State Lottery – Entertainment or Exploitation?

Q. I work for a state lottery. Sometimes I wonder if we are taking unfair advantage of our customers’ dreams of riches. RDV

A. Your question is a common one. What makes it complex is that lotteries, like other gambling games, mean different things to different people.

For some people, gambling is a form of entertainment. Just like some people play cards for fun and introduce stakes just to make things interesting, so some people enjoy testing their luck and look at the jackpot as a way of adding excitement. For these people, gambling losses belong to their recreation budget. That’s not morally objectionable. One person who has a dollar to throw away puts four quarters into a video game; another has more fun investing in a Powerball ticket.

A few people gamble in order to lose. They want to show off how much money they have. While such conspicuous consumption is certainly objectionable, the business providing the service is not necessarily to blame.

Some people even have a charitable intention. They know that income from state lotteries goes to worthy causes, and the possibility of winning is only a little incentive. The administrators of one popular lottery system claim that the profits go to the following good causes: mass transportation in Arizona; education in Connecticut; economic development in Kansas; natural resources in Minnesota; school aid and crime control in Montana, etc.

But there are a significant number of individuals who perceive gambling as a viable road to riches. They play the lottery because they feel they could use the money — oblivious to the research that shows that winning a jackpot is more than likely to make their lives miserable. (This is called “sudden wealth syndrome.”) What they could really use is the precious few dollars they are throwing away on tickets. Selling tickets to these poor souls is improper. According to Jewish law, it borders on theft.

If these disappointed dreamers constitute a significant fraction of your business, or alternatively if advertising is deliberately directed at them, then you are taking advantage of them. You should try and find out what the numbers are and take a careful look at the advertising campaign for your state lottery.

At a deeper level, a person should recognize that there is something fundamentally phony about gambling. We can learn this from the saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine of Jerusalem, of blessed memory. Rabbi Aryeh merited seeing many miracles performed for him, and someone once asked him why he never bought lottery tickets. He gave a surprising answer: “I’m afraid I might win.” A person with a truly enlightened perspective doesn’t even desire unearned riches — especially if he or she recalls the words of our Sages, which are confirmed by current research: “The more possessions, the more worry.”

SOURCES: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 34:16, Yoreh Deah 151; Mishna Avot 2:7.