If you’re wondering whether playing the lottery aligns with Jewish teachings, you’re not alone. In many ways, playing the lotto resembles gambling, which is frowned upon in Judaism and may even be forbidden by Jewish law. But there are some nuances that might make buying that lotto ticket OK.

Let’s start by understanding the Jewish approach to gambling.

Gambling in Jewish law

The Mishnah lists several classes of people who are generally disqualified from being witnesses, including those who play with dice, which was then a classic form of gambling.1

The Talmud brings two opinions as to why this is so:

Rami Bar Chama explains that when the winner takes money from the loser, it’s as if he’s stealing. Why? Because when the loser agreed to play, he never expected to lose—or he would’ve never agreed to play in the first place. This form of agreement—accepting significant financial responsibility under the assumption that you’ll never really have to pay it—is known as an asmachta.

Conversely, Rav Sheshet is of the opinion that we are only concerned with an asmachta in a game that requires some measure of skill, since the player believes he is in control of the outcome and can reasonably expect to win. In a game that is entirely based on luck (for example, the Mishnah’s case of dice-throwing), everyone plays knowing there is a chance they will lose, and collecting winnings would therefore be permitted.2

Rather, in his understanding, the main issue with gambling is that a gambler does not contribute to society in any way. So Rav Sheshet would only disqualify a witness if gambling was his sole profession and he therefore had no real means of contributing to society.

In practice, Rabbi Yosef Caro, in the Code of Jewish Law, rules according to the opinion that all kinds of gambling are prohibited, even dice and other luck-based games.3 Others, including Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, rule according to the opinion that one may gamble with games that are entirely based on luck.4

Sephardic communities generally follow the opinion of Rabbi Yosef Caro and are stringent, while Ashkenazim generally follow the approach that some gambling is technically permitted.

Yet, even those who permit gambling under certain conditions decry it as an immoral and repulsive activity that can lead to all sorts of negative consequences.

Buying a Lottery Ticket

Let’s shift gears to buying lottery tickets. Is it the same as gambling, or is there room for leniency?

There’s a spectrum of opinions here. Some are of the opinion they are quite similar, in which case buying a lottery ticket would be permissible for Ashkenazic communities and prohibited for Sephardic communities.5

Most halachic authorities, however, point out a number of key differences between playing the lotto and gambling, in which case even Sephardic communities would be permitted to buy a lottery ticket. Here are a few distinctions:

  • Paying in advance — When betting or gambling, you usually pay when you lose, so to some extent you rely on winning the bet. But when you pay in advance for a lottery ticket, you acknowledge the possibility of losing and give your money with a full heart.6
  • They “want” to give the money — With gambling, one person wins and the other loses. If you’re paying for the bet and you had some assumption or anticipation that would win, it’s considered an asmachta. In a lottery, the payout is guaranteed to occur and the organization or government overseeing the lottery and disbursing the winnings does not operate under the assumption that they will “win.” On the contrary, they want to give a payout because that’s how they make even more money in the long run.7
  • You know you’ll probably lose — Since the odds of actually winning are extremely low, no one purchases a ticket with a real assumption that they’ll win. Therefore, doing so would not be considered an asmachta (accepting significant financial responsibility under the assumption that you’ll never really have to pay it).8
  • The ticket already has monetary value — Since the lotto ticket has a specific value, purchasing a lottery ticket is considered a transaction involving the acquisition of a product rather than a form of gambling. Prior to the lottery drawing, you even have the option to sell the ticket for its initial purchase price. As a result, you are essentially participating in an investment where some of the funds collected are allocated to cover expenses, while the remaining amount is distributed as dividends to randomly selected investors.9

For Charitable Causes

If you buy a raffle ticket as part of a fundraiser for a charitable organization, then even if you lose it’s not considered an asmachta. Giving the money is a mitzvah, and the assumption is that you gave it willingly, regardless of whether you win.10

Buy Just One Ticket

As evident from the above discussion, buying a lottery ticket is acceptable according to Jewish law. But it's essential to remember that, like gambling, purchasing lottery tickets can be highly addictive. Certain lotteries specifically target individuals with addictive tendencies, exacerbating the financial difficulties of those already struggling.

There are anecdotes in which the Lubavitcher Rebbe sometimes advised individuals to purchase a lottery ticket.11 But when asked about playing the lotto, he would say to buy just one ticket—because if G‑d wills it that you win, one ticket is enough to accomplish the job.12

Interestingly the Rebbe records in his notes that “The Tzemach Tzedek [third Lubavitcher Rebbe] purchased lottery tickets many times, for himself, and for his son, the Rebbe Maharash [Rabbi Shmuel, who later became the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe]. There was a manuscript found written in his [the Tzemach Tzedek’s] holy handwriting: [praying that] ‘May it be the will [of G‑d] that Rabbi Shmuel should win the lottery.’ ”13

The Rebbe adds that the Rebbe Maharash actually won the lottery a number of times, and it was quite a significant sum. The Tzemach Tzedek, however, never won the lottery.14

Other leading rabbis15 would also purchase a lottery ticket from time to time as a means of creating a medium to channel G‑d’s blessings. Ultimately, our livelihood comes from G‑d, and we need to trust and have faith in Him. All that is needed from us is to make a vessel for the blessings.