Is Powerball Kosher?

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The recent frenzy over the billion dollar plus Powerball prize raises a serious question about the halachic and moral viability of lotteries. There is more to discuss than just the greed, which we addressed in the past. We must remember that until relatively recently, lotteries were illegal in most states and were instead run by organized crime as the “numbers racket.” Lotteries are a form of gambling that particularly impact poor communities, the people who can least afford it. Powerball–and lottery in general–raises important issues that may bring into question common features of our community. Since, as we shall see shortly, Rav Ovadiah Yosef forbids buying lottery tickets, how can our schools and shuls hold raffles and Chinese auctions? What message are we sending when we elevate gambling into an acceptable pastime, when yeshivos even reportedly buy tickets for their faculty?

I. Gambling in the Talmud

The primary source in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 24b) is a statement that dice players are invalid witnesses, and a debate in the Gemara over why this is the case. Rav Sheishes says that the problem is asmakhta, a failure to truly commit to paying a bet because of a reliance on winning. Rami Bar Chama disagrees and says that the problem with a professional gambler is the lack of a job and a sense of the value of money.

According to Rav Sheishes, any time someone places a bet with an expectation of winning (even if unrealistic), he does not really expect to pay the bet. Therefore, if he loses the bet, anyone who takes his money is guilty of stealing. According to Rami Bar Chama, this either is not theft at all or not sufficiently obvious theft to invalidate someone as a witness. Rami Bar Chama only invalidates as a witness professional gamblers.

Another Talmudic passage (Shabbos 149b) gives a person special permission to divide food at a Shabbos meal to his children with a lottery (obviously without any money). You may not even do this during the week to those outside the family because it constitutes gambling. Tosafos (as loc., sv. mai) say that we do not follow this Gemara but the codes quote it. Others suggest that the concern is with a potluck meal, in which everyone contributes. If they contribute expecting to win a big piece but receive a small piece, there may be a problem of asmakhta.

II. Lotteries and Winnings

Regarding dice playing and gambling in general, medieval authorities disagree whether we follow Rav Sheishes or Rami Bar Chama. The Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:3) follows the Rambam who rules like Rav Sheishes, effectively forbidding gambling. The Rema (Choshen Mishpat 207:13, 370:3) follows Tosafos who rule like Rami Bar Chama, thereby permitting occasional gambling. It would seem, then, that Ashkenazim who follow the Rema may buy lottery tickets while Sephardim, who follow the Shulchan Arukh, may not. That is how Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, vol. 7 Choshen Mishpat 6) rules, although he adds that Ashkenazim should also refrain. Many others disagree regarding lotteries.

Rav Gedaliah Schwartz (Sha’arei Gedulah, p. 312) approvingly quotes a responsum by Rav Ovadiah Hadaya (Yaskil Avdi, vol. 8 Yoreh De’ah 5:3) in which this Sephardic authority distinguishes between people betting against each other and a lottery. In a classic case of gambling, one person wins and the other loses. It isasmakhta if the person who pays had assumed that he will win. In a lottery, the payout will always happen. Therefore, whoever runs the lottery and pays the winnings does not have asmakhta and even a Sephardi can buy a ticket. Rav Hodaya explains that this is why Jews have historically held lotteries to raise funds for charities.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef (ibid., par. 5) quotes this responsum and counters that, in a lottery, the winnings come from the proceeds of tickets sold. If any purchaser of a ticket assumed he would win, then the money he contributed to the pot is stolen because of the purchaser’s asmakhta. He adds that Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (Responsa Rav Pe’alim, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 30) explains the historical lotteries in that the winning was an object (like in a Chinese auction) and not a portion of the proceeds from the tickets sold.

Rav Ya’akov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, vol. 1 no. 111) offers a similar approach as Rav Hodaya. Without quoting any of the recent literature, Rav Ariel suggests Rav Yosef’s objection and counters that lottery is different because people pay in advance. When you make a bet and do not put money down in advance, you may be relying on your winning the bet. But if you pay in advance, you clearly recognize the possibility of losing. This seems to be the view of Rabbeinu Tam, followed by the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 207:13). I’m not sure that it would help Sephardim.

III. Lotteries as Investments

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos, vol. 4 no. 311) offers a different explanation of the mechanics of a lottery. He sees buying a lottery ticket as he purchase of a good, not a wager. Before the drawing, you can even sell the ticket for its original purchase price. Therefore, you are effectively investing in a fund that will use some of the proceeds to cover expenses and pay the remainder as a dividend to specific, randomly chosen investors. Rav Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halakhos, vol. 15 no. 176) follows a similar approach, as does Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (Daf Kesher 1:83-85, cited in Rav Chaim Jachter, Gray Matter, vol. 1, pp. 129-130). This approach allows Sephardim to purchase lottery tickets, as well.

Rav Sternbuch (ibid.) also suggests that the odds of winning a lottery are so low that no purchaser assumes he will win. Therefore, there is no asmakhta. Additionally, there is no competition between two (or multiple) players, like in a card or dice game. Rather, this is a completely random process. This seems to fit in with the view of Rashi (Sanhedrin 24b sv. kol) that there is no asmakhta when the wager is on something random that involves no skill.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (cited by Rav Jachter, ibid., p. 129) points out that these concerns do not apply to charity fundraising. Because giving money to tzedakah is a mitzvah, there is an assumption that people give willingly. Therefore, asmakhta does not apply to charitable pledges and donations (Shulchan Arukh,Yoreh De’ah 258:10). This means that Sephardim may participate in raffles and Chinese auctions for shuls and schools.

IV. Moral Concerns

However, some authorities have gone beyond the technicalities of theft when it comes to lotteries and gambling. The Rivash (Responsa, no. 432) decries gambling as “disgusting, abominable and repulsive.” Rav Ovadiah Yosef (ibid.) points out that many poor people spend money they cannot afford to lose on lottery tickets. They think about the highly improbable dream of winning rather than the reality of supporting their families. Lotteries prey on the poor, deepening their poverty and often leading to addiction.

For many people, gambling is a serious addiction. Lotteries prey on those with addictions and deepen the financial troubles of those already suffering. When millions of people lose a lottery, as just happened with the Powerball, we can focus our attention on the dreams of many and the newfound fortune of the rare winners. Or we can use this as a teaching moment about the millions of people who threw away money at a statistically negligible dream, about the negative social effects of government-sponsored gambling, and the addictions facing many within our own communities. I do not think that the Rivash would consider Powerball kosher.

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Gil Student’s blog.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.