Is following sports a waste of time or harmless pleasure?
Being a sport fan is a total waste of time.
To play sports for exercise/health reasons is praiseworthy. But if it’s to triumph over others, there is no benefit in it, and this is not the way to love one’s fellow like oneself. It’s certainly improper to exercise to show off one’s physical strength and stature.
The prophet Yirmiahu stated: “Thus says the L-rd: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches, but let him who glories glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the L-rd who exercises faithful kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, declares the L-rd.”
A person should find joy in the deeds of kindness and righteousness he performs, and in his belief in Hashem – not in his muscles.
— Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Tzefas
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Strictly according to halacha, a man is required to spend all his free time studying Torah (see Sanhedrin 99a, Avot 3:9, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:25). All time engaged in unnecessary activities is considered bitul Torah.
However, for Torah study to be effective, people need breaks, rest time, meals, and other items that are important for health (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Dei’os ch. 4).
In addition, taking into consideration that most people, especially today, cannot concentrate continuously on Torah study, allowance is made for some “down time” and leisure – all kosher and according to halacha.
This area of life is called reshus – neutral activities that are neither mitzvos nor aveiros. But even though reshus is not a mitzvah, it also needs to be directed l’shem shamayim – as per “In all your ways you shall know G-d” (Mishlei 3:6), and “All your actions should be for heaven’s sake (Avos 2:12).
By leisure, I obviously don’t mean idleness, laziness, and mischievous play – all of which Chazal prohibit. I mean constructive down time, for purposes of health and growth.
With this in mind, we can distinguish between leisure that helps serve Hashem – by providing some balance in your life and relief of pressure – and leisure that becomes a goal and end in itself.
How much and what form of leisure is considered appropriate is not a black and white question. It needs to be addressed on a case by case basis with a competent Torah authority based on the above principles.
One additional point is worth emphasizing: There is an obvious distinction between playing sports (which is a form of exercise) and watching others play sports. As such, the question should be approached by asking whether following sports has any leshem shamayim element to it.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson,
renowned Lubavitch author and lecturer
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Obviously, it depends. The Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 3:3) gives the framework to consider such questions. He notes Mishlei 3:6’s advice (“Be’chol derakhekha da’ehu – In all your ways know Him”) and takes it to mean that we should direct all our choices towards servicing G-d in line with R. Yose of Avot 2:12: All your acts should be for the sake of Heaven.
The Rambam’s discusses sleeping or eating as self-indulgent acts (for the pleasure of it) versus as part of serving G-d (by helping a person gain or regain his energy). One way to justify following sports is that it relaxes a person, giving him down time to then return to his G-d-serving activities.
Sports also, sometimes, teaches values of effort, self-discipline, teamwork, and more, and we can follow sports as a way to absorb these lessons, a sort of mussar book in action. In all those ways, it seems a harmless pleasure, or slightly better than that.
The problem comes when the tafel becomes the ikkar, when the adjunct takes over. Following sports doesn’t mean obsessing over sports, memorizing every detail of every player’s statistics, arguing the merits of management’s decisions as you would a Rashi or a Tosafot, and investing so emotionally that you are crushed when your team loses. That’s a waste of time, or worse, a distraction from what’s truly important.
— Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, author,
regular contributor to www.Torahmusings.com
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It would be quite facile to assert that sports are an utter waste of time, although obsessing over who wins or loses and suffering mood swings accordingly is both excessive and foolish.
Interestingly, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook contended that not everything that isn’t pure talmud Torah should be construed as bittul Torah (Ein Aya, Berachot 1:30). It’s impossible to prescribe in precise terms how assiduous each individual person has to be in his Torah study as every person is different.
People have to work, shop, and become involved in life’s affairs, each person to a different degree. Torah, though, is the barometer by which everything is measured and the lodestar that both guides us and refines our character.
Certainly “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam” (Peah 1:1) – Torah study is the equivalent of all the mitzvot and must be one’s primary pursuit in life. But the Rambam notes (perek 5 of Shemona Perakim) that our essential purpose in life – to seek knowledge of G-d – must characterize all our life’s endeavors.
Even indulging in physical or psychological pleasures must be rooted in the desire to be better divine servants: “May all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12). “All your deeds” includes even things we do to relax, boost our spirits, or give our minds a temporary respite from the rigors of Torah study.
That, the Rambam says, includes music, hiking, exercise, and even “looking at pleasant images.” To live and die based on a particular score – or to be “kove’a ittim” for sports – is ultimately vacuous. But as long as the right balance is kept and priorities remain straight, and sports are seen as just an amusing, fleeting distraction, it is indeed a harmless pleasure.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, rabbi emeritus of
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