By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The story must have happened a number of years ago, because the question was posed to Rav Elyashiv zt”l.
Apparently, a group of overweight men got together and made a bet. Whomsoever would lose the most weight in one week – would get the entire pot (of money, that is). They all dug in their pockets and put the money aside. Then they weighed in. In exactly one week, they would get together and re-weigh themselves.
Perhaps it was an excellent idea in which they might lose some weight, but what about in terms of halacha? Is such an endeavor halachically permitted?
The question was posed to Rav Elyashiv zt”l.
What might be the issue? The answer is gambling, and consequently, an issue of possible theft. The underlying term is “asmachta.”
The Mishna in Sanhedrin 24b lists those that are pasul in testimony, and one of them is “mesachaik bakubia – a gambler.” The Gemorah records a debate between Rami Bar Chama and Rav Shaishes as to what exactly is the violation. Rami Bar Chama says that it is an asmachta and the person betting doesn’t really think that he will lose the money, so when the winner collects – he is essentially stealing.
Rav Shaishes, on the other hand, states that there is no problem of asmachta. Rather the problem in the Mishna is that they are not engaging in the settling of the world – they are not being productive in their livelihoods. The difference between them is when they have another livelihood.
There is an apparent contradiction in the Rambam as to who the halacha is in accordance with, and the Ramah in CM 307:15 cites three different Rishonim as to how exactly to understand Rav Shaishes’ position.
RAV ELYASHIV’S RULING
So what did Rav Elyashiv rule? He said that the “losing weight” bet or contest was permitted. The ruling is found in the latest volume of Ashrei haIsh p. 172, compiled by Rabbi Yechezkel Feinhandler. The reason was because a] they are not betting for a living and b] they had all put the money aside in one pot prior to the bet. That being the case, there is no problem of Asmachta.
Rav Feinhandler notes, however, that in the work entitled, “Sim Shalom” [p.73] where Rav Elyashiv’s view was first cited – there is a footnote [#46] that the ruling only applies to those who follow the rulings of the Ramah – but to those who follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch – the bet is actually forbidden.
Thus, only Ashkenazic men can engage in such a bet, but Sefardic men would have to lose the weight without the additional incentive of a bet.
A MIXED BET?
What would be the halacha if the group of men betting would be a mix of Ashkenazim and Sefardim? It seems to the author that if the Ashkenazi person would have won, it would be permitted to collect from the Ashkenazim but not from the Sefardim. The reason being is that it is not fair to take it from him if he is not allowed to win it. This would be a violation of “v’asisa hatov vehayashar.” The Rishonim and the commentators on Shulchan Aruch employ this principal in numerous places throughout Shulchan Aruch (see for example the Gra on CM 337:5, the Sma on CM 175:89). Even though the Ashkenazi would not be in violation of stealing since he holds of the Ramah’s opinion that it is not a problem – since the money was set aside, it would be a violation of morality to do so because if he were to have won – he would have been halachically ineligible to collect.
If the Sefardic person would have won, he would be unable to collect from either one.
The author reached out to Rabbi Feinhandler to see if he would agree, but he was in transit and the telecommunication was kind of weak. Hopefully, we will hear from him later and update the article accordingly.
Are there alternative incentives then – that can be employed? In October of 2006, a study was published in Neurology [ a professional journal] that correlated various pleasures in life with BMI – body mass index. The conclusion is that life is more pleasurable when one is thin and foods taste better. The problem is that therein lies the Catch-22.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org