Shabbat: No Time for Games

Half of Shabbat should be devoted to Torah study and prayer, but is one permitted to play games during the remaining time? * Most Sephardic poskim prohibit playing games on Shabbat, while the majority Ashkenazi poskim permit