The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Kosher casinos and the Chinese auction

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1. The Government’s recently introduced Gambling Bill has attracted a certain amount of controversy, principally because of the proposals to relax the restrictions on the number and size of casinos.

2. The Government’s policy in relation to gambling is apparent from the fact that the Bill obliges the new Gambling Commission “to permit gambling, in so far as the Commission thinks it reasonably consistent with pursuit of the objectives of-

(a) preventing gambling from being a source of crime or disorder, being associated with crime or disorder or being used to support crime,

(b) ensuring that gambling is conducted in a fair and open way, and

(c) protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.” (clauses 1 and 21).

3. One might be excused for thinking that Jewish sources shared the perception that gambling is unobjectionable in itself although requiring to be carried on in such a way as to avoid a number of inherent dangers.

4. Certainly, the charitable institutions of the Jewish community increasingly take every opportunity to exploit the allure of gambling, and the rabbis do not appear to protest (or at any rate have not so far acted in such a way as to prevent the trend). Gone are the days of the obviously harmless 10-pence a ticket lottery, with prizes that were so unappealing that they were clearly not designed to act as a serious incentive to parting with money. Now glossy brochures advertising the latest charity’s “Chinese Auction” slip through the letter-box every few weeks – and, whether or not the Chinese had anything to do with it, these auctions amount simply to agglomerations of individual lotteries, in which the tickets cost anything from £10 to £100, and the prizes are said to be worth hundreds or thousands. Normally there is also a “split-the-pot” game, which is a straight lottery with an unrestricted cash prize determined only by the number of people wishing to participate. And apart from these “auctions”, the orthodox Jewish press is constantly advertising simple lotteries with enormous prizes – cars, flats, or on one particularly tasteless occasion a Sefer Torah – and correspondingly high costs of tickets.

5. It is certainly true that there is no halachic prohibition against gambling. But it is equally true that Jewish thought disapproves of gambling so highly as to equate it with a form of theft, on the grounds that each party to a gambling transaction enters into it only on the basis of his belief that he will win. If a person knew for certain that he would not win, he would not bet. Unlike in a genuine commercial transaction, therefore, he does not really intend the other party to acquire his money, but hopes that he will retain his money and acquire someone else’s.

6. On this analysis, not only is gambling at least bordering on the dishonest, but neither is it an attractive or useful pursuit, furthering the welfare of the community. On both these grounds, habitual gamblers are included in the list of wrong-doers disqualified for giving evidence in a beis din.

7. All this makes one wonder why Jewish charities have anything to do with gambling. In former days the ready answer was “it isn’t really gambling – people are happy to give anyway, and this is just a bit of fun”. That was probably mostly or even entirely true of the ten-pence lottery tickets. But it is clearly not true of the high-stake, high-prize lotteries described above. As to these, the prizes are being used as real incentives to encourage people to part with money that they would otherwise either keep themselves or, if using ma’aser money, give to other charities. In the former case, there is a real question of “avak gezel” (near-theft) from the gambler (and therefore a problem of mitzvo habo b’aveiro), while in the latter case there must be a similar issue in relation to the advantage gained over other charities.

8. One wonders why the rabbis do not intervene. Perhaps they do, or will. But as is so often the case there is no need for the Jewish public to wait for a clear prohibition to be applied or for disastrous social consequences to result in a rabbinic decree.

9. We should give our own message to charities. While you offer us the opportunity to do a good deed with money that Hashem has given us, we value you as partners in our spiritual growth. But when you seek to mix our motives, and to acquire our money not based on a pure motive of enhancing society but on a sordid mixture containing an element of greed, we will give our money elsewhere.

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Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 14, 2004 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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