In antiquity a large enclosure used for horse-and chariot-races, and sometimes for gladiatorial combats, etc. Public games and theatrical representations being such important factors in the life of the Greeks and Romans, the Jews living in the classical age had to take a definite attitude toward them. As in the case of everything else characteristic of paganism, the Jews had little to say in favor of the circus, though only after numerous differences of opinion among them, and even of concessions in favor of the popular amusement. This applied also to all public amusements; and Jewish rabbinical literature discusses especially two types of these—the circus and the theater—so frequently together and from so similar a point of view that they must be treated as a unit in this article.Hellenists and Herodians.
The pre-Maccabean Hellenistic party had introduced gymnasia into Jerusalem (I Macc. i. 14; II Macc. iv. 12), greatly to the abomination of the orthodox. Herod the Great founded, in honor of the emperor, quinquennial gladiatorial contests, built a theater and an amphitheater in Jerusalem (Josephus, "Ant." xv. 8, § 1; "B. J." i. 21, § 8), and also helped maintain such contests in foreign cities. The pious Jews thought it criminal that men should be thrown as food to wild beasts to amuse the multitude. They were most shocked, however, by the trophies and images set up in the theaters ("Ant." xv. 8, § 1): upon one occasion a riot occasioned thereby was quelled by Herod only after much bloodshed. The other Herodians also had a predilection for the theater, Agrippa I. contracting a mortal malady in that at Cæsarea. As a matter of course there were theaters in the Palestinian cities which held a Hellenistic population; hence the Rabbis knew this side of the Greco-Roman life at first hand. A circus at Cæsarea is especially mentioned (Tosef., Oh. xviii. 16), as well as the theater ("Ant." xix. 7, § 4); a hippodrome at Jerusalem ("B. J." ii. 3, § 1); and a stadium at Tiberias, in which 1,200 Jews were killed by Vespasian ("B. J." iii. 10, § 10). Hence the Jews looked upon the circus, the theater, and the stadium as distinctive institutions of pagan Rome.
The Midrash interprets the "sinner" denounced by the Psalmist (Ps. xiv. 1) as being Rome, which fills the whole world with iniquity by building temples for idols, theaters, and circuses. "In four ways the Roman empire eats up the wealth of the nations: with taxes, with baths, with theaters, and with imposts" (Ab. R. N. xxviii.). "The feet of man will take him as he wills either into the house of God and the synagogue, or into the theater and the circus" (Gen. R. lxvii. 3). "What confusion there is in the games that the heathens give in their theaters and their circuses! What have the doctors of the Law to do there?" (Pesiḳ. 168b). The Jews are accused of keeping away from the circus, and thus diminishing the revenues of the state (Esther R., Preface).Rabbinical Opinions.
Nevertheless, Jews probably often went to the circus; and it is even permitted in the Halakah to go to the theater and the circus on the Sabbath, if public affairs are to be discussed there (Ket. 5a). It is well known that the theaters were frequently used for assemblies of the people, since they were the largest public buildings (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 3, § 3). R. Judah I. was even inclined to find something good in the public games: "We must thank the heathens that they let mimes appear in the theaters and circuses, and thus find innocent amusement for themselves, otherwise they would be constantly getting into great quarrels as soon as they had anything to do with one another" (Gen. R. lxxx. 1). It was even hoped that the time would come when the theaters and circuses would become the homes of the Torah ("Meg. 6a). R. Nathan also found reasons to justify visiting the circus ('Ab. Zarah 18b).
