Would The Maccabees Ban the Maccabiah?
Are sports a worthwhile and valuable Jewish activity? By the number of minyanim and kosher stands at athletic events, attendance appears to be a Halakhic obligation. But is playing or watching sports a Jewish ideal? Is there value to participating as an athlete or a spectator – or are athletics the antithesis of Jewish values?
Sports Through Jewish History
The Tanakh never explicitly mentions sports. Sarah sees Yishmael “metzahek,” alternatively translated as playing, laughing, or mocking, and then decides to disinherit and banish him (Genesis 21:9). This could imply a ban on playing anything, including sports, but in all likelihood other factors are at play in this story, as a child’s playing is hardly sufficient grounds for his banishment. The closest examples of athletics are representative battles or duels in the context of war. Yaakov fights with an angel (Genesis 32:25), David battles with Goliath (Samuel I 17), and twelve members of Ish-Boshet and David’s armies duel at Avner’s suggestion in lieu of a battle (Samuel II 2).
The earliest “canonical” source that references sports as recreation is 1 Maccabees:
In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil (1 Maccabees 1:12-16).
1 Maccabees depicts building a gymnasium for sports as the quintessential Gentile custom, referred to as hukkat ha-goyim. Building the gymnasium serves as the first act of defiance of Hellenized Jews deliberately misleading the Jewish people. They claimed to wish for peace with the gentiles, while actually blindly following foreign customs. The new gymnasium in Jerusalem led to removing the brit milah, covenant of circumcision, because only the uncircumcised could participate in the Greek sports. They abandoned the covenant with Hashem along with removing their brit mila. In case it was unclear that the “renegades” misdirection was a travesty, the section closes with the Jews having “sold themselves to do evil.” The gymnasium ties directly to undoing brit milah, abandoning God, and doing evil.
In case there was any doubt about how the gymnasium in Jerusalem was perceived at the time, a similar episode occurs in 2 Maccabees following the ascension of the wicked High Priest Jason. After bribing his way to become High Priest, Jason Hellenized Jerusalem and made “the people of Jerusalem change to the Greek way of life” (2 Maccabees 2:10).
Jason also did away with our Jewish customs and introduced new customs that were contrary to our Law. With great enthusiasm he built a stadium near the Temple hill and led our finest young men to adopt the Greek custom of participating in athletic events (2 Maccabees 4).
Participating in athletic events was the example par excellence of Hellenization. Jewish customs and laws were thrown away in order to make room for new practices, especially athletic events. 2 Maccabees continues:
Because of the unrivaled wickedness of Jason, that ungodly and illegitimate High Priest, the craze for the Greek way of life and for foreign customs reached such a point that even the priests lost all interest in their sacred duties. They lost interest in the Temple services and neglected the sacrifices. Just as soon as the signal was given, they would rush off to take part in the games that were forbidden by our Law (ibid.).
Even the priests were led to be derelict in their duties, as they would rather wrestle or throw a discus than offer sacrifices in the Temple. These activities were referred to as “the games that were forbidden by our Law”, implying that they were Biblically or Rabbinically prohibited. The nightmare of every pastor came true: not even the clergy cared to attend services. If they happened to come at all, they would abandon their posts and head to the stadium as soon as the games began.
They did not care about anything their ancestors had valued; they prized only Greek honors. And this turned out to be the source of all their troubles, for the very people whose ways they admired and whose customs they tried to imitate became their enemies and oppressed them. It is a serious thing to disregard God’s Law, as you will see from the following events (ibid.).
The Jews exchanged Torah ideals for Greek honors, thinking that such a substitution would make the Greeks accept them. They could not have been more wrong. The ensuing Hanukkah saga perfectly proves the point.
In addition to the events of the games themselves, which could be considered celebrations of the human body, there were sacrifices to the pagan gods. When Jason sent athletes to the games at Tyre, he included “22,500 pounds of silver to pay for a sacrifice to the god Hercules,” a clear example of idolatry. Luckily, the athletes themselves knew enough to donate it to the local war fund instead (ibid.).
