Jewish kids play with dreidels by the Hanukkiya at the western wall, in Jerusalem's Old Ci
Jewish kids play with dreidels by the Hanukkiya at the western wall, in Jerusalem's Old CiMendy Hechtman/Flash90

Jews around the world are currently celebrating Hanukkah, the 8-day-long Festival of Lights that commemorates the Maccabean victory over their Greek oppressors. At first glance, the holiday has nothing at all to do with gambling right? Well, more than a few Israeli Olim suggest that there’s more to Hanukkah than meets the eye as far as gambling is concerned.

The appropriateness of gambling on Hanukkah for money has long been questioned by modern society, with numerous t'shuvot written by Rabbis both in Israel and abroad, many of them decrying the practice. Yet, many enthusiasts, as well as congregations and Jewish culture centers across the globe still undertake a yearly ritual of organizing gambling nights for young professionals, or youth on Hanukkah. 

Poker aficionado Robbie Strazynski spoke to Arutz Sheva about why this holiday still has a "gambling overtone" and how we can learn Hanukkah lessons from games such as Poker, and vice-versa.  

"The Maccabees’ victory against all odds and the 1-day’s worth of oil burning for 8 straight days in the Temple showcases that miracles can happen that defy all nature. To poker players [and other gambling enthusiasts], especially tournament specialists, the lessons of this story are clear: even with your back against the wall, never give up hope." 

Tournament poker’s best known example of this type of attitude is personified by Jack Straus, who came back from the brink of elimination to win the WSOP Main Event in 1982. In fact, it was Straus’ comeback that helped coin the phrase “a chip and a chair” (is all you need to win), as he was literally left with 1 solitary poker chip before his fortunes turned around.

Strazynski believes that there is a lesson there that resounds throughout the ages  "Just because you might be the small stack at a table full of big stacks doesn’t necessarily mean your fate is sealed. So long as you pick your spots and battles carefully, you’re capable of conquering even the mightiest of foes at the felt." This lesson is one that rings true throughout all of Jewish history, and is especially connected to Hanukkah where we recite 'Rabbim b'yad me'atim' - 'the many in the hands of the few' during our prayers over the holiday.

But there is more to the connection between the holiday and gambling than that. There is also the idea of gifts, or gelt which have been exchanged on Hanukkah from the times of the Talmud. Strazynski illustrated this connection. "Arguably, one of the most important measures of success in gambling is the amount of money won/lost. No holiday on the Jewish calendar is as associated with money as is Hanukkah. For ages, Jewish parents have been known to give their kids Hanukkah gelt (either real money or chocolate-filled coins that interestingly resemble poker chips in both shape and size). The kids then play highly contested “dreidel” games (the spinning top) with this gelt. The similarities between dreidel and poker are many: there’s an element of chance, everyone playing has to “ante up”, and each player is trying to win everyone else’s gelt." 

Strazynski suggests that in order to get more into the Hanukkah spirit of giving presents, one can run or participate in a charity poker tournament which donates a portion of the winnings to charity. 

Strazynski, a lover of puns, also encouraged anyone who does participate in gambling over the holidays, whether it be poker or dreidel to place some Macca-beats on their opponents. 

Strazynski is one of two American Israelis from Ginot Shomeron who co-host a weekly webisode called "the Weekly burn and turn". The other is Shimi Weiss. The webisode is a ten minute video segment about poker, gambling, Israel and having fun.

"The show, while "about poker", is meant to be geared to entertain. In other words, the idea is that everyone should be able to enjoy watching us for a few minutes each week on screen, however much or little they actually know about poker. We produce a new one each week and it goes live, online, on Thursdays," said Strazynski, the show's creator.

"Enjoying Hanukkah is really what the holiday is about. We aim to help with that endeavor," said Strazynski.