Men who perform feats of strength, or practise games and sports the pursuit of which depends on physical strength; the feats, games, and sports themselves.

—Biblical Data: Notable "Mighty" Men.

Long before the Greeks made Athletics a compulsory branch of their curriculum, "giants" and "mighty hunters," whose achievements the Greeks even with their training could not excel, are mentioned in the Bible, such as Nimrod, the son of Cush, "a mighty hunter before the Lord" (Gen. x. 9); and Esau, "a cunning hunter, a man of the field" (Gen. xxv. 27). In his "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," Israel Abrahams says (p. 375):"Already in the Bible the figures introduced as devoted hunters—Nimrod and Esau—are by no means presented in a favorable light." Of Esau it is safe to assume, from the characterization of him recorded in Gen. xxv. 27, that he was regarded as more crafty in the chase, though less renowned, than Nimrod. Jacob, Esau's brother, although a quiet man dwelling in tents (Gen. ib.), is represented as having possessed great strength; for when he saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, come to water her flock, he rolled away a great stone that was upon the well's mouth (Gen. xxix. 10). It was he who also wrestled with a man "until the breaking of the day" (Gen. xxxii. 25 [A. V. 24]).

Undoubtedly the greatest of all the mighty men of Biblical times was Samson, who, soon after he had reached man's estate, rent a lion "as he would have rent a kid" in the vineyards of Timnath (Judges xiv. 6). His might is attributed to spiritual strength, not to "brute natural strength" (Fausset, "Bible Cyclopedia," s.v.). This is shown in the Book of Judges, which introduces his achievements with the words "and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him" (xiv. 6); and the same words are used in verse 19 (A. V.).

Other Biblical mighty men were Shamgar (Judges iii. 31), Saul, Jonathan, David, Joab, Abishai, Asahel, Jashobeam the Hachmonite, Eleazar, and Shamnah. Saul is said to have gathered around him strong and valiant men, and encouraged physical development among his subjects.

The career of Jonathan embodies a noteworthy incident of his entering the camp of the Philistines accompanied only by an armor-bearer. Here on a "half acre of land which a yoke of oxen might plow," he and his companion fell on the enemy, "and that first slaughter, which Jonathan and his armorbearer made, was about twenty men" (I Sam. xiv. 14). Jonathan is also described as an expert archer (I Sam. xx. 20), where he says to David: "I will shoot three arrows on the side thereof [of the stone Ezel], as though I shot at a mark," and again in the lamentation of David (II Sam. i. 22): "From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty." His skill was also acknowledged in David's words, "How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!" (ib. i. 27).

Jonathan and David.

In his youth David showed himself "mighty, valiant," and withal "prudent" (I Sam. xvi. 18). Before he set out against the Philistine Goliath, David said to Saul, in reply to the latter's warning that he (David) was but a youth, and his opponent a man of war: "Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear" (I Sam. xvii. 34-36). Of his fleetness and strength David himself sang praises to God. "He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places. He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms" (Ps. xviii. 33, 34).

Biblical references to running point to the swiftness of the Israelites. In II Sam. i. 23 David laments the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, who were "swifter than eagles"; in Ps. xix. 6 [A. V. 5] the reference is "rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race"; but the Preacher declares "that the race is not to the swift" (Eccl. ix. 11).

After the defeat by Joab of Abner's army at Gibeon, as Abner retreated, he tried in vain to deter Asahel, Joab's brother, from pursuing him, as he shrank from a blood-feud with Joab. Asahel, however, would not be deterred; and Abner "with the hinder end of the spear smote him under the fifth rib, that the spear came out behind him" (II Sam. ii. 23).

Jehu was an expert archer who "drew a bow with his full strength and smote Jehoram between his arms, and the arrow went out at his heart" (II Kings ix. 24). The tribe of Benjamin was renowned for the dexterity of its left-handed slingers, of whom "there were seven hundred chosen men, . . . every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss" (Judges xx. 16), and for the efficiency of its archers (I Chron. xii. 2).

Swimming was known among the ancient Hebrews and practised by them (sometimes with the aid of skins) according to the hand-over-hand method (see Isa. xxv. 11). "And he shall spread forth his hands in the midst of them, as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim," which Fausset [l.c. under "Swimming," p. 667, col. 2] interprets "the swimmer beating down with his hands; i.e., bringing down each hand forcibly."

