Question: A friend asked whether I’d be interested in being a partner in a new online betting venture he is setting up. But I heard that it was forbidden for Jews to be involved in gambling. So should I decline?
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Jewish law does not prohibit gambling outright but the Mishnah disqualifies gamblers from acting as kosher witnesses (Sanhedrin 3:3).
The Talmud offers two opinions for this disqualification (Sanhedrin 24b). The view of Rami bar Hama is that gambling, by its very nature, smacks of theft. Unlike other transactions where buyer and seller agree to a price, gambling by its nature involves both sides believing they will win. When one invariably loses, he pays out grudgingly. Rav Sheshet disagrees: gambling is odious not because of deception but because gamblers play no constructive or productive role in society, hence they can’t be trusted as witnesses.
In the halachic codes there is some debate as to which of these two views is operative. The Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the view that gambling smacks of theft (Choshen Mishpat 370:2). However, the Rema in his glosses asserts that we follow the latter view and that there is nothing intrinsically fraudulent about gambling, rather the problem lies with the gambling lifestyle that is unproductive (Choshen Mishpat 370:3). He adds that so long as one gambles only occasionally — and presumably spends the rest of his time in a productive occupation — he is not disqualified from serving as a witness.
How would all this apply to the legitimate online betting venture you are considering? The position that gambling smacks of theft would only be magnified, especially since you represent the house and the odds are always in favour of the house.
If we follow the Rema, the problem with gambling lies in its non-productive nature. This, however, is not the case with a legitimate, licensed gambling business that offers employment and pays taxes.
So from the strict perspective of Jewish law, I can see no problem with investing in this venture. The question that remains is to what extent are you taking advantage of the addictive behaviour of vulnerable people. The 14th-century Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet, known as the Rivash, writes that although gambling is technically permissible it is nonetheless “a disgusting, abominable, and repulsive thing and it has destroyed many lives” (Shu’t 432). One can only imagine what the Rivash might have said had he been privy to the seductive power and ubiquitous nature of internet gambling.
If one strives to earn a living by improving the lives of others, the gambling industry can hardly be considered a sound investment.
Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain: Most definitely you should refuse. If you are in any doubt, contact one of the charities that deal with those who have become addicted to gambling and have ruined not only their own lives, but also that of their families. They will furnish you with case histories of how those concerned have become part of a downward spiral in which they have seen the break-up of their marriage, lost their homes and sometimes turned to crime to support their habit.
It is for this reason that some Reform and Liberal synagogues do not allow “a night at the races” evenings as fund-raising events. They may be sociable in nature and have a maximum ceiling on bets, but they implicitly endorse a potential addiction and should not be part of a Jewish financial strategy.
Not that this is a modern concern: back in the second century, the Mishnah declared that habitual gamblers are disqualified as acting as witnesses in legal matters, although the Talmud gives different reasons: that any winnings are akin to theft from the payee, or that the person is not contributing to the overall good of society (Sanhedrin 24b).
Of course, gambling can be done in moderation. An obvious example is playing dreidel with nuts and raisins at Chanukah. It is also true that thousands of people enjoy a flutter occasionally, whether at Ascot or around countless other events. Although they largely lose money, they gain pleasure from it and probably pay out as much as those who regularly go to the theatre or eat out at restaurants.
But this mild pleasure is vastly outweighed by the insidious nature of gambling. This is even more so in recent years with the intense advertising surrounding it, be it on television, through sponsorships, or on Facebook. It deliberately targets people, entices them to spend and, despite giving out twee warnings about betting responsibly, does the exact opposite.
Online betting means that whereas once you had to consciously walk into a betting shop, now you can click a keypad at home or on your phone in a park. Temptation is constant.
You need a job, but you should not take one which means you come home and think: “how many lives might I have destroyed today?” Work is not just about earning money. You have to be able to look in the mirror without grimacing.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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