Eventually, the Maccabees successfully gained control of Israel and reestablished Jewish sovereignty. Unfortunately, not all of the later rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty were interested in maintaining any semblance of ancient Jewish ideals. Herod exemplifies this abandoning of Torah ideals as Josephus, a self-described Pharisee, follower of Mosaic Law, describes:
Herod revolted from the laws of his country, and corrupted their ancient constitution, by the introduction of foreign practices, which constitution yet ought to have been preserved inviolable;…in the first place, he appointed solemn games to be celebrated every fifth year, in honor of Caesar, and built a theater at Jerusalem, as also a very great amphitheater in the plain…but opposite to the Jewish customs; for we have had no such shows delivered down to us as fit to be used or exhibited by us; …but to natural Jews, this was no better than a dissolution of those customs for which they had so great a veneration. It appeared also no better than an instance of barefaced impiety, to throw men to wild beasts, for the affording delight to the spectators; and it appeared an instance of no less impiety, to change their own laws for such foreign exercises: but, above all the rest, the trophies gave most distaste to the Jews; for as they imagined them to be images, included within the armor that hung round about them, they were sorely displeased at them, because it was not the custom of their country to pay honors to such images. (Antiquities of the Jews, 15: 267-276)
Paralleling Jason, Herod went against the normative practice and laws of his country and introduced foreign practices that went against his people’s “ancient constitution.” Herod’s first steps leading the Jews away from Judaism included the introduction of games, sporting events, and theater, which are “opposite the Jewish custom” and “honor Caesar and not God.” Herod destroyed Jewish traditions and customs. He replaced closely held customs with morally repugnant activities such as killing for sport, exchanged Jewish laws for foreign ones, and awarded idolatrous trophies. The sporting events depicted by Josephus violated numerous laws and customs, which morally and religiously disgusted the Jews. While Jews certainly participated in Greek sports during the Second Temple period, their participation was neither condoned nor recommended by their contemporary historian and supposed religious counterpart.
Archeologists have uncovered theaters, stadiums, and hippodromes throughout Israel, both in Jewish and Roman areas. These remains are in Caesarea, Scythopolis, Gaza, and Eleutheropolis among others, cities with primarily Jewish populations; in all likelihood Jews attended these much like their gentile neighbors. They also probably continued attending performances as long as they were extant.
The view of sports and spectacle in the Mishnaic period is a bit more complex than that which is presented in Josephus or Maccabees. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, for instance, translates Deuteronomy 28:19 (“Cursed shall you be in your coming and cursed shall you be in you going”) as:
Cursed shall you be when enter your theaters and circuses to negate the words of the Torah and cursed are you when you leave to do your business.
Clearly the translator wasn’t saying this in a vacuum; rather, he was addressing the Jews who would often head to stadium and performances. Perhaps some of his fellow congregant even skipped synagogue to engage in these activities, just as the priests did to the Second Temple.
Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:5-7 gives various reasons for why going to theaters and other recreational entertainment activities is forbidden. There are three distinct segments to the Tosefta’s comments, and they may indicate three distinct time periods and reactions of the populace. The first segment suggests potential issues of avodah zarah, idol worship. The Sages note that even if these particular games aren’t dedicated to a deity and no forbidden sacrifices are being made, the stadium can still be considered a place where fools gather, known as moshav leitzim. Such a gathering is seen as the epitome of bitul talmud Torah, or wasting time that could have been spent learning Torah. One of the Sages included in this Tosefta is R’ Meir, a fourth generation Tanna, so the statement probably stems from that period. The Tosefta then expands upon its list of forbidden entertainments and again concludes the issue is moshav leitzim, but in an expanded fashion explaining how attendance can directly lead to problems.
The Tosefta next notes that one is permitted to go to the theater if there is a strong tzorech medina, or need of state, but if he appreciates the spectacle then it is forbidden. This need of state is most likely a reference to the practice of the popular voting at these events. The populace often voted or expressed their desires to government officials after the performances because that was when they had all gathered and could make their opinions known through chants.