Evidence that racing also was practised is found in Jer. xii. 5: "If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?"

E. C. F. H. V.—Post-Biblical, Medieval, and Modern Times:

The origin of Athletics is to be traced to the Greeks, among whom bodily strength and agility were so highly esteemed that in their society the athlete held a prominent position.

With the spread of Hellenism among the Jews the first to feel its effects were the upper classes, whose more ambitious members strove to remodel Jewish life according to Hellenistic principles.

A Gymnasium at Jerusalem.

The first attempt in this direction seems to have been made by Menelaus, brother of Jason, the high priest (170 B.C.), who, in order that he might ingratiate himself with the king Antiochus Epiphanes, established a gymnasium, modeled on the Greek plan, close to the Temple at Jerusalem, where men and boys might practise wrestling, boxing, ball-playing, throwing, slinging, archery, jumping, riding, swimming, diving, etc., under the supervision of a gymnasiarch.

The opposition of the conservative element among the Jews to the gymnasium became, however, so strenuous that devout Jews began to look upon the exercises with horror, especially because most of them were practised "in puris naturalibus," and the Covenant of Abraham had become an object of derision.Nevertheless, for a time at least, the rage for Athletics spread even to the priests, who, Hamburger says ("R. B. T." ii. 436, 1220), neglected spiritual duties to take part in gymnastics. Indeed, so far did the contestants go that it is said they wore the broad-brimmed petasus of Hermes, the pagan god of gymnastic science, as an emblem of their prowess.

Much of the strength of the Hasmonean rebellion has been attributed to the bitter opposition which the introduction of the gymnasium in Jerusalem brought about. "Pugilism," says Hamburger (l.c.), "has perhaps never exercised a greater influence in the development of spiritual life than it did at Jerusalem."

The Hasmonean rising wiped out every vestige of Hellenism, but scarcely a century passed before the influence of the Romans was felt; instead, however, of the gymnasium, the circus was introduced, and with it the gladiatorial contests, which no doubt offended the religious feelings of the Jews, for the Rabbis prohibited attendance at both circus and theater (Targ. Yer. Deut. xxviii. 19; Pesiḳ., ed. Buber, 119b; Lam. R. 36c; 'Ab. Zarah 18b). Indeed, a rabbi of the first century decreed that any one who attended a circus was a murderer (Yer. 'Ab. Zarah 40a).

Herod Reintroduces Olympic Games.

Herod the Great was responsible for the reintroduction of Athletics to Jewish life; "for, in the first place, he appointed solemn games to be celebrated every fifth year in honor of Cæsar, and built a theater at Jerusalem, as also a very great amphitheater in the plain" (Josephus, "Ant." xv. 8, § 1). These were both costly works, erected by Herod for the purpose of securing the good-will of Emperor Augustus (7 B.C.); but even though Herod strove to dazzle the Jews by the magnificence of the sports, and though he appointed every fifth year for the celebration of Olympic games, yet these were "looked on by the sober Jews as heathenish sports, and tending not only to corrupt the manners of the Jewish nation, and to bring them in love with paganish idolatry and paganish conduct of life, but to the dissolution of the law of Moses, and accordingly were greatly and justly condemned by them" (Josephus, ib., note). But this was not the universal opinion. Some rabbis, who considered Athletics as a part of "Greek wisdom," learned to appreciate the value of gymnastic exercises for the physical development of Jewish youth; and among them was Gamaliel II., the patriarch, who favored the introduction of the gymnasium as a means of preparing the Jews for their intercourse with the Roman rulers (Soṭah 49b; B. Ḳ. 83a). Notwithstanding the fact that some looked on Athletics with favor, and that amphitheaters had been built at Jericho, Tiberias, and Taricheæ, shortly after the Roman wars the sports became repugnant to the Jews, and ultimately they were no longer followed. Resh Lakish was noted however for his gladiatorial skill and strength; and instances of Jews hiring themselves to the masters of the games for exhibition were not rare (see Jastrow, "Dict." s. v. ).

The lifting of heavy weights was practised at an early date by the Jews, as is attested by Jerome (cited by Israel Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 375), who relates that when visiting Judean towns in the fourth century he saw "large, heavy stones which Jewish boys and youths handled and held aloft in the air to train their muscular strength."

