Q. Is it okay to be a proprietor of bar or pub? Can I put in poker machines too?
A. A look at some distinctive Jewish names may give us a hint to Judaism’s attitude towards this line of business. Common names like Schenker (bartender), Kretschmer (tavern keeper), Bronfman (whiskey seller), Breuer (brewer) and others testify to the long history of Jews in the liquor business.
Of course Jewish tradition recognizes that alcohol is a two-edged sword. Drinking alone has been a harbinger of tragedy ever since the disastrous experiences of Noach (Genesis 9:21) and Lot (Genesis 19:33); but drinking together has served to promote fellowship ever since the auspicious experience of Yosef and his brothers (Genesis 43:34) and the joyous time of the pilgrimage to the Temple (Deuteronomy 14:26). Jewish law even recognizes a special blessing on drinking wine, which is said only when people drink together in fellowship – never when they drink alone.
A bar or pub most often serves as a place for people to meet and relax, and so it provides a valuable service and doesn’t involve any ethical problems. Of course Jewish values would affirm the obligation imposed by today’s secular law to make sure that no patron endangers himself or others as a result of his drinking.
It’s true that when Jews were so involved in the liquor business in Europe in past generations the taverns were mostly for men, while today most are mixed. But there is nothing wrong with providing a place for men and women to meet as long as your establishment is not set up as a place for immoral liaisons.
But gambling presents a serious ethical problem. Because of the danger of victimization, Jewish law demands a very high level of informed consent for gambling operations. The basic requirement is that patrons have a clear idea of their odds of winning and that they put up the money up front, so that they are fully cognizant of what they are risking.
While poker machines generally meet these conditions, there is another difficulty. Compulsive gamblers cannot be said to have true “informed consent”, and machines have been shown to be a particularly addictive form of gambling. Since it would be almost impossible, practically and financially, for you to monitor the use of poker machines by those unable to afford the loss, it is advisable to avoid these installations.
While we have explained that there is no inherent ethical problem with running a pub (without gambling), there are many halakhic obstacles, for details of Jewish law restrict the menu, clientele and opening hours of such an institution. For instance, it goes without saying that a pub owned by a Jewish person should not serve unkosher items or be open on Jewish holy days. These subjects require the advice of an experienced local Rabbi.
May your establishment be one where “Wine gladdens the heart of man” (Psalms 104:14), and not one where drunkenness causes “woe, strife, quarrels and wounds” (Proverbs 23:29).
SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 175:4, Choshen Mishpat 207:13.