The Tosefta continues by stating that going to the gladiatorial arena is akin to murder. However R’ Natan, a fourth generation Amora, permits attendance because a Jewish audience member can cheer loudly to protect Jewish gladiators, and even if that fails, he can testify about the gladiator’s death to prevent his wife from being an agunah, or “chained women” who cannot remarry. The Tosefta finally concludes that one may attend in order to cheer or because of needs of states. The various opinions and stages posited by the Tosefta may indicate that the Sages tried and failed to rein in the practice of attending events at stadiums. This debate was longstanding, starting in the Tannaitic period and extending into the Amoraic period, and the Rabbis kept trying to ban it but failed.
The Talmud Bavli (Avodah Zarah 18-19) quotes the Tosefta out of order and discusses each element before concluding by explaining why a person must learn and not be distracted from his studies, lest he come to forget them all. Clearly the Amoraim of the Talmud believe the first opinion mentioned in the Tosefta is correct, that the issues of moshav leitzim and bittul Torah are the essential problems with attending the arena.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:5) explains that the city Tur Shimon was destroyed because of either harlotry or “mesahkin be-kadur,” meaning ball playing. It is unclear why ball playing would cause the destruction, but based on Maccabees and Josephus, the reason could be connected to idol worship, murder, ignoring work to play games, or promiscuity in the stands. Different versions of this statement exist: some include playing ball particularly on the Sabbath, which would mean the issue was not with the sports themselves but when the people were doing them. It is difficult to imagine that simple playing would destroy an entire city; Zechariah (8:5) even prophesizes about the return of Jerusalem to its previous glory when children will play in the streets. This conflict can perhaps be explained by making a distinction between participation and spectating.
Part of this debate centers on how to interpret certain prohibited actions enumerated in the Mishnah in Tractate Shabbat 22:6:
One may oil and massage the innards but one may not mit’amel or scrape. One must not go down to a qordeima or induce vomiting, or straighten an infant or set a broken bone. If one’s hand or foot is dislocated, he must not agitate it violently in cold water but may wash it in the usual way, and if it heals, it heals.
Mit’amlin literally means toiling. The Rambam explains the activity of lo mit’amlin as exercising, which would mean exercise, while forbidden on the Sabbath, presumably is fine the rest of the week. Saul Lieberman builds on this, explaining each clause of the Mishnah in light of wrestling practices of the Tannaitic period. Through this paradigm he shows how each and every activity would have occurred while either wrestling itself or maintaining one’s body for the sport. The Mishnah goes out of its way to prohibit wrestling-related activities on Shabbat; from this it can be inferred that the Jews were heavily involved in wrestling during the Tannaitic period. This understanding clarifies the latter half of the Mishnah, which describes various medical practices such as setting bones and fixing dislocations. Breaks and dislocations are fairly frequent in wrestling, and athletes would need to know what rehabilitation methods were permitted or forbidden on Shabbat. These acts of preparing, participating, and recovering from wrestling are only forbidden on Shabbat, implying that the Tannaim had no issue with wrestling being done during the rest of the week.
Of course, whether or not the Rabbis advised such activities even during the workweek is a different matter entirely. Weiss suggests that the Tannaim were rather absolute in their forbidding of attendance but the Amoraim took a softer approach after realizing that forbidding the activity didn’t change the populace’s opinions. In response to a question about injuring someone in a wrestling match, the Rosh explains that injury is an expected, if unfortunate, occurrence in wrestling, and inevitably happens when seriously engaging in the sport. Hence, the offending party is exempt from payment., It is thus clear that people wrestled and the rabbis knew about it, and did not protest.
Exercise and Sports as Potentially Advisable Practices
While sports in the context of Hellenist culture raised several religious problems, when through a different paradigm they can perhaps have a place in the religious domain. If sports a viewed as a means of exercise and healthy living, they could in fact have positive religious value. Halakha forbids a person to live an unhealthy lifestyle or endangering himself. Tractate Shabbat 32a explains that a person should never put himself in a dangerous position. Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah in Pesahim 4:10, points out that refusing medication or a doctor’s aid is akin to fasting out of spite. If science delineates how to stay healthy, we must take heed. Rambam explains in Hilkhot De’ot 4 that staying healthy is “among the ways of God,” because it is impossible to understand or learn anything about God if one is sick. Therefore, a person must remove himself from activities that harm his body and participate in activities that strengthen his body. There is no clearer source than Rambam for the need for exercise and proper diet. He details various healthy practices, such as a proper time for exercise and eating; standing still when you eat; ensuring proper sleep and rest; not eating too close to bedtime; and that proper diet combined with exercise and exertion is required to remain healthy. Rambam extended Hazal’s reasoning from forbidding ill-advised practices to mandating advisable practices. Medical advice given by Hazal should only be practiced in light of current medical knowledge. Much of Rambam’s advice holds true today.
The Tur (Orah Hayyim 301) quotes Hazal’s exposition differentiating between one’s mannerism on Shabbat and during the week. Running on Shabbat can only be done for a mitzvah, such as running to shul. The Tur then quotes the Semak, which states that for young men who enjoy their jumping and running, these actions are permitted. The following clause, “And similarly, whatever you enjoy watching is permitted as well,” might suggest that one can go to stadiums, theaters, and concerts on Shabbat, assuming one avoids the technical Shabbat violations. The generally accepted practice, however, is that attending these forms of entertainment on Shabbos is prohibited.
“Hishamer le-kha u-shmor nafshecha mi’od,” “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently” (Deuteronomy 4:9) and “ve-nishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem,” “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves” (4:15) have become in the last century two oft cited but unsourced quotations for staying healthy and exercising. These verses are commonly expounded to mean that one should ensure that his body is healthy, despite the fact that their context deals with the dangers of idol worship. R. Meir ben R. Todros Ha-Levi Abulafia is the first person to quote this verse for health reasons. He writes that one must not be sick in order that he can learn Torah and serve God properly. However, these verses were not commonly expounded to this effect until the period of the late Acharonim. Rav Eliezer Waldenburg references these verses to explain why it is forbidden to smoke, but they appear to be simply a catchphrase, or at best a modern exposition.
Based on the context of these verses, one can properly use them in support of playing sports, although this may seem ironic for readers now familiar with the view of sports presented in Maccabees and Jospehus. For instance:
Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children. (Devarim 4:9)
This verse clearly warns Bnei Yisrael to be careful in observance of the mitzvoth and to continue the chain of tradition. This is the complete opposite of the effect of the introduction of sports in Maccabees and Josephus, where it was an open act of rebellion against tradition.
The phrase “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves” can be used to emphasize exercise and preserving the physical body:
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves–for ye saw no manner of form on the day that Hashem spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire–lest ye deal corruptly, and make you a graven image, even the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female… thou be drawn away and worship them, and serve them. (Devarim 4:15-19)
The verse actually warns against images and how making them will lead to destruction. Ironically, the images and idolatry were precisely what was wrong with games in Josephus and Maccabees. “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves” also appears in Joshua 23:11 and seemingly supports exercise and sports, but the next verse clarifies the context:
You must guard yourself very well in order to love G-d. Else if ye do in any wise go back, and cleave unto the remnant of these nations, even these that remain among you, and make marriages with them, and go in unto them, and they to you; know for a certainty that Hashem your G-d will no more drive these nations from out of your sight; but they shall be a snare and a trap unto you, and a scourge in your sides, and pricks in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which Hashem your G-d hath given you. (Joshua 23: 11-13)
Yehoshua here is in the midst of his farewell address and warns Israel not to associate too closely with the surrounding peoples, lest they intermarry and be expelled from the land. Perhaps invoking these verses as the source for staying healthy and not injuring oneself hints towards the fact that while exercising is beneficial, its practitioners must be vigilant: Similar to mingling with Israel’s idolatrous neighbors, extra devotion to exercise can lead to forgetting the Torah and commandments, forsaking tradition, intermarrying, assimilating, or committing outright idolatry. Such idolatry could be toward the gods of the games, but it could be also manifest in worshiping one’s own body like the Greeks once did. Keeping one’s body healthy in order to better serve God is valuable, but to do so for fleeting hedonistic pleasures is not.