In the course of time, however, it was formally forbidden to visit the public games. Sad remembrances connected with the circuses, especially the massacres of thousands of Jews in the theaters under Vespasian and Titus, made those places hateful to the Jews, who came to regard them as scenes of bloodshed, as indeed they were. But even at peaceful representations, when there was no bloodshed, the Jews were jeered and flouted on account of their peculiarities. In reference to this there is an interesting Midrash to the passage, "They that sit in the gate" (Ps. lxix. 13 [A. V. 12]): "The heathens are meant who sit in the theaters and circuses; after they have feasted and become drunk they sit and scoff at Israel. They say to one another: 'Let us beware that we do not resemble the Jews, who are so poor that they have nothing to eat but locustbeans.' Furthermore, they say: 'How long are you going to live?' 'As long is the Sabbath garment of the Jews lasts.' Then they bring a camel swathed in clothes into the theater and ask: 'Why does this camel mourn?' And they answer: The Jews are now celebrating their Sabbatical year; and since they have no vegetables, they eat up the camel's thistles: hence it mourns.' Then a mime with shaved head comes into the theater. 'Why is your head shaved?' 'The Jews are celebrating their Sabbath, eating up on that day everything that they earn during the week-days; hence they have no wood for cooking, and they burn up their bedsteads. They must, therefore, sleep on the ground, getting entirely covered with dust; then they must cleanse themselves freely with oil; and the latter, in consequence, is excessively dear'" (Lam. R., Introduction, No. 17).Ordinances Against Attendance.
Every public place of amusement was looked upon as a "seat of the scornful," in reference to Ps. i. 1. "He who frequents the stadia and the circuses, and sees there the magicians, the tumblers, the 'buccones,' the 'maccus,' the 'moriones' the 'scurræ,' and the 'ludi sæculares'—this is 'sitting in the seat of the scornful'" (Tosef., 'Ab. Zarah, ii. 6: Yer. 40a, Bab. 18b; Yalḳ., Ps. 613). "I sat not in the assembly of the mockers nor rejoiced" (Jer. xv. 17) is the cry of the Jewish congregation. "Lord of the world! never do I set foot in the theater and the circus of the 'people of the earth'" (Pesiḳ. 119b). Still a third passage isinterpreted as being an ordinance against the pagan theater (Sifra, Lev. xviii. 3). It is reprovingly said—apparently in reference to Ex. i. 7, but really to Roman times—that the theater and circus are filled with Jews (Tan. on the passage). Hence an actual anathema is pronounced against attendance at the circus (Targ. Yer. Deut. xxviii. 19). Devastating earthquakes come in consequence of the theater and the circus (Yer. Ber. 13c). A Talmudic sage writes an especial prayer of thanks that Israel has no part in the heathen circus: "I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that Thou hast placed my portion among those who sit in the house of learning and the house of prayer, and didst not cast my lot among those who frequent theaters and circuses" (Yer. Ber. 7d; Bab. 28b). This prayer is even now found in many prayer-books as a part of the daily morning prayer. According to this prayer, people should keep away from the theater because it is a waste of time, and study is more profitable. It was, moreover, felt that these diversions had their root in idolatry, especially as images of royalty were placed in the theater and circus (Lev. R. xxxiv.).Christian View.
Similar reasons also induced early Christianity to look askance at the pagan games, and perhaps it was against them that Paul spoke in I Cor. xv. 32. It is certain that Christians as well as Jews furnishied victims for the theaters (Renan, "Histoire des Origines du Christianisme," 3d ed., iv. 163): they likewise recognized their idolatrous origin; and Tertullian, in forbidding attendance ("De Spectaculis," ch. iii.). refers to Ps. i. 1, as do the Rabbis. Tertullian's phrase (ch. x.), "Theatrum proprie sacrarium Veneris"(the theater is a place for sexual immorality), is not, however, put so strongly by the Rabbis.
It is curious that, in spite of the iniquity attaching to the circus, the later Midrashim have much to say of a splendid circus and hippodrome which was said to have existed at Solomon's court, the description being based on the Byzantine pattern of Constantinople. Even in the later Middle Ages Jews attended the races, often at their peril (Malalas, "Chronicle," p. 446; Grätz, "Gesch. der Juden," 3d ed., v. 16). See Athletes; Games.
- Wagenseil, De Ludis Hebrœorum. Altdorf, 1697;
- Sachs, Beiträge zur Sprach-und Alterthumsforschung, i. 70, Berlin, 1852;
- J. Perles, Thron und Circus des Königs Salomo, in Monatsschrift, xxi. 122 et seq.;
- I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, ch. xiii.;
- Bacher, Ag. Tan.;
- idem. Ag. Pal. Amor. passim (Index: Theatre and Circus);
- S. Krauss, Lehnwörter, i., "Excurs." No. 10.