What does Judaism think of sports? - opinion

It can be said that as long as it does not come at the expense of other important duties, sports are very much encouraged in Judaism and perfectly legitimate as a hobby.

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel (photo credit: MENEMSHA FILMS)
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel
(photo credit: MENEMSHA FILMS)

Have you ever heard of the International Bible Marathon?

According to popular belief, the first marathon in history is traced back to an ancient Greek legend, according to which a runner ran about 40 km. to Athens after the battle for the village of Marathon (490 BC) to announce the victory of the Athenians (in the legend, the runner collapsed and died right after announcing the message).

On the initiative of linguist Michel Bréal, the marathon was introduced as a discipline for the first time at the 1896 Olympic Games in memory of this legendary run.

However, according to Israeli athlete and co-founder of the Maccabi World Union Yosef Yekutieli (1897-1982), the first marathon in history is mentioned as early as the Tanach:

“A man from Benjamin ran out of the camp and came the same day to Shiloh, having torn his clothes and strewn dirt on his head” (Samuel 1, chapter 4, verse 12).

“A man from Benjamin ran out of the camp and came the same day to Shiloh, having torn his clothes and strewn dirt on his head”

Samuel 1 4:12

TAKING PART in the 2019 International Bible Marathon. (credit: HILLEL MAEIR/FLASH90)TAKING PART in the 2019 International Bible Marathon. (credit: HILLEL MAEIR/FLASH90)

In the 1970s, Yekutieli measured the distance from Eben Ezer (see verse 1) to Shiloh that the man from Benjamin must have traveled and came up with 42 km., the length of the Olympic marathon. My recalculation on Google Maps showed about 48 km.

In memory of this run, since 2015 every year the International Bible Marathon is held and the participants follow the presumed route of the legendary Man of Benjamin.

This interesting fun fact brings us to the general question: What is the attitude of Judaism towards sports and how important are sports in Judaism?

In order to answer this question, the etymology and definition of the term “sport” must be clarified: The term “sport” was derived from the old French word “(se) desporter” – to amuse oneself – but linguists have struggled to come up with an unambiguous definition for this term, for the simple reason that it is used for a very wide range of sports and activities.

In everyday usage, this word has two main meanings, namely physical exertion and athletic competition, and it is important to discuss Judaism’s perspective on both aspects.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam´s Code of Law, he writes at the beginning of the third chapter of De’ot: “For maintaining physical health and strength is considered to walk in the ways of God; for it is impossible to grasp the knowledge of God in a diseased state; Therefore, man should avoid activities that destroy the body and adopt activities that strengthen and strengthen the body.”

There is a well-known saying attributed to the Rambam, according to which the initial letters of the Hebrew word for health – briyut – stand for bolem rogzo yafchit ochlo yeyagbir tnuato (“stop your anger, eat less and move more). This saying is so popular that it was quoted by Shas MK Michael Malchieli in the Knesset, in 2017.

This saying as such is not to be found in the Rambam´s writings, but in Mishneh Torah (De’ot 4 Chapter, 14) he gives a similar advice: “Another main rule for the health of the body is: as long as a person exerts himself and eats moderately, no disease will come to him and he will even gain strength.”

“Another main rule for the health of the body is: as long as a person exerts himself and eats moderately, no disease will come to him and he will even gain strength.”

Rambam, Mishneh Torah

THE RAMBAM, who was the private doctor of Sultan Saladin, teaches us that one of the essential duties of man is to pay attention to his health and that includes exercise.

There are many stories of famous Jewish scholars who, well into old age, walked daily to keep themselves fit. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, explicitly encouraged Israeli youth, in Orot HaTechiya Chapter 34, to strengthen themselves physically (also for the defense of the then-future Jewish state).

However, the purpose of exercise in Judaism is only to maintain the health of the body and not to perfect the body. Unlike ancient Greek Hellenism and the current fitness craze, where man and especially the human body was deified, in Judaism the physical body is viewed more as a means of spiritual completion and under no circumstances should it become a means to an end.

The American Orthodox historian and author Ken Spiro (Crash Course in Jewish History, 2010, p. 147) summarizes this fundamental difference as follows: “For the Greeks, beauty was sacred, while for the Jews, the sacred is beautiful.”

To what extent is sport not for health purposes a legitimate pastime?

Playing ball (possibly soccer) is already mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit Chapter 4, Halacha 5), but rather in a sad context: “[The residents of] Tur Shimon distributed 300 baskets of bread to the needy every Erev Shabbat and yet the city was completely destroyed; Some say because of prostitution and some say because of playing ball” (translation based on Rabbi Chaim Kanievski’s explanation of the Talmud Yerushalmi).

The commentators on the Jerusalem Talmud propose various explanations as to why playing ball deserves such a harsh punishment. Some explain that the inhabitants of this town played ball on Shabbat and were therefore punished for desecrating the Shabbat. Whether it is allowed today to play football on Shabbat is a difference of opinion between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis.

Rabbi David Hirschel Frankel (1707-1762) provides another explanation that they wasted all their time playing ball and not studying the Torah.

According to this statement, we can learn from this passage of the Talmud that while one may engage in sport for pleasure, one may not do so at the expense of a Jew’s other religious duties, such as studying the Torah.

In professional sports, there is generally no problem being a fan of a particular team and supporting your team as long as it is just a hobby and does not become a burning passion. An adult fan for whom the game is a matter of life and death and whose mind is swayed by the successes or failures of their team, is definitely taking such a hobby way too far. Worshiping a soccer player or athlete as an idol is also not appropriate in Judaism.

In summary, it can be said that as long as it does not come at the expense of other important duties, sports are very much encouraged in Judaism and perfectly legitimate as a hobby.

The writer was born in Dnepr, Ukraine, and grew up in Germany. He studied in yeshivas in Switzerland and the UK, and received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits. Currently, he lives in Israel and writes on various Jewish topics.