Hitting the Jackpot

By Micah Stein
Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who doesn't like Purim?  Besides the costumes and candy, the story itself has all the politics, sex, and violence of a juicy HBO series.  In case you missed it: "Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted to destroy the Jews, and had cast a pur—that is, a lotterywith intent to crush and exterminate them."  Butspoiler alert!things do not go according to plan.  Queen Esther puts her own life at stake in order to save her people: "And when she came before the king, he commanded by letters that Haman's wicked device, which he had devised against the Jews, should return upon his own head; and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows."  In the end, Haman's would-be massacre becomes a Jewish triumph, "a day of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."  And after everyone has caught their breath, the Book of Esther concludes, "Wherefore they called these days Purim, after the name of pur (lottery)."

Huh?  After a dramatic, alcohol-fueled tale of murder, betrayal, court intrigue, and eleventh-hour heroics, they went with "Lottery Day"?  

It is a curious choice on a number of levels.  For one, the lottery plays a minor role in the story itself.  Haman cast lots in order to determine the date on which he will exterminate the Jews, but that detail seems secondary to the fact that he plans on exterminating the Jews.  There was very little upside to playing the "what day should we kill the Jews" lottery; the name seems, to say the least, out of place.

But the name "Purim" also captures the sense of randomness and bewilderment that the Jews of Persia faced throughout the ordeal. Moreover, it gives the institution of lotteries some overdue credit in Judaism, for lotteries have been a major part of Jewish law and historyand a source of controversysince biblical times.

In The Logic of the Lot: The Significance of the Lottery and Randomness in Judaism, mathematics Professor Ely Merzbach catalogues the many examples and evolving significance of lotteries throughout Jewish history.  As it turns out, Jewish tradition sees nothing random about playing the lottery; according to many, lotteries operate as a clandestine channel for the Divine Will.

In Leviticus, the High Priest is commanded to cast lots between two goats as part of the Yom Kippur service: One will be sacrificed as a sin offering ("to the Lord"), while the other will be released into the wilderness ("to Azazel").  In the book of Numbers, lots are used to distribute plots of land for inheritance.

Lotteries can also play a more active role in Jewish practice.  In dire circumstances, rabbis have used the goral haGrathe Gra lotteryas a tool for seeking advice or answering otherwise impossible questions.  The system, as described in Zev Greenwald's Sefer Goral HaGra (The Gra Lottery Book), involves opening a holy book (typically, a Pentateuch, Bible, or Psalms) to a random location, reading the first verse that appears, and determining the answer based on that verse, no matter how cryptic or unrelated it may seem.  Some practitioners will perform the ritual seven times; others use books of responsa written by great rabbis.  Though the answers are rarely clear, skilled practitioners are said to be able to answer complicated questions on the basis of ordinary verses.

The Gra lottery system is named for the Gaon ("genius") Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, also known by his acronym, "Gra" (1720-1797).  True, the Gra is not known to have practiced this sort of text reading; and the practice predates him by more than 200 years.  Oh, well.  Despite the misleading name, Merzbach recounts stories of rabbis using the Gra Lottery to resolve business disputes, make important life decisions, and settle halakhic questions.  In 1951, Rabbi Aryeh Levin used a Gra lottery in the grim task of identifying the disfigured bodies of twelve Israeli soldiers who had been killed in 1948.

According to Merzbach, the Gra lottery reflects the distinctly Jewish belief in randomness as prophesy in disguise, a "break glass in case of emergency" tool when human reason fails.  He cites Proverbs: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord."

Does this principle also apply to Powerball?  Not so much.  On issues of gambling, Jewish law is much less forgiving or mystical.  The Talmud prohibits most forms of gambling because they qualify as asmakhta, a deceptive and invalid transaction just a notch below theft.  This categorization is typically applied to games of skill; but many rabbis, including Sephardic leader Ovadia Yosef, include lotteries in the prohibition.

But Avraham Shapira, a former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, devised a novel way of circumventing the halakhic problem of gambling.  He reasoned that purchasing a lottery ticket qualifies as an "investment" in the lottery company rather than a gamble; thus, the winnings should be considered a return on that investment, not a prize.  This thinking, however creative, has benefited the Mifal HaPais, Israel's national lottery, which generates more than four billion NIS (about $1 billion) in annual revenues.

Even without this innovative responsa, lotteries have long been permitted precisely because they represent a game of pure chance.  The 16th-century rabbi Benjamin Slonik even permitted lotteries in synagogues, as long as part of the revenue went to charity.

But perhaps the lottery is not, in fact, a game of pure chance.  Consider the case of Abraham and Celia Silverbush, an otherwise unremarkable Jewish couple from Syracuse, New York.  After emigrating from Eastern Europe in 1950, Abraham worked as an upholsterer, while Celia taught 4th grade.  And then they won the lottery.

Twice.

Using a "secret" Jewish-Russian system to select their numbers, the Silverbushes managed to win a $22,000 prize in 1995. Then, in June of 2009, the couple hit the jackpot on a $35 million Mega Millions drawing, earning a lump sum payout of $22.2 million.

Both Abraham and Celia continued working after winning the lottery; their big splurge amounted to a "modest bungalow" in Syracuse.  But, like every lottery winner, they surely enjoyed their fair share of "feasting and gladness" on the side.  Maybe "Lottery Day" was the right choice after all.

Micah Stein graduated from Yeshiva University; He is currently a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.


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