- Jews, like all other peoples, have played games from earliest times. There are ample references to games in the Bible. Guessing games were played in biblical days (Judg. 14: 12ff.; I Kings 10:1–3). Jews were also acquainted with sports and military games such as horseback riding, racing, and archery (I Sam. 20:20–21; Jer. 12:5; Ps. 19:6). Twelve young men from Benjamin waged a fencing contest with twelve of David's followers (II Sam. 2:14ff.). Children played at home and in the streets (Zech. 8:5). During the Second Temple period, games of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman origin were introduced into Israel. Jews rarely originated games, usually adopting them from their neighbors. There are many reports on the mass games held on the nights of Sukkot during the Feast of Water Drawing. The leaders of the people, such as Hillel the Elder and Simeon b. Gamaliel, took an active part in the proceedings. The levites played and danced on the steps, and platforms were erected from which the people could view the scene. Here men and women mixed together, although in later times they were separated at social functions. The national leaders set the tone by engaging in acrobatic exercises, in dancing and juggling with eight burning torches, knives, or eggs (Suk. 5:1–4; Tosef. Suk. 4:1–5). The custom of holding youth festivals in the vineyards was observed as late as the Second Temple period (Ta'an. 4:8). Traces of it are still found in the traditions observed by some communities, such as Caucasia and Yemen, on the conclusion of the Day of Atonement. The paraphernalia of games in ancient times included nuts, fruits, eggs, balls, bones, and stones. The Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'an. 4:8, 69a) states "Tur-Shimon \<?\> was destroyed because its inhabitants played ball" (on the Sabbath, see Korban ha-Edah, ad loc.). Certain games with nuts and apples were played by women on the Sabbath (Er. 104a). Other games mentioned in the Talmud are akin to modern dominoes, checkers, and chess. There was betting (on pigeon races, called "Mafriḥei Yonim") and gambling with dice. Persons who engaged in these pursuits were not regarded as trustworthy witnesses (San. 3:3). Weddings were another occasion for joyous play. To fulfill the commandment of helping the bridal pair to rejoice, the sages would leave their studies and perform juggling tricks, pour oil and wine, and dance with the bride on their shoulders (Ket. 17a). Holding live fowl in their hands, they would dance before the bride or clap their hands and stamp their feet (Git. 57a). The tradition of merrymaking in honor of the bride and groom developed further in the Middle Ages with the Marshalek, a professional comedian who would amuse the wedding party by telling jokes, extemporaneously composing songs, and putting on various acts. Weddings were a time for the abandonment of restraint, when public entertainment was permitted. A "guard" of men wearing extravagant uniforms, some of them mounted on horses, accompanied the bridal parade, dancing women beat cymbals, and children raced along with burning torches. Bearded old men danced and clapped their hands, or sang songs and prayers. Under the new medieval environment in which the Jews found themselves, the form of entertainment likewise changed. The carnival made its way into the Jewish quarter, and on purim especially there would be masquerades, death dances, stage shows, and street parades. Purim was the only season of the year during which Jewish communities, in all times and places, observed unlimited rejoicing. The period of merrymaking began on the first of Adar, when wandering musicians appeared in the Jewish quarter. People donned Purim costumes and danced in the streets, and stage shows were performed with the story of Esther and Ahasuerus as their theme. Young men on horseback amused the public by trying to push one another off their mounts. Children made stuffed dolls and burnt Haman in effigy. Shots were fired, and the sound of the "grager" (noisemaker) filled the air. Jews in Italy held sports tournaments in which boys fought on foot throwing nuts, while their fathers rode on horses, and, amidst a background of horns and bugles blowing, attacked a model of Haman with wooden staves, later burning it on a mock funeral pyre. In some communities, such as Hebron, Yemen, and Baghdad, Ḥanukkah was observed in a similar manner, though on a smaller scale, as was Simḥat Torah and the second day of Shavuot. In the yeshivot, the great occasion for play was Purim. Preparations would start right after Ḥanukkah, and the usual theme for the play was "The Sale of Joseph" or "David and Goliath." Young artisans would also put on Purim plays, their favorite theme being the Esther story. In Sephardi communities, the play would be a parody based on the life of Esther, Haman's wedding to Zeresh, Haman's funeral, etc. In Iraq and other communities, a Haman figure would be put up on Purim to serve as a target for young and old alike. The games played at home were cards , chess , dominoes, and checkers. Card playing was sharply condemned, and the rabbis often excluded card players from religious functions and social life. Yet the habit persisted. The 14th century kalonymus b. kalonymus in his Even Bohan sharply criticized those card players who reduced their opponents to utter despair. Maimonides compared such persons who gamble to robbers (Yad, Gezelah ve-Avedah 6:7). A synod in Forli, Italy, enacted a ruling in 1416 that the Jewish community must refrain from playing dice, cards, and other games of chance, except on fast days and in time of illness, in order to relieve the distress. Similar measures were taken in Bologna and Hamburg. The numerical value of the letters making up karten (Yid. for cards) was found to be the same as that of "Satan," and hence a pious Jew should keep away from them. The 17th century Ḥavvot Ya'ir of Jair Ḥayyim bacharach permitted card playing without money on Ḥanukkah, Purim, and hol ha-mo'ed (p. 126). On Christmas eve, playing for money was tolerated. Leone Modena was plagued by his obsessive love for card playing. The rabbis of Venice issued a ruling in 1628 ex-communicating any member of a congregation who played cards, and there were many instances of oaths taken by individuals who wanted to avoid all games of chance. In the course of time, Yiddish terms were introduced into the card games: a six became a "vover" (the letter "vav" having the numerical value of six), a seven a "zayner," a nine a "teser"; hearts became "lev" and trumps were "yom tov" (holiday). The card deck was called the small "Shas" (the Talmud) or the "Tillim'l" (the Book of Psalms), etc. Chess, on the other hand, was a respected pastime, although some rabbis disapproved of the game. There was a legend ascribing its invention to King Solomon. Rashi observed that chess drives boredom away and causes the player to contemplate (Ket. 61b). Poets and philosophers set down the rules of the game, and R. abraham ibn ezra composed a poem on it, as did Bonsenior ibn Yahia in the 15th century (both translated into Latin by Thomas Hyde in De Ludis Orientalium, Oxford, 1694). There were rabbis who excelled in the game of chess. One legend has it that R. Simeon, the chief rabbi of Mainz (11th century), played chess with the pope and recognized in him his long lost son. The Magen Avraham of Abraham abele b. hayyim ha-levi gombiner (17th century) tells of people who had special silver chess sets for use on the Sabbath. Here, too, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were introduced into the game. Checkers was also a popular game. Yeshivah students would draw a checkerboard on the blank inside cover of the Talmud volume and make their own black and white pieces of wood. Rabbi Nahum of Stefanesti found in the game an allegory of life: you take one step in order to gain two. You must not take two steps at once. You may only go up; once you have reached the top, you may go wherever you like (A.Y. Sperling, Ta'amei ha-Minhagim (1957), 367). The world of children in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities was a world of games. For every holiday the Jewish child prepared special toys, made from whatever material was available, with the assistance of the rabbi in the ḥeder or of older children. The Jewish child was said to be a jack-of-all-trades: on Passover he makes holes in the maẓẓot, on Shavuot he becomes a gardener, on Lag ba-Omer he is a soldier, on Sukkot a builder, on Ḥanukkah he pours lead, on Purim he is a gunsmith, and for Rosh Ha-Shanah he trains as a trumpeter (to blow the shofar). For Ḥanukkah the boys would prepare a "dreydel" (a four-sided top), either carving it out of wood or pouring lead into a form. This game is still popular and has also been adopted by Yemeni and Sephardi children. It came upon the Jewish scene in the early Middle Ages, and the four sides of the dreydel were marked with the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimmel, He, Shin (standing for Yiddish words Nimm, Gib, Halb, Shtell meaning take, give, half, and put). Soon, however, the letters were interpreted as standing for the Hebrew Nes Gadol Hayah Sham ("a great miracle happened there"). In modern Israel the last word was changed to Po, so as to read "a great miracle happened here." Dreydel spinning was one form of Ḥanukkah gambling. Older children made their own Yiddish cards known as "Lamed-Alef-niks" or "Kvitlakh." For Purim, noise-making toys, "gragers" or boxes, to drown the sound of Haman's name in the synagogue reading of the Book of Esther, masks, costumes, and Haman dolls were made by young folk. Passover games were played with walnuts. For Lag ba-Omer the equipment was bows and arrows, and the children spent the day in the woods, engaging in various warlike operations under the command of the "Lag ba-Omer general." On Shavuot girls decorated the windows with paper roses, and the boys brought field flowers and ivy from the forest and adorned the doors, windows, and lamps. There was also a custom of piercing eggs, emptying them of their contents, drawing a string through the empty shells, gluing feathers to them, and hanging them up in the open to swing in the wind like birds. On the eve of the Ninth of Av children armed themselves with wooden swords and played as soldiers fighting the Turks for possession of Ereẓ Israel. The "Rabbi" game in which boys mimicked their teachers was popular between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, when children were free from punishment. Even adults enjoyed this game on Purim. Throughout the year in their spare time children played war games (often based on biblical themes), cops and robbers, hide-and-go-seek, "Simple Simon," etc. More sedate games were played with buttons, pocketknives, heads or tails, paper cutouts, and drawing on walls. Concerning adults, there are records of Jews dueling. In Spain, some enjoyed wearing arms, considering themselves knights, and using stately names. In Provence, Jews used trained falcons in hawking while riding horses. Occasionally, they joined Christian friends in hunting, although they could not eat the game killed that way because of the dietary laws (see cruelty to animals and hunting ). All ages enjoyed a variety of word games, often based on biblical verses. A "samekh-pe" game, relating to finding open or closed lines in the Pentateuch, was popular. The "Moses" game was played by children who would turn to pages of the Bible and compete with each other to be the first to locate the Hebrew letters of Moses' name among the last letters on the page. Letter games with gematria , i.e., in which corresponding words and phrases were searched for with each having the same numerical value, were enjoyed, e.g., the identical numerical value of the Hebrew phrases for "blessed is Mordecai" and "cursed be Haman." Riddles were a form of amusement, and early examples were found in the series of moral riddles in the 13th chapter of Proverbs. Eḥad mi Yode'a , a song from the Passover seder, is an illustration. Hebrew acrostics were popular, combined with arithmetical puzzles. Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote several of these, some expressly for Ḥanukkah. Judah Ha levi also composed poetic riddles. In the 13th century riddles about general folk legends like "Solomon and Marcom" were also known to Jews. Yet at this time the most common games involving words were table riddles, such as found abundantly in the Hebrew romances of Al-Ḥarizi and Joseph Zabara. The Talmud reported an example of such a riddle from Adda the fisherman: "Broil the fish with his brother (salt), plunge it into its father (water), eat it with its son (sauce), and drink after it its father (water)" (MK 11a). Jewish gatherings in later times were often enlivened by witty puzzles. kabbalah also had a part in such wordplay, as when children would direct some invocation to the angel sandalfon at the start of their games. There were formal occasions for performances by teenagers at the end of the school term or the conclusion of a tractate of the Talmud (see siyyum ) on the 15th of Shevat, etc. In Ashkenazi communities, Shabbat Nahamu (the Sabbath following the Ninth of Av) would be marked by a festive meal and children's show. Sephardi children in the old city of Jerusalem, Hebron, Baghdad, etc. would mark the last day of Ḥanukkah with a play, "Miranda di Ḥanukkah." In Tripoli, Tunis, and Salonika, on the sixth or seventh day of Ḥanukkah, a celebration would be held for girls who had reached the age of twelve. Also on Ḥanukkah, Sephardi children would play "Caricas di Sol" ("Face of Salt"), or act as soldiers fighting the Greeks. This was also the custom among the children of Yemen, who wore blue clothes for the occasion. Jewish children in Persia marked Ḥanukkah by playing various games of chance known as "Kab," "Kemar," and "Tachte-ner" (a kind of checkers, known as "Shesh-Besh" in Arabic). Yemeni children played with fruit stones (now played in Israel with apricot stones). Their Ḥanukkah top ("Duame") was made of nutshells; the Purim "grager" was called "Khirye." Other games were "Umey" (blindman's buff), "Kez Almakez" ("horses," or jumping over one another's bent backs), etc. In Tripoli the young men had the custom of holding donkey races on the Ninth of Av, for on that day the Messiah was expected to come, riding on a donkey. On Shavuot they would pour water on the passers-by (also customary in other eastern communities). The last day of Passover was the occasion for a "Maimuna" carnival, when young and old would pelt one another with flowers and vegetable leaves. In all communities, girls had their own games, such as playing ball, dolls, "cat-and-mouse," "golden bridges," etc. They also played an elaborate form of "bride-and-groom," accompanied by songs. Rarely did boys and girls join in games together, although girls would also engage in games usually reserved for boys. After World War I, various forms of modern sports and gymnastics were introduced into the Jewish communities, taking the place of the traditional forms of entertainment. Some of the old games, however, still survive and are handed down by children from one generation to the next. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: J.J. Schudt, Juedische Merckwuerdigkeiten, 2 (1714), 312; 3 (1714), 202; A. Berliner, Aus dem inneren Leben der deutschen Juden im Mittelalter (1871); M. Steinschneider, Schach bei den Juden (1873); M. Guedemann, Geschichte des Erziehungswesens und der Cultur der abendlaendischen Juden, 3 vols. (1880–88); I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, ed. by C. Roth (1932), 397–422; I. Rivkind, Der Kamf kegen Azartshpiln bay Yidn (1946); Y. Stern, Kheyder un Bes-Medresh (1950); C. Roth, Jews in the Renaissance (1959), 28–30; M. Molho, Literatura sefardita de Oriente (1960), 177–82; Y ahadut Luv (1960), 367–99; Y. Kafih, Halikhot Teiman (1961), passim; J. Yehoshua, Yaldut bi-Yrushalayim ha-Yeshanah (1965). (Yom-Tov Lewinski)
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.