Rav Kook supports exercise and sports in his book Orot Ha-tehiyah. He explains that maintaining physical strength parallels to the strengthening the spiritual self, both of which are needed in the service of God. Despite the potential pitfalls, there is still value in athletics and sports. It is unclear which elements or benefits Rav Kook was referring to, but he certainly had a positive perspective on physically maintaining oneself as a means to better serve God and the nation of Israel.
This approach however would not seem to include spectating as a positive religious value. In fact, when Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked “Is it forbidden to go to theaters and sports stadiums nowadays because of [the prohibition of] “do not walk in their ways’?” he replied:
“While there is no problem of “do not walk in their ways” it is forbidden because of the prohibition of “moshav leitzim.” And all who go violate the prohibition of seat of the scornful and wasting time from learning. Not just on this time but it will cause you to stop completely from the Torah as is explained there. Even more so theatre that can be found in our country, and the sports stadiums, even in other countries, that people simply do without connection to idol worship… They are forbidden because of moshav leitzim and bittul Torah. There is also the severe prohibition to incite the evil inclination of illicit urges in oneself because most of them are places of profanity and incites licentiousness.” ,sup>
Rav Moshe Feinstein thus would definitely not support spectating, much like the Tosefta and TB Avoda Zara. However, it is possible that he would view playing sports, if there were some positive benefit involved, in a positive light as Rav Kook does. Perhaps even watching sports would be less strongly forbidden if the psychological benefits were more readily measurable, as noted by the Tur on Shabbos, and could be weighed against the prohibition of wasting time if it leads to a net gain for learning Torah.
Jewish interaction with sports and athletics dates back to the period of the Second Temple under Greek influence and possibly to even earlier. Throughout the years there have been important issues supporting the practice of sports, which are still relevant today. Association with sports in the Hasmonean period was considered to be a sign of Hellenization and antithesis of Jewish values, while Jews in the Tannaitic period practiced sports for leisure within certain Halakhic guidelines. According to Maimonides sports advocated as sound medical practice and means to better service of God, and Rav Kook viewed the act of sports in and of itself as a means to better service of God. Sports spectating has been not often found favor or been granted much value by the Rabbis from the time of the Second Temple until today. Nevertheless, the lay population has embraced sports fandom, from the Greco-Roman culture to the modern American culture.
 While Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says Avner was killed for making light of the youths’ blood, that instance also immediately precedes or follows a military conflict (Vayikra Raba 26, Talmud Yerushalmi Peah 1:1). Rav Kook (‘Orot Tihiyah Chapter 34) explains the verse as being problematic when spilling blood just for sport, however blood spilt for a productive purpose is commendable. “[W]hen young people engage in sport to strengthen the power and spirit for the sake of the might of the entire nation, that holy service raises God’s Presence higher and higher.”
 1 and 2 Maccabees are considered apocryphal works in Jewish tradition
 Translation from the Septuagint found in New Annotated Oxford Apocrypha
 Hall, Robert G. “Epispasm: Circumcision in Reverse.” Bible Review August 1992, pages 52-57
 High Priest Jason was certainly Hellenized, as his name is that of the hero of Jason and the Argonauts from Greek mythology. Some sources indicate he was formerly named ישוע or Jesus, but he may not have ever been named Jesus, rather the name could have been assigned to him mockingly by Pharisees.
 Oppression later at the hand of the Greeks
 As to what they established, who was in charge during the remainder of the Second Temple period, and how the various sects began to fight once they were no longer under foreign control see Schiffman’s From Text to Tradition. For a further perspective on whether the Hasmonean ruled correctly see Ramban’s commentary on Vayishlach.
 William Whiston A.M. Edition
 (Weiss, 2014)
 While it is here included in the Mishnaic period, the exact dating of Targum Pesduo-Jonathan has admittedly been contested by scholars.
 This is a brilliant pun because many of the performers were “leitzim” – actual clowns – whose names spread far and wide.
