Jewish History and Sport

Elie Klein (L) of Israel and Alejandro Rosette (R) of Mexico in action during a match between Mexico and Israel as part of the 2016 Ice Hockey World Championship in Mexico City. 

The article Jewish History and Sport is dedicated to the Israeli National Hockey Team.

by Gideon

“…there has always been a strong aversion in Jewish culture and tradition toward violent or blood sports that often were the hallmarks of neighboring tribes, societies, and cultures. The emphasis on spirituality that, according to Jewish belief, sets Jews apart from the outside world also contains a warning that emulating the ‘rude and coarse’ behavior of our gentile neighbors leads to assimilation—a defense mechanism that has served to safeguard Jewish identity. One of the central prayers in Jewish liturgy, ‘Aleynu,’ reflects this separation from the mundane world. It thanks God for ‘He hath not made us like the pagans of the world, nor placed us like the heathen tribes of the earth.'”  – Jewish History and the Ideology of Modern Sport: Approaches and Interpretations 

Sandy Koufax, the baseball Hall of Famer, among the greatest left-handed pitchers in baseball history. He pitched 12 seasons for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers,  from 1955 to 1966. Koufax, at age 36 in 1972, became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are not a lot of references to sport in the bible. In Greek and Roman times, sports were associated with idol worship, and were performed in the nude. Jewish objections to Greek sports were primarily due to their inherently pagan character (as well as their nudity and frivolity). The Romans introduced a new dimension to the sports arena: cruelty and sadism. Jewish texts from the post-biblical and talmudic periods are critical of sporting activities. The Book of Maccabees describes the wicked Jewish Hellenizers as enthusiastic members of Greek gymnasiums. The Talmud condemns Roman sports, especially the sadism of gladiatorial combat. Romans games were not merely a pastime; they were elevated to a social ideal, and bloodshed of animals and people was permitted in the name of “sport”.

The Orthodox Union online website describes that in ancient times, Jewish sports and games were considered a positive thing, sometimes even a mitzvah when they are an occasional recreation for enjoyment and health. (The Shulchan Arukh refers to youngsters who delight in their activity. A healthy mind and spirit thrive in a healthy and happy), but when a mere game becomes an obsession or a way of life, it becomes an obstacle to the life of the spirit. The commentators explain that ball-players were condemned because they came to neglect Torah study.

“While Greeks were looking for the holiness of beauty, Jews appreciated the beauty of holiness.” – Historian Max Diamant 


Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv’s Guy Pnini (L) and David Blu hold the trophy as they celebrate with teammates after winning their Euroleague Final Four final basketball game against Real Madrid, in Milan May 18, 2014. REUTERS 

Until Zionism redefined the role of physical activity, Jews have been extremely uncomfortable with sport and worship of the body. The Zionist outlook saw that the life of the Torah must coexist in harmony with nature, and the spiritual redemption promised by the re-establishment of Jewish independence must be accompanied by a corresponding physical rebuilding of Jewish bodies.

The emergence of Zionism, the Jewish national movement, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involved a basic revolution in Jewish life and collective identity in the Diaspora. One of the main features of this revolution, whose ultimate goal was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz-Israel, was the creation of the “New Jew” who would serve as the idealized symbol of national renewal. Zionism’s founding fathers regarded gymnastics and sports as important activities for repudiating the biases surrounding the Jew’s alleged physical inferiority. After centuries during which body culture was removed from Jewish life, the Zionist Movement introduced a major revision of the attitude toward physical development. The enhancement of physical prowess that aided pioneering tasks, such as building and defense of the homeland, also contributed to creating a community of athletes eager to demonstrate the revived strength of the Yishuv and later of Israel. Gymnastics and sports not only promoted Zionism’s goal of revitalizing the nation, they also expressed deep political divisions in the Jewish collective.

The organization of Jewish national sports and gymnastic clubs began in Europe in the late nineteenth century. One of the first clubs, the “Israelitischer Turnverein,” (The Israelite Gymnastic Club) was founded in Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1895 and eventually became “Maccabi Constantinople.” Jewish clubs were soon established in other countries too: “Gibor” (later “Shimshon”—Samson) in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv (1897) and “Bar Kochva” in Berlin (1898) led to the founding of many more Jewish sports clubs especially in areas where German culture dominated. The “Judische Turnerschaft” ( Jewish Gymnastic Movement) was established in 1903 and served as the umbrella organization for all Jewish sports clubs. The emergence of Jewish sports clubs took place mostly in western and central Europe. In eastern Europe the process proceeded at a slower pace. The ideas of the Enlightenment, industrialization, and modernization penetrated Russia inchmeal, so that Russian Jewry was less exposed than western Jewry to the ideological influence and external features of the Enlightenment, such as the shift in the moral approach toward body culture. Also, the autocratic government of the czar prohibited freedom of organization and the formation of gymnastic clubs because of they were seen, and justifiably so, as means of awakening nationalism. The first Jewish sports club in eastern Europe was established in Lodz in 1912, and was followed by clubs in Odessa (1913) and Warsaw (1914).

