Jewish roulette: 95 years ago a casino opened in Tel Aviv

In the summer of 1922, Tel Aviv residents had a new pastime. A casino opened in the city. It was called “Halei Aviv” – “Spring Waves”.

At that time there were about thirty thousand people in Tel Aviv. That means that in relation to 1914, the city’s population grew by nearly ten times! From Europe, devastated by the First World War, thousands of new immigrants streamed into Palestine. The largest flow of people came from Russia, which experienced the “evil days”. Among them were many wealthy citizens who tried to start anew, away from the revolutionary chaos and bloodshed. And, besides, from Russia to Eretz Israel were leaving, and Jewish intellectuals – educated people, who wanted to contribute to the revival of the ancient Jewish culture and the construction of a new Jewish state.

Almost as soon as Palestine came under the British Mandate, life in Tel Aviv, which had frozen during World War I, began to revive. Including cultural life. The Eden Cinema, which opened in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood in 1914, resumed its work. In 1919, the newspaper “Haaretz” began to appear. In the 1920s, the Jewish Theatre, directed by David Davidoff, staged its first performance, and in 1922, the Drama Theatre, directed by Mirjam Bernstein-Kogan, took its place.

Galei Aviv Casino

Soon after the first premiere of the Drama Theater – it was The Haunting, based on Heinrich Ibsen’s drama – the Galei Aviv Casino opened in Tel Aviv by the sea. The initiator of its construction was Solomon Grigorievich Krezanovsky, a wealthy Jew from Odessa. The building was designed by Yehuda Megidovich, a graduate of the architectural faculty of the Odessa Polytechnic Institute. The entrance to the casino was a narrow bridge, placed at the very edge of the water, and the casino itself was hanging over the sea, resting on poles from five to eight meters long. The engineering work was led by Alfred Guth, who made extensive use of concrete, a material that was revolutionary for its time. Guth, who was born in Hungary, graduated from the Budapest Polytechnic Institute. However, there is also a “Russian trace” in his biography. During World War I, a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army, Gut was taken prisoner by the Russians, where he spent three years. Almost immediately after his liberation he went to Eretz Israel.

In order to facilitate access to the casino, the city authorities agreed to change the contour of Allenby Street. According to the plan, after the intersection with Ben-Yehuda Street, it was to continue in a northerly direction. But at the request of the casino construction workers, Allenby was turned towards the sea. The street began to lead directly to the new casino.

The roulette wheel began to spin at the table covered with green baize, and the casino was opened to the Tel Aviv bohemians and members of the British administration, who sorely lacked entertainment in the new Jewish town. But at the same time, the religious residents of Tel Aviv also became animated. Even before the First World War, they were demonstrating against shows in Jaffa. In the course of time, they had to put up with the existence of a theater in the Holy Land, but the establishment of the Tel Aviv Playhouse infuriated the religious community. Using all the leverage they had, including the first mayor of the city, Meir Dizengoff, they were able to achieve a ban on gambling. And the casino became a regular, albeit luxurious restaurant. And the Tel Aviv bohemia continued to frequent it. They habitually called the restaurant by the sea “the casino”.

There was a rather strict dress code in the casino. The men usually wore suits, and the women wore silk dresses. Among the regulars at Spring Waves was, for example, the famous Jewish writer and philosopher Ahad-ha-Aam. On Saturdays, Chaim-Nachman Bialik, who came to Palestine in 1924, loved to come for a chat. British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who visited Tel Aviv, also paid a visit to the Jewish “casino”. At the end of the thirties, the then young poet Nathan Alterman took a fancy to the restaurant, writing poems there on napkins. He dedicated several songs and the poem “Casino” to “Spring Waves”.

The restaurant existed with varying success until 1936. Then a devastating hurricane swept over Tel Aviv. The houses in the immediate vicinity of the seashore and, of course, the casino were particularly affected. The plaster in the building crumbled, and the concrete columns began to crumble, exposing the reinforcement. The repairs didn’t help the casino come back to life. In 1939, the Tel Aviv municipality decided to demolish the building. The concrete pillars standing in the sea, on which the building rested, were blown up. Thus disappeared from the face of the earth the first Jewish casino in Eretz Israel. So far, irrevocably. But the dispute about whether it is permissible to have a gambling business on the Holy Land is still going on and on nowadays. But the dispute is a matter of gambling, and so far there are no winners.

Is Gambling Allowed by Law?

It is forbidden to gamble, as it involves many halachic and moral and ethical issues. In two places, the Mishnah says that people who gamble cannot testify in Jewish court.

The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 22a) discusses which people cannot testify to the appearance of the new moon (this testimony is necessary for the consecration of the new month). Among others, two categories of people of interest are mentioned. These are dice players and those who hold “competitions” of pigeons (whose pigeon will fly the fastest).

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 24b) says that people in these categories also cannot be witnesses in money matters and cannot be judges. Gemora goes on to argue why they are unfit to be witnesses and judges. According to Rami Bar Ham, the reason gambling is forbidden is because one expects to win, not lose, when initially placing a bet. Accordingly, when the winner takes the money, he does so as if against the will of the loser, in other words, steals from him. Such a situation is called asmahta. Gemora (27a) goes on to say that a person who engages in theft cannot be a witness. And, even though participation in gambling is not outright theft, because, after all, the loser himself gives back the money, any action contrary to the law that is taken to achieve financial gain is similar to theft and disqualifies such a person from bearing witness.

According to Rav Sheshet, this situation is not asmakhta, since in gambling one is aware that winning depends only on luck, and understands that one can lose. An ordinary asmahta situation, on the other hand, implies that one relies on one’s own skills and abilities and, therefore, is not going to lose. Rav Sheshet gives another explanation of the prohibition: such a person is not engaged in socially useful activities. Rashi explains: the gambler is not familiar with the elementary rules of business and is not God-fearing, accordingly, his opinion cannot be relied upon, so he cannot be a witness.

The difference between these two opinions is seen in practice in a situation where gambling is not a person’s only source of income. According to Rami Bar Ham, in this case too, gambling is forbidden, because the problem is not in the game itself, but in gaining, which is similar to theft. According to Rav Sheshet, however, the problem lies in the person who earns his living by gambling. Therefore, a person for whom gambling is not the only source of income is engaged in a socially useful activity, and, accordingly, can be a witness.

The Rambam (Laws of theft 6:10) says that the law is established in accordance with the opinion of Rami bar Ham. Accordingly, gambling is forbidden, according to the Sages, because it is similar to stealing (however, in Laws of Witness 10:4, Rambam says that only professional gamblers cannot witness. At first glance, these two laws seem to contradict each other. See Kesef Mishneh commentary and other commentaries that clarify the Rambam’s position).

Tosafot, Rosh and other commentators (Sanhedrin 24 b) believe that the law is established in accordance with the opinion of Rav Sheshet, i.e. it is forbidden to gamble professionally and to make a living from gambling.

The Tosafot and Mordechai clarify: even according to the “facilitating” opinion, non-professional gambling is permitted only when bets are placed in cash, with the money being placed on the gaming table so that the winner receives his winnings on the spot. The situation when players promise to pay after some time is considered asmahta and forbidden, because here we are already talking about the semblance of theft.

Rivash (commentator of the early period, Response 432) gives a different explanation. In his opinion, both Rami bar Hana and Rav Sheshet agree that gambling is forbidden. The only difference in their positions in practice is that Rav Sheshet believes: if one transgressed the prohibition and gambled, the money won is not considered stolen. However, initially gambling is forbidden, as it is an unworthy activity that leads one away from the right path.

The Shulchan Oruch (Hoshen Mishpat 370:1-3) says that the law was established in accordance with the opinion of the Rambam. Accordingly, gambling is forbidden, since gaining a profit in this way is like stealing. Ramo, for his part, disagrees. He believes that the law was established in accordance with the opinion of the Tosafot.

The Gemora (Shabbat 105b) says: A person who tears his clothes or breaks dishes in anger must look like an idolater in your eyes. Gemora explains: this is how the evil element takes possession of a person – today it tells you one thing, tomorrow another and, in the end, it can lead a person to idol worship. Thus, we see that the person who is unable to control himself will eventually go astray from the right path. We see a similar phenomenon in gambling: at some point a person becomes so engrossed in the game that he loses control over himself, and this can lead to undesirable consequences. Rav Moishe Feinstein (Igrot Moishe, Yoreh De’ah 3:35) also speaks about the prohibition of activities that cause addiction and lead to loss of control over oneself.

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