 Weiss, Zeev. “Public Spectacles in Roman and Late Antique Palestine.” Harvard University Press. Cambridge 2014. Page 203
 The cheering would often help influence the decision of the ruler or person in charge of the games to decide whether the loser would die or live (Weiss, 2014).
 The productivity of going to the stadium is questionable, especially considering its origins. The Roman Empire introduced the Roman Colosseum as well as many other forms of entertainment throughout the empire to control the populace, particularly the rowdy ex-military men and mercenaries. The stadium gave these men an outlet for directing their bloodlust and aggression, protecting the populace and the government. The stadiums and theaters were designed to distract people and prevent them from thinking of the larger issues that plagued them. Considering the Jewish people’s long history of rebelling against the Roman Empire, the Romans would rather the Jews attend the events and be entertained than plan revolts. The various Rabbinic authorities of the times would certainly prefer them using their time and dealing with issues, not avoiding them, even when it leads to conflict as evinced in Breishit Rabba. (Brieshit Rabba Vayishlach Parsha 80 Siman 1), “Entertainment, Politics, and the Soul: Lessons of the Roman Games”.
 Lieberman, Saul. Greek in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the life and manners of Jewish Palestine in the II-IV Centuries CE (New York: Feldheim, 1942), 92-97 (Accessed 7/2/2015)
 The translation of the Mishnah now becomes, “They [wrestlers] may oil and massage their innards,” ostensibly from muscle soreness or abrasions, “but they may not exercise nor scrape.” “They may not go down to the qordeima or piluma” (depending on your girsa) which is the muddy place, the wrestling grounds. “And they may not use artificial emetics,” which athletes would use to maintain a healthy body or a certain body weight. “They may not straighten spine (Rambam PHM) nor may they set a broken bone. “If someone’s arm or leg was dislocated (or sprained) they should not agitate it in cold water, but he should wash it normally and if it heals, it heals.
 Weiss, 2014.
 Shut HaRosh Klal 101 Siman 6.
 This presumably means patur aval assur, exempt but forbidden, because a person cannot harm oneself or others intentionally.
 The Migdal Oz records various possible Talmudic and Midrashic sources for Rambam’s position, arguing that Rambam’s advice is not just simple medical knowledge (ibid. s.v. ho’il ve-heyot).
 A brief purview of the history of body-image ideals indicates that the medical benefits of exercise only regained popularity and renown in the last century. However, exercise as medicine has been present for thousands of years across various cultures. See Tipton, Charles M. “The History of “Exercise Is Medicine” in Ancient Civilizations.” Advances in Physiology Education Published 1 June 2014 Vol. 38 no. 2, 109-117 DOI: 10.1152/advan.00136.2013. Rambam seems to have applied this knowledge as halakhah.
 It is possible to infer that if running is understood as a way to exercise and fulfill more mitsvot, running for health reasons could be allowed.
 R. Moshe Feinstein believes this practice is prohibited even during the week (Igrot Moshe YD 4:11).
 Translations from JPS 1917
 See Yad Ramah Sanhedrin 17b
 Responsa Tzitz Eliezer Heleq 15 Siman 39
 This appropriation of a biblical phrase in a different context is reminiscent of Chatam Sofer’s invocation of “hadash assur min ha-Torah” taking a Talmudic dictum about food to refer to new ideas of the Enlightenment.
 “The exercise that the youth of Israel engage in in the land of Israel, strengthening their bodies to be strong and mighty children for the sake of the nation, perfects the spiritual power of the supernal tzaddikim who engage in unifications of the holy Names to increase the prominence of spiritual light in the world. The revelation of one light cannot stand at all without its fellow…Do not be surprised to find imperfections in the way of life of those who are engaged in physical strength and in all types of earthy might in the nation of Israel. Even the manifestation of the holy spirit must come forth from the admixture of drops of uncleanness with which it was mingled. It grows ever more pure, more holy and more clear, and redeems itself from its exile, until it comes to a general path of the righteous.” Chapter 34. “Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook Teachings in English translated by Yaacov David Shluman”
 Responsa Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah: 4:11: