A History of Jews in Sports

It Goes Way, Way Back
by the Encyclopedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition)

Jews in Sports in Ancient Times

There is no evidence of sports among the Jews during the obscure period between the close of the Bible and the Maccabean periods. At the beginning of this latter period, in the second century B.C.E., circumstances conspired to make sporting activities as such, i.e., sport not as associated with the need for physical exercise or as an aspect of military training but competitive sport "for the sake of the game," repugnant to the Jews as the very antithesis of Jewish ideals, and this approach remained characteristic of Judaism until the dawn of the modern period.

A number of circumstances contributed to the negative and antipathetic attitude toward sport. The first was that, with the conquest of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E., hellenistic culture began to infiltrate into Erez Israel, and the attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes forcibly to hellenize Judea led to the outbreak of the Maccabean War. One of the overt signs of this process was the establishment of a gymnasium in Jerusalem by Jason in 174 B.C.E., where the participants engaged in their sporting activities in the nude. The antithesis between the gymnasium as an expression of Hellenism and Judaism was dramatically and almost symbolically highlighted by the fact that some of the Jewish participants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (1:15), actually underwent operations for the purpose of concealing the fact that they were circumcised. Sport thus became associated with the alien and dangerous hellenistic culture. An additional factor was that the Olympic games were connected with the idolatrous cult, particularly of the Greek deity of Hercules, and it is significant that during the period of hellenization, when a Jewish contingent went to the games held at Tyre, concurrently with the 152nd Olympic games in Greece, they refused to bring the customary gifts, which were dedicated to Hercules, unless they were devoted to a non-idolatrous cause.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that in countries under Greek influence, sports were indulged in by Jews. Claudius warned the Jews of Alexandria that they "should not strive in gymnasiarchic and cosmetic games" (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium), and one interpretation of a second-or third-century inscription in Hypaepa, Asia Minor, has it refer to a sports association of young Jews.

This opposition to sport became even more intensified when, following the intervening period of independence, Roman overlordship was substituted for Greek, and theaters and circuses were linked together as the very antithesis of "synagogue and school." To the considerations which applied to the gymnasia, were the added factors of cruelty associated with Roman sport, which was not confined to the characteristic aspect of gladiatorial contests, and also the fact that at the theaters the Jews were made the butt of satire, parody, and mockery (cf. Lam. R. intro. 17). The first sentence of the Book of Psalms "Happy is the man... who sat not in the seat of the scorners" was made to apply to those who refrained from attending "theaters and circuses and did not attend gladiatorial combats" (Pes. 148b), and the humane aspect of the opposition finds expression in the ruling that "one is permitted to go to stadiums if by his shouting he may save the victim" (Av. Zar. 18b). It is a fact that at one period of his life the famous amora Simeon b. Lakish (Resh Lakish) was a professional gladiator (Git. 47a), but he justified this on the grounds of grim necessity. The very vehemence of the denunciation of the rabbis would seem to point to the fact that participation in, or at least attendance at, those sports by Jews was widespread.

The first Jewish ruler to encourage sports was Herod. Between 37 and 4 B.C.E. he erected sports stadia in Caesarea, Sebaste, Tiberias, Jericho, and other cities and also introduced a Palestinian Olympiad with sports competition every five years. He brought athletes from all parts of the world to compete in gladiatorial games and contests of boxing, racing, archery, and other sports and also contributed large sums to the Olympic games in Greece. His extensive activities in this sphere were, however, part of his program of "romanization" of the realm.

Middle Ages

There are a few references to organized sport during the Middle Ages. According to the Shevet Yehudah (ch. 8), Jews in Spain distinguished themselves in the art of fencing. An examination of all the data given in I. Abrahams' Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1932,2, repr. 1960, 397-411) reveals that, almost without exception, the instances which purport to prove that the Jews indulged in sport belong either to recreations like strolling, self-defense, dancing, and intellectual pastimes, such as chess and riddles, or to children's games. There is a reference by Jerome in the fourth century to Jewish boys in Syria lifting heavy stones "to train their muscular strength" (to Zech. 12:4) and in the 13th century, it was the custom to hold tournaments and jousts as part of marriage celebrations. Isaac Or Zaru'a refers to "young men who go out on horseback to greet the bridegroom, and indulge in combats with one another, and tear one another's garments or cause injury to the horse" (Hil. Sukkot ve-Lulav no. 315). He decided that the injured party had no claim for damages since he had been partaking in a joyous occasion. In Provence the Jews had trained falcons and engaged in hawking on horseback. On the other hand in the 15th century Israel Bruna, in answer to a question whether it was permitted even to attend non-Jewish horse-racing competitions, gave guarded permission only because one could thereby judge the quality of the horses and learn to ride "in order to escape from one's enemies." "Nevertheless," he added, "I doubt whether it is permitted to go and see such races as are intended merely as jousting tournaments for pleasure" (Resp. 71).