Israel’s rhythmic gymnastics teammates with their silver medals at the European Games in 2015

“…the complex relationship between the ethos of sports, the Olympic Games, and Jewish religious and communal values, both in ancient and modern times, has been problematic at best and almost always wrought with contradictions. This created a marked philosophical strain in Jewish religious or communal thought, viewing sport, and explicitly ‘athleticism,’ with a certain degree of discomfort and ambivalence. Going ‘deep into the recesses of the Jewish psyche,’ as the historian Irving Howe, who chronicled so passionately turn-of-the-century Jewish New York, eloquently phrased it, was part of an intellectual ‘inheritance’—part of a pronounced ambiguity toward the ‘physical’ and the body in general.”  – Jewish History and the Ideology of Modern Sport: Approaches and Interpretations 

The first Maccabiah Games (the Jewish Olympics) was held in 1932. The Maccabiah Games event is the third-largest sporting event in the world, with 9,000 athletes competing on behalf of 78 countries. The Maccabiah, which is organized by the Maccabi World Union, was declared a “Regional Sport Event” by, and under the auspices of and supervision of, the International Olympic Committee and international sports federations in 1960.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, sports came under state authority. Representative sports served the young state’s national interests. All-star teams and sports matches became tools for strengthening Israel’s international recognition, expanding contact with other countries, increasing ties with Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and attaining prestige and honor. In the early years of the state, Israel’s representative championship teams were a source of pride and identification despite their poor showing on the playing fields.

Israel has competed at the Olympic Games as a nation since 1952. Its National Olympic Committee was formed in 1933 during the British Mandate. Israel has sent a team to each Summer Olympic Games since 1952 (except when they participated in the American-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics) and to each Winter Olympic Games since 1994.

Israel won its first Olympic medal in its tenth Olympic appearance, in 1992, in Judo when Yael Arad won a silver medal. She was followed a day later by another judoka, Oren Smadja, who won bronze. Since then, Israel won a bronze medal in five successive Summer Olympics until the streak ended in 2012. Additionally, in 2004, Gal Fridman became Israel’s first and only gold medallist, in men’s windsurfing. This was his second medal, following his bronze in 1996, and he is the only multi-medallist. Israel also won 2 bronze metals in 2016. Through 2014, Israel had not won any medals in the Winter Olympics. Ágnes Keleti holds more medals than any other Israeli citizen. During the 1952 and 1956 Summer Olympics Ágnes won 10 medals competing for Hungary at the Olympics. The only Jew to hold more medals than Keleti is American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won 11.

Sports in Israel are an important part of the national culture. Sports in Israel are pursued both competitively and for leisure. Israelis engage in a wide range of athletic activities, with association football being the most popular sport. Israel also has a tradition of tennis. 

Bronze medallist Israel’s Or Sasson celebrates on the podium of the men’s +100kg judo contest of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 12, 2016


The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame/Yad Le’ish Hasport Hayehudi was formally inaugurated on July 7, 1981. Its predecessor, the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, was founded in the United States in May 1979. The original Hall of Fame included only American honorees. The International Hall of Fame honors athletes and sportsmen and sportswomen throughout the world. The purpose of the IJSHOF is to honor Jewish men and women, worldwide, who have accomplished extraordinary achievements in sports and to honor those who have made significant contributions to society through sports. In addition, its Lifetime Achievement Award annually honors those individuals who have contributed to Jewish life, Israel, society and the community at large, through sports. The Chairman’s Award of Excellence is presented periodically in recognition of special accomplishments in the world of sports and physical education. –


Aly” Raisman is an American gymnast and two-time Olympian. She was a member and captain of both the 2012 “Fierce Five” and 2016 “Final Five” U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics which won their respective team competitions. At the 2012 Olympics in London, she won gold medals in the team and floor competitions, as well as the bronze medal on the balance beam, making her the most decorated American gymnast at the Games. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she won a gold medal in the team event, making her and teammate Gabby Douglas the only Americans with back-to-back team golds. Raisman also won silver medals in the individual all-around and for floor exercise. Raisman was also a member of the gold-winning American teams at the 2011 and 2015 World Championships.


Israel National Hockey Team


Jewish Sports in the Diaspora, Yishuv, and Israel

Jewish History and the Ideology of Modern Sport: Approaches and Interpretations

Maccabi Games in Eretz Israel before the 1st Macabbiah – 1913



Related articles:

September 5th 1972

Best wishes to the Israeli delegation to Rio – Godspeed

New information about the Munich Massacre of the Olympic Games of 1972