Are sports mentioned in the bible? Ask the rabbi

August 3, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers this question and others.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. If you were asked for a one-line summary of Judaism what would you say?

A. Most people would quote the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

The philosopher Simon Rawidowicz used to say that for him the leading sentence was from the Passover Haggadah, “Ani v’lo malach” – “I and not an angel”.

He probably meant something similar to Hillel’s saying, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” In other words, don’t expect others to do what you have to do; don’t expect anyone else – an angel perhaps – to deputise for you.

Rawidowicz’s saying can be turned round to read, “An angel and not me”.


Q. What does the Bible say about playing sport?

A. The Bible abounds with references to sporting pursuits.

In Bernard Postal’s book, “Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports” (1965), he shows that athletics were a widespread Biblical activity. Saul and Jonathan were said to be swifter than eagles. The people of Naphtali were like a hind let loose.

Psalm 19 speaks of a person who enjoys running a course. Jeremiah asks how someone can run as fast as the horses if they get tired when running with footmen. The Book of Proverbs warns runners to be careful not to stumble.

Other well-known sports were hand-to-hand combat, weight-lifting, archery, riding and fencing, and a great deal is said about swimming.

This does not mean to say that sport was a national passion, but there were many young men (women were generally not on the sporting agenda) who were into athletics.

In post-Biblical Jewish society the circumstances were often difficult (see Israel Abrahams’ “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages”) but sport resumed its importance at the beginning of the 20th century.


“Midsummer Madness” is a well-known syndrome whereby people do silly things at this time of year.

The Jewish midsummer event is a matchmaking festival which the Mishnah associates with Tu B’Av, the 15th of the summer month of Av.

Rabban Shim’on ben Gamli’el said, “Israel had no such happy days as 15 Av and Yom Kippur, when the daughters of Jerusalem went out in borrowed white garments so as not to shame anyone who did not possess them. The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.

“What did they say? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes: see what you choose. Set not your eyes upon appearance but upon family stock’” (Ta’anit 4:8).

The girls took the lead, not waiting for the boys to propose or for the shadchan to arrange the deal. When the boys looked for beauty in a girl, the girls thought more of lineage. Chaperones were not mentioned. Couples found each other.

The venue was the vineyards because it was the beginning of the grape harvest. Whatever one thinks about the historicity of the details, the tradition was firm enough for the Mishnah to codify it.

What has happened to Tu B’Av? The liturgy recognises it – “Tachanun”, the supplicatory prayers, are omitted that day, and eulogies are not given at a funeral. Some kibbutzim tried to create “chagigat hak’ramim”, a festival of the vineyards, with music, dancing and poetry, but it did not catch on.

So both the orthodox and the secular remember it, each for a different reason, but the majority of Israelis and Jews do not even know it exists.

Later generations cannot automatically replicate ancient social mores. But what we do urgently need is broader facilities for marriage education. What we have is valuable – boys and girls each “learning” with someone before marriage, but the agenda is more or less limited to “taharat hamishpachah”, the halachic rules of intimacy and abstention.

My wife and I spent over thirty years developing engaged couples’ courses in our community in Australia after both of us had been involved in similar work in London under the aegis of the Jewish Marriage Council.

We produced resource material in consultation with experts from other communities. We collaborated with a human relationships counsellor who was a member of our congregation. Engaged couples spent two full days with us discussing what to look for in marriage, how to handle marriage and family crises, how to cope with in-laws, and how a marriage changes over the years. Woven into the program were also sessions on the marriage ceremony, taharat hamishpachah, kashrut and the Jewish home.

We cannot guarantee that our courses totally prevented divorce, but we know that in some cases we enabled a couple to work through their problems and survive together. When we met people who said, “We remember what you told us twenty years ago”, we felt rewarded.

Tu B’Av is a good occasion for others to follow this example.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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