The most popular sports in the Middle Ages appear to have been ball games. Although the Midrash (Lam. R. 2:4) gives as one of the reasons for the destruction of the Temple that "in Tur Malka they played ball games on the Sabbath," Moses Isserles, disagreeing with Joseph Caro, permitted ball playing on the Sabbath and festivals and stated that in his time (16th century) it was customary to do so (Sh. Ar., OH 308:45), and on festivals (when there is no prohibition against carrying) "even in a public domain and even for pure sport" (ibid. 518:2). He based himself upon Tosafot (to Bezah 12a), which states explicitly that "we find that they play with the ball called pelota" (cf. the modern Basque game called by the same name). No details are given; according to one authority, however, "it was very like handball but, instead of being struck by the hand, the ball was caught in a long narrow scoop-like basket attached firmly to the wrist and thrown against the wall" (JQR, 26 (1935/36), 4).

In 1386 there were Jewish tourneys in Wiesenfeld, Germany. In the 15th century, competitions were held in Augsburg, Germany, in running, jumping, throwing, and bowling, in which Jews also participated. Immanuel of Rome mentions "boys who trained in stone throwing" (in his Mahbarot 22, no. 42). In this same century, at the popular festivals initiated in Rome, sports competitions were also included: Monday was for youth, Tuesday for Jews (under 20 years of age), Wednesday for older boys, and so on. The Jews were obliged to provide precious carpets as prizes. It is known that Jews distinguished themselves in these games in 1487, 1502, and 1595. There is even a song about Jewish runners, composed in 1513. These games and festivals continued for some 200 years despite the fact that during these years the mob interfered with the Jewish runners, who participated half naked. In 1443 there was a registration of a Jew who knew "wrestling without shedding blood."

In the 16th century there was a famous Austrian converted Jew by the name of Ott who was outstanding at the Augsburg games and was even invited to the court of the Austrian prince in order to train the courtiers. He wrote a book in which wrestling was separated from fencing for the first time and was known as "Ottish Wrestling." There was also a book on fencing published by Andres Jud, who, together with his brother Jacob Lignitzer, took special care of fencing. The decrees of Rudolph II show how important fencing was for the Jews in Germany. Among these decrees was one which forbade Christian fencing teachers to train Jews and, later on, also forbade competitions between Jews and Christians. There is little information about sport in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Despite the examples given, there is no doubt that S. W. Baron is correct in stating that during the Middle Ages sporadic voices in favor of recreational pauses were as ineffective as those which advocated physical exercises. Northern Jewry especially had little use for physical education and paid little heed even to the injunction of a talmudic sage that a father give his son instruction in swimming as a "life-saving precaution." It is only in the modern period that sports became popular and widespread among Jews.

Modern Era

Though most Jews in the 19th century lived in conditions unfavorable to athletic pursuits, a number of them in England, Germany, Hungary, Canada, France, Austria, and the United States did well in a variety of sports. In 1896, six Jewish athletes won 13 medals at the first modern Olympic games in Athens.

In a speech before the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Max Nordau asked the Jewish people to renew their interest in sports and physical fitness. Nordau's call for "muscular Judaism" was answered by the Maccabi movement, which spread first to the countries of Europe and Palestine and then around the world. Over 100 Maccabi clubs were in existence in Europe by the beginning of World War I. The largest of these clubs -- Ha-Koah of Vienna, Bar Kochba of Berlin, and Ha-Gibor of Prague -- became famous for their outstanding teams. It was Hungary, however, that produced the most successful Jewish athletes in Europe. Hungarian Jews won numerous Olympic medals in various sports.

Early in the 20th century immigrant Jewish children in Great Britain and the United States learned to play the games of their new countries in youth clubs, settlement houses, and YM-YWHAs. Living in crowded urban areas, they became proficient in sports which required little space and equipment, such as boxing, handball, table tennis, basketball, gymnastics, and wrestling. Professional sports, particularly boxing and basketball, attracted many Jews, who used athletic scholarships to gain admission to some U.S. colleges.

The sports picture changed radically for Jews following World War II. In the affluent communities of North and South America and in Western Europe, the emphasis shifted to social sports, such as tennis, golf, polo, yachting, and squash. Most Jews attending colleges in the United States could afford to pay tuition fees and participate in university sports for recreation. When Jews were excluded from established yacht and country clubs they organized their own.

Jews were active in formulating sports programs in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, and after World War II they contributed to that nation's successful entry into international competition. Many Soviet Jews have been accorded the title "Honored Master of Sport."

In Israel before 1948

Physical education was first introduced into Jewish schools in Erez Israel toward the end of the 19th century by Yeshayahu Press and Heinrich Eliakum Loewe. The first Jewish sports clubs in the country, the Rishon le-Zion Club in Jaffa and the Bar Giora Club in Jerusalem, were established in 1906 by Leo Cohen and Aviezer Yellin, respectively, and shortly afterward the first qualified club leaders were appointed. In 1908, the first national sports competition -- the Rehovot Festival -- was organized under the leadership of Zevi Nishri (d. 1973) and was held annually until the outbreak of World War I. Sports outside the framework of the schools were organized by voluntary organizations associated in varying degrees with social or political movements.

[Jesse Harold Silver]

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