Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Custom of Playing Cards on Channukah

One of the more interesting customs relating to Chanukah is that of a relaxation of the restriction against gambling. As Menachem Mendel has pointed out, this relaxation was not limited, as some think, to those of Hassidic decent. Rather, some of the earliest mentions come long before the creation of the Hassidic movement, in places such as Worms and Frankfort. Further, this custom has continued to be almost universal (amongst Ashkenazim) irrespective of origin.

To demonstrate this point, it is worth mentioning a lesser known book, which although lesser known is rich in the history of customs of Lithuanian Jews during the 19th century. This book, Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, (which I have previously mentioned at the Seforim blog) is the memoir of Pauline Wengeroff. She grew up in Lithuania and eventually moved to St. Petersburg Russia (along with many detours). Her book, originally written in Yiddish, was translated into English (and abridged, you can download the full translation here).

In the course of discussing how she celebrated the Jewish holidays as a child she discusses card playing.
"On the fifth night [of Chanukah] my mother invited all our friends and relatives. That was the night she gave us Chanukah gelt . . . You stayed up later than usual that evening, and played cards longer. . . . It was a day of rejoicing for us children. Even we little ones were allowed to play cards that night. . . . On such evenings my father skipped even learning Talmud and sat down to cards although, like my mother, he had no idea of the rules of any game."
She is not the only Lithuanian to record such a practice. R. Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld, the Rabbi of Jerusalem and the leader (of his time) of the Yishuv haYashan was asked why do so many people, some of which spend their days learning Torah, neglect Torah study and play cards on Chanukah? R. Sonnenfeld responded that not everyone can learn all the time and people need a break and playing cards is better than doing nothing. The questioner, however, was unsatisfied with this response, and questioned the notion that card playing could be considered a legitimate necessary break. The questioner allowed that exercise would be allowed but couldn't understand how card playing could be considered an allowed break from Torah study. R. Sonnenfeld refused to back down regarding his original pronouncement and said, while some at some times may value exercise at other times people have other needs which apparently cards fulfill.

Sources: Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 65-66; R. Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld, Simlat Hayyim, nos. 48-49; for more on the custom of dreidel see my post from last year here.

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