The need to engage in sport is self-understood. To exercise and to make sure that one keeps one’s body in good condition is considered a mitzva of the highest priority.
Still, there is little evidence that the Jews in earlier centuries were ever seriously involved in sport. No doubt this is due to the historical conditions of the period of the Second Temple. With the conquest of the land of Israel by Alexander the Great (4th century BCE), Hellenist culture began to infiltrate, and the attempts of Antiochus Epiphanes to Hellenize Judea led to the outbreak of the war of the Maccabees. When this caused some Jews to take measures to conceal the fact that they were circumcised, because they had to appear naked in the Greek gymnasia, the opposition by Judaism towards Hellenism increased, and sport, which was identified with the Greeks, became a taboo. This became even more apparent when the Olympic games were connected with idolatrous cults, particularly of the Greek deity, Hercules.
Little information is given in the Talmud about sport, except that it informs us that one was allowed to go the Greek stadia while gladiatorial games took place “to shout so as to save the life of a victim.” (Avoda Zara 18b) This was indeed exceptional, as the sages forbade the attendance of such events as theatrical performances, circuses and athletic competitions, since these events were used to make mockery of Jews and Judaism and often involved unethical and cruel practices. The famous sage and amora, Resh Lakish was, in his earlier days, a professional gladiator, but dropped this activity once attracted to Judaism. (Gittin 47a) Most interesting is the dispute between Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Rabbi Moshe Isserles if one is allowed to play ball on Shabbath and festivals. (Orach Chaim 308.45; 518.2) Only in modern times have Jews increased their involvement with sport.
Millions of people seem to believe that they are sportsmen because they watch a game. This is most remarkable. It is fascinating to see tens of thousands of people completely mesmerized when they watch a ball being kicked around by twenty-two fellows. The fact that these people are prepared to run themselves crazy for the benefit of thousands is a topic which should keep psychologists busy for a long time.
Even more fascinating is the fact that the thousands sitting in the stands shake their heads in approval or disapproval while shouting pieces of advice to the players. They play the “experts” who seem to believe that they should be on the field themselves, since their expertise in football is of a much higher quality than “those amateurs” on the field.
What is the secret behind this? Watching a game of sport has obviously nothing to do with sport. It is a therapy. Many of us have to go to work and be submissive to our employers. We cannot tell them what we really think of them. When we shout at the soccer player, informing him that he is a shlemiel and that he does not know how to handle the ball, we are really shouting at our boss. It brings tremendous relief, and we get rid of our bottled up frustration. We are able to abandon our artificial courtesy which we are obliged to show at work. We humans beings need that. (It is for this reason that we suggest that football clubs should organize more games in which our employers have to play. It would clearly give double relief!)
There are, however, other dimensions to sport which should have our full attention. Psychologists have not yet been able to fully explain sports such as tobogganing and skiing. Looking a little closer we must argue that there is something most bizarre about these sports. It is difficult to understand why we are prepared to climb a mountain for more than a quarter of an hour, leaving us sweating and breathless, and then in a matter of a few seconds undo all this, by hurtling down the same mountain. This is almost discouraging. It reminds us of Sisyphus, the famous personality in Greek mythology, who was doomed to roll a heavy stone up a mountain. Every time he slipped, he had to start all over again. It makes us wonder: For Sisyphus this was torment, for us it is winter sport! We must conclude that man is prepared to torment himself as long as he convinces himself that it is sport. This, again, should get the full attention of psychologists. We wonder what they will come up with.