Sport (some form of צָחִק or שָׁחִק, to laugh; but in Isa 57:4 הַתעִנֵּג, to mock; ἐντρύφαω, 2Pe 2:13). The various events incident to domestic life afforded the Jews occasions for festivity and recreation. Thus, Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned (Ge 21:8). Weddings were always seasons of rejoicing; so, also, were the seasons of sheep shearing (1Sa 25:36; 2Sa 13:23) and harvest home. To these may be added the birthdays of sovereigns (Ge 40:23; Mr 6:21). Of most of these festivities music and dancing were the accompaniments (La 5:14). Children were anciently accustomed to play (see Plato, Leg. 7, 797) in the streets and squares (Zec 8:5; Mt 11:16; comp. Niebuhr, Trav. 1, 171): but, with few exceptions (see Mishna, Chelim, 17, 15; Edayoth, 2, 7), juvenile games are comparatively rare in the East (Orig. Cels. 5, 42; Ctesias, Pers. 58).
Military sports and exercises appear to have been common in the earlier periods of the Jewish history (2Sa 2:14). By these the Jewish youth were taught the use of the bow (1Sa 20:30-35), or the hurling of stones from a sling with an unerring aim (Jg 20:16; 1Ch 12:2). Jerome informs us that in his days (the 4th century) it was a common exercise throughout Judaea for the young men who were ambitious to give proof of their strength to lift up round stones of enormous weight, some as high as their knees, others to their waist, shoulders, or head; while others placed them at the top of their heads with their hands erect and joined together. He further states that he saw at Athens an extremely heavy brazen sphere, or globe, which he vainly endeavored to lift; and that, on inquiring into its use, he was informed that no one was permitted to contend in the games until, by his lifting of this weight, it was ascertained who could match with him. From this exercise Jerome elucidates (ad loc.) a difficult passage in Zec 12:3, in which the prophet compares Jerusalem to a stone of great weight, which, being too heavy for those who attempted to lift it, falls back upon them and crushes them to pieces.
Among the great changes which were effected in the manners and customs of the Jews subsequently to the time of Alexander the Great may be reckoned the introduction of gymnastic sports and games, in imitation of those celebrated by the Greeks, who, it is well known, were passionately fond of those exercises. These amusements they carried, with their victorious arms, into the various countries of the East; the inhabitants of which, in imitation of their masters, addicted themselves to the same diversions, and endeavored to distinguish themselves in the same exercises. The profligate high priest Jason, in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, first introduced public games at Jerusalem, where he erected a gymnasium, a place for exercise, and for the training up of youth in the fashions of the heathen" (2 Macc. 4:9). The avowed purpose of these athletic exercises was the strengthening of the body; but the real design went to the gradual exchange of Judaism for heathenism, the games themselves being closely connected with idolatry, for they were generally celebrated in honor of some pagan god. The innovations of Jason were therefore extremely odious to the more pious part of the nation, and even his own adherents did not fully enter into all his views; yet the games proved a source of attraction and demoralization to many. Even the very priests, neglecting the duties of their sacred office, hastened to be partakers of these unlawful sports, and were ambitious of obtaining the prizes awarded to the victors. The restoration of divine worship, and of the observance of the Mosaic laws and institutions under the Maccabaean princes, put an end to the spectacles. They were, however, revived by Herod, who, in order to ingratiate himself with the emperor Augustus (B.C. 7), built a theater at Jerusalem, and also a capacious amphitheater, without the city, in the plain; and who also erected similar edifices at Caesarea, and appointed games to be solemnized every fifth year, with great splendor, and amid a vast concourse of spectators who were invited by proclamation from the neighboring countries. Josep Fius's narrative of these circumstances is not sufficiently minute to enable us to determine with accuracy all the exhibitions which took place on these occasions; but we may collect that they included wrestling, chariot racing, music, and combats of wild beasts, which either fought with one another or with men who were under sentence of death (Ant. 15, 8, 1; 16, 5, 1; 19, 5; 8, 2; War, 1, 21, 8; see Eichhorn, De Re Scenica Judoeor. in his Comment. [Gott. vol. i]). The Talmud occasionally alludes to these spectacles (Sanhedr. 3, 3; Shabb. 23, 2; see Otho, Lex. Rabb. p. 398, 703; Wagenseil, De Ludis Hebroeor. [Norib. 1697]).
Some of the scriptural allusions to games and recreations we have already noticed (see Hofmann, De Ludis Isthmic. in N.T. Commemoratis [Viteb. 1760]). SEE GAME; SEE PRIZE, etc. We may here mention two others. From the amusement of children sitting in the marketplace and imitating the usages common at wedding feasts and at funerals, our Lord takes occasion to compare the Pharisees to the sullen children who will be pleased with nothing which their companions can do, whether they play at weddings or funerals, since they could not be prevailed upon to attend either to the severe precepts and life of John the Baptist, or to the milder precepts and habits of Christ (Mt 11:16-17). The infamous practice of gamesters who play with loaded dice has furnished Paul with a strong metaphor, in which he cautions the Christians at Ephesus against the cheating sleight of men (Eph 4:14), whether unbelieving Jews, heathen philosophers, or false teachers in the Church itself, who corrupted the doctrines of the Gospel for worldly purposes, while they assumed the appearance of great disinterestedness and piety. SEE PLAY.