Jews & Sports on the International Scene

Print this page Print this page

Sports in Jewish Tradition

Were Jews part of this enthusiasm? Of course, the seeming contradiction between Judaism and sports is not entirely without ground. In Jewish tradition, learning always played a central role, and every other activity was considered a waste of time. Moreover, in Greek and Roman times, sports were associated with idol worship, and the gymnasium was a place to perform in the nude.

Still, physical activities were not absent from Jewish history even in premodern times. There are some reports of Talmudic sages being active in physical activities, such as Rabbi Simeon b. Lakish ("Resh Lakish"), who was a professional gladiator.

In the Middle Ages, there are more reports of Jews in diverse sporting activities, including ball games. Thus, we also possess rabbinical responsa relating to the question of whether ball games were permitted in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century societies. In contrast to the strict objection expressed by the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Yosef Caro of Palestine, his colleague Moses Isserles of Cracow allowed ball games in public with reference to their enormous popularity.

We also know some details of how those games worked in early modern Europe. In a rabbinical responsum around 1560, Rabbi Moses Provenzal of Mantua explained two versions of a kind of premodern tennis game (one with racket, the other without), which included betting on the winner.

His responsum made clear that on Shabbat one was prohibited from playing for money and should distribute the gains in the form of food products. He also forbade the use of rackets, since they could break and one would be tempted to repair them on Shabbat. Of course, Rabbi Provenzal emphasized, one was not to play during the time of the synagogue sermon. Otherwise he did not object to the game.

In nineteenth-century Central Europe when enthusiasts gathered around the "father" of the gymnastics movement, Turnvater Jahn, Jews were rarely among its pioneers. It wasn't easy for them, either, to participate in a physical exercise closely tied with nationalist romantic notions, which often included a good dose of antisemitism.

By the end of the nineteenth century many gymnastics and sports associations made it clear that they would not welcome Jewish members, and thus they stood in line with student associations and parts of the youth movement. The image of the "Jewish body," which was not considered equal with the "Aryan body," began to play an ever-larger role in the minds of antisemites.

Zionism & the Jewish Body

It was the young Zionist movement, which around the turn of the century took up most fiercely the fight for the equalization of the Jewish body. Zionism not only rose in order to make Europe's Jews resettle in their old home of Palestine, but also to create a "new Jew." In Theodor Herzl's words that meant "aus Judenjungen junge Juden zu machen" (to form young Jews out of Jewish lads). In this respect, the Zionists demanded a completion of emancipation, not just in a mental, but also in a physical sense, thus responding to the earliest calls heard in the fight for emancipation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich.