Physical Exercise and Training In Ancient Jewish Lore

Dr. Samuel S. Kotteck - The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Kotteck uses ancient Jewish texts to trace the development of exercise and training among Jews

Hygiene was in ancient times much more developed than people imagine. Physicians, philosophers, and even theologians admonished their audience (or patients) to adopt a healthy way of life. The Jewish medieval authority Maimonides (twelfth century), who was a trained physician, included detailed suggestions on how to live a healthy life in his theological masterpiece Mishneh Thora. Mai- monides warns against loss of strength that may result from living a sedentary life and from lack of physical exercise. Even in the Bible, the book Ecclesiastes puts sedentary scholars on their guard: “Much study is a weariness of the flesh” [Eccl. 12: 12]. A talmudic statement seemingly suggests that the physical strength of scholars had dimin- ished from generation to generation: “From the time of Moses till the generation of Rabban Gamliel the students stood up while learning the law. After the death of R. Gamliel disease (or weakness) came down on the world, and they learned while being seated” [b. Megillah21a]. Rabbi Yohanan gave the following advice: “Do not sit too much, it provokes hemorrhoids; do not stand too much, this is harm- ful to the heart; do not walk too much, this is injurious to the eyes.” He accordingly advised to sit one third, stand one third, and walk one third of the way [b. Kethubot 11la]. Rabbi Judah remarked that people and animals who live in a town where there are many ascents and descents (acclivity) die in half their days. At second thought, he says, no, they do not really die, they age prematurely [b. Erubin 56a]. Other sages stated: “Whoever eats and does not walk thereafter at least four cubits, the food he ate will rot (i.e. will not be digest- ed), which will bring forth foul odor from the mouth” [b. Shabbat 41a]. Not only digestion, sleep as well is influenced by activity, as is stated in Ecclesiastes: “Sweet is the sleep of a working (i.e., phys-ically active) man, whether he eats little or much: but the repletion of the rich (i.e., idle) will prevent him from sleeping” [Eccl. 5: 11].

After this data on the place of physical exercise in hygiene, let us consider physical training and fitness in ancient Jewish lore. Obviously, Jews pertaining to the Pharisaic sect did not visit Roman(or Herodian) amphitheaters and the Sages several times insisted that 1aJewshouldnotvisittheheathentheatersandcircuses. Thecontext in the Talmud is more in the modern sense of entertainment (illusion, magic, etc.) than in the Greco-Roman sense of gymnastics, or glad- iators, or fighting animals. If the Jews were in principle rather encour- aged to study the law than to indulge in physical exercise, keeping the body in good shape was not neglected, or even considered infe- rior to intellectual activity.
Wherefrom do we know that the Almighty feels honored by the presence of people of high (impressive) stature (ba ‘alei gomah)? From a statement of the prophet Amos (2:0): “Yet I destroyed the Emorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars, and he was strong as the oaks.” The talmudic text does not elaborate, but it seems clear that the author of this statement had in mind what Amos added further in the same chapter while foretelling that the Lord would spare none of his unfaithful people: “. . . The strong shall not retain his force, nor shall the mighty man deliver himself; not shallhe who handles the bow stand; and he who is swift in foot shall not deliver himself; nor shall he who rides the horse deliver himself.. .” (Amos, 14:15). There are in this quote quite a number of references to physical exercise, to running, riding, drawing the bow, and to phys- ical strength which of course is of no avail against the Lord’s wrath, but nonetheless “honor the Lord.”

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