It’s All in the Cards

Hanukkah: the time for candles, latkes, dreidls and . . . gambling? Although many of us have engaged in penny-ante dreidl games, few of us think of Hanukkah as a time for high-stakes card playing. In fact, from the 15th century on, it was a common Hanukkah pastime. As with other popular customs that do not yield readily to rabbinic authority, there were really only two ways for the rabbinic establishment to deal with card playing for money: rail against it or try to contain it by allowing it on a limited basis.

With the notable exception of rabbis like Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, an 18th-century Hasidic rebbe who preached, "Know that each card has associated with it an evil cosmic force which it is better not to mention . . . " most communities opted for a policy of containment. In Frankfurt-am-Main, for example, it was decreed in 1674 that games of all kinds were forbidden throughout the year, except on Hanukkah and Purim and for those attending the mother of a newborn.

Perhaps the most poignant example of rabbis recognizing that there was little they could do to deter inveterate card players reportedly occurred in Mainz, Germany. There, in the register of the Jewish community, a herem (ban) was pronounced against anyone who played cards at any time other than Hanukkah or Purim. The story goes that the word herem was intentionally misspelled with a khaf instead of a het, so that in fact there was no ban. This was done so that those who violated the ban would not suffer heavenly punishment. It goes without saying, of course, that the misspelling was not heavily publicized. This incident powerfully illustrates how rabbis struggled with their desire to eliminate card playing and gambling on the one hand, and their recognition on the other that human nature made their goal impossible.

Whether you play cards or not, happy Hanukkah!

—by Dr. Eliezer Diamond, Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, JTS

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