to condemn and discourage games of chance. Several individuals took upon themselves formal religious vows, or even legal contracts, that pledged them to forsake the practice for stipulated time-periods, specifying the penalties that would be imposed for violation of the obligation.

At times the communities would issue official enactments to that effect, to be binding upon all residents. Interestingly, these ordinances sometimes specified exemptions for special cases, such as at festive occasions, in the sukkah, when visiting the bedridden, or on Christmas. Condemnations of the pastime were a standard feature of moralistic tracts–which directed their censure at winners and losers alike. When the moralists did not succeed by preaching (as they rarely did), they turned to a more potent weapon: satire. Parodies about the evils and stupidity of games of chance were a staple of Hebrew and vernacular literatures.

An Italian Jew, the impresario Leone de Somni of Mantua, evidently gambled away his garters, causing him profound embarrassment when he had to hold up his stockings by hand while serving as doorman at his theatre.

One the most colourful Jewish figures of the Renaissance was the illustrious Italian rabbi and scholar Leone Arieh de Modena. At the age of fourteen years the precocious scholar composed a philosophical dialogue on the subject whose two protagonists, Eldad and Medad, arrived at the conclusion that games of chance, even if not absolutely forbidden by Jewish law, should be eschewed as morally reprehensible. Early in his life, Leone's own father had had his wealth squandered by the gambling of his step-brother, Abraham Parego, so he had personal experience of the damage that could be caused by the habit.

We can surely learn an object lesson about the addictive power of the vice’s lure by following the unfortunate fate of that illustrious anti-gambling advocate.

For in spite of all his upright ideals and convictions, Rabbi Leone Arieh de Modena never succeeded in overcoming his own passion for the practice--and in the end he was bankrupted several times on account of his own gambling.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, October 29 1998, p. 8.

  • Bibliography:
    • Abrahams, Israel. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Temple Books, New York: Atheneum, 1969.
    • Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. Harper Torchbooks ed., Temple Library, New York: Harper & Row, 1959.
    • Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1967-.
    • Modena, L. and M. R. Cohen (1988). The autobiography of a seventeenth-century Venetian rabbi : Leon Modena's Life of Judah. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.
    • Schwarz, Leo W. 1963. Memoirs of my people; Jewish self-portraits from the 11th to the 20th centuries. New York,: Schocken Books.