That archery was practised is seen from the record of Herod's achievements cited by Josephus ("B. J." i. 21, § 13): "They saw him throw the javelin directly forward, and shoot the arrow upon the mark." Abrahams (l.c.) says: "The Palestinian Jews were wont to practise archery, probably as a form of recreation"; and he cites in a note W. Bacher's article, "Une Vieille Controverse au Sujet de (Lam. iii. 12)," in "Revue Etudes Juives," xxvi. 63-68. Here Bacher challenges the interpretation of , which he claims should be translated as "arrow" and not as "javelin," which view is maintained in the Authorized Version ("and set me as a mark for the arrow"), and does not admit the correctness of Levy's ("Neuhebr. Wörterb." i. 130b) interpretation, "I was set there as a buckler to be pierced by the javelin."

Juggling also was known among the Jews and practised by the Rabbis; for of Simon ben Gamaliel, who perished at the destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70, it is said that on the occasion of one of the Tabernacle feasts he astonished those present by juggling with eight burning torches. Rabbi Judah I. witnessed a similar feat with eight knives, which was performed by Levi b. Sisai. Samuel, the physician-astronomer, exhibited his dexterity in this direction before Sapor with eight goblets; and Abaye was able to juggle with four eggs (Tosef., Suk. iv. 2; Yer. Suk. v. 55c.; Tosef., Suk. iv. 4; Bab. Suk. 53a).

That the Jews were strong swimmers is proved by Josephus, who relates that in his twenty-sixth year he "came to Rome, though it were through a great number of hazards by sea; for, as our ship was drowned in the Adriatic sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number, swam for our lives all the night," and "I and some others, eighty in all," were taken aboard a ship of Cyrene (Josephus, "Vita," § 3). According to some tannaim, it is the duty of every father to teach his son to swim (Ḳid. 29a); the amora Simeon ben Laḳish was a noted swimmer (B. M. 84a).

Although permitted to bear arms and to hold important military offices during the fourth century, the Jews were prohibited from doing so, and, in fact, were excluded from all military service in 418. Under the Assize of Arms issued in England by Henry II. in 1181, by which every freeman was compelled to serve in defense of the realm, Jews were prohibited from keeping with them mail or hauberk, and were ordered either to sell them or to give them away (Stubbs, "Select Charters," pp. 155-157; see also Jacobs, "Jews of Angevin England," p.75).

With the notable exceptions of the cities of Worms and Prague, where the Jews were efficient in the bearing of arms, these restrictions seem to have been put upon them wherever they dwelt; so that possibly such restrictions were chiefly responsible for the neglect of hunting, in which weapons were needed. Abrahams quotes Meïr of Rothenburg as opposed to hunting. Meïr declared that "he who hunts gamewith dogs . . . shall not partake of the joy of the Leviathan" (Meïr of Rothenburg, Resp., ed. Meḳiẓe Nirdamim, p. 7, § 27). 'Ab. Zarah (18b) forbids hunting; nevertheless, there were Jews who disregarded the prohibition and were reproved for it (Or Zarua', Alfab. No. 47). Of their actions in this regard Abrahams (ib. p. 376) says: "Jews did at least occasionally participate in hunting. Nor are indications wanting that this was the case . . . throughout the Middle Ages. Zunz cites an instance" ("Z. G." p. 173). Abrahams, citing Nowack ("Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie," i. 367) as authority, says the ancient Jews were never noted riders; but, quoting Berliner ("Aus dem Innern Leben," p. 17), he adds that in Provence "the Jews possessed trained falcons, and used them in hawking, themselves riding on horseback."

Joseph Jacobs ("Jewish Ideals," p. 226) cites from the Forest Roll of the county of Essex for 1277, a document in which reference is made to an improvised hunt near the city of Colchester in 1267, in which several Jews took part, but afterward suffered for having thereby been guilty of a breach of the forest laws. Abrahams (op. cit.), in a note on this event, refers the reader for other records of Jewish hunters to "Ḥatam Sofer," resp. xiv., §§ 52, 53; J. Reischer, "Shebut Ya'akob," ii. 63.

Among other exercises popular with the Jews were ball-playing, the tourney, and dueling. The first was chiefly practised by the young women, and in some measure resembled tennis; but it brought upon them the displeasure of certain rabbis, who condemned its indulgence, especially on the Sabbath, as one of the causes of the destruction of the Temple (see Lam. R. ii. 4), and probably because it distracted attention from the more serious duties of life (Yer. Ta'anit, iv. 5).

The tournament was not altogether unknown to the Jews, especially to those of Spain and Italy. In those countries it was the custom of the Jewish boys to attend mimic tourneys, at which they fought on foot, while the men, mounted on horses, rode to the tilt-yard and there displayed their skill in tilting with blunted wooden lances at suspended effigies. Sometimes at these sports the cavaliers were escorted by mounted buglers, and their approach was heralded by a fanfare of trumpets. It has been suggested that in the fourteenth century the Jews also took part in actual tourneys, the suggestion being based on a fracas that occurred at Weissenfels in 1386; but according to Berliner ("Aus dem Innern Leben," p. 16) and Zunz ("Z. G." p. 184) the incident was a genuine case of attack by marauders against the Jews, who merely defended themselves (Abrahams, l.c. xxi. 378).

That Athletics were not always unpopular with the Rabbis is shown by the various references found in rabbinical literature. In Gen. R. (lxxvii. 2) there is a comparison of "an athlete engaged in battle with the son of a king," and in Ex. R. (xxi. 10) is another: "as two athletes, one weak and one strong; one overcomes the other and places a wreath on his head."

The persecutions to which the Jews were subjected in almost every country during the Middle Ages restricted their movements and their liberty to such a degree that most of their time was given up to the transaction of such business as the laws of the countries in which they dwelt allowed, and to the protection of their lives. Under such conditions athletic exercises and sports did not flourish among them; but toward the close of the eighteenth century in tolerant England a small band of Jewish pugilists stepped into the ring, and once more the Jew took an active part in the athletic life and exercises of the country in which he dwelt. The most notable of the English fighters of this period were Jews, and among them were Daniel Mendoza, champion of England from 1792 to 1795; Solomon Sodickey, Isaac Bittoon, and Samuel Elias, better known as "Dutch Sam." For nearly thirty years these men and their descendants (Samuel Evans, "Young Dutch Sam," Abraham and Israel Belasco, and others), steadily maintained the position of their race in the prize-ring; and they were succeeded in the nineteenth century by others equally skilful.

But it is not in the prize-ring alone that Jews have become prominent. Muscular Judaism has asserted itself also in field and athletic sports. Athletic clubs and "Turnvereine" have been formed in most of the large cities where there are many Jews. A special journal devoted to Jewish Athletics is published in Berlin, and nearly all Jewish papers devote space to the reporting of events in the fields of gymnastics, sports, and games. The spirit of physical development has so permeated the Jew of modern times that there is now no branch of Athletics in which he does not take a part. On the roll of fame may be noted the names of Jewish men who have defeated all comers in open competition when they met the Athletes of the nations of the world, as at the recent revival of the Olympic Games in Greece and at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

A Jewish athletic association has been formed recently in London, England, which embraces all sports. The membership rolls of the principal yachtclubs bear many Jewish names. In the boating-clubs are to be found many expert Jewish oarsmen. The Jew is an enthusiastic cyclist, and has shown his dexterity at tennis, baseball, and cricket. There are few cricket-clubs in England that have not one or two Jewish members. In the United States one of the prominent baseball teams has a Jewish president, while a number of Jews play the game throughout the country. On the football field the Jew has shown his strength and nimbleness, and on the running-track his fleetness. Recently a Jewish student at Cambridge University, Raphael, was selected to play football for England in the International games and cricket in the inter-university sports. As a jumper few competitors can excel the Jew; in fact, the world championship at the running jump was held by Meyer Prinstein, a Jew. The holder of the world's amateur record for heavy-weight lifting is E. Lawrence Levy. There have been, and probably there are still, Jewish jockeys. David Adler, who died in 1900 at Buluwayo, South Africa, proved conclusively that the Jewish jockey is a capable horseman.

As a swimmer the Jew's power and endurance are probably not so marked as his quickness in covering short distances; nevertheless, there are many strong swimmers among the Jews, and there is littledoubt that in this number are to be found men who would hold their own in competition with non-Jews.

  • A. Henriques Valentine, Athletes of the Bible;
  • Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 1896, pp. 375, 376;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T.;
  • Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie;
  • Berliner, Aus dem Innern Leben;
  • Zunz, Zur Geschichte;
  • R. K. Fox, Sporting Annual; Young Israel, London, 1897;
  • Jewish Chronicle, London, 1900;
  • Jewish World, London, 1901;
  • Jüdische Turnzeitung, Nos. 1-3, Berlin, 1901.
A. F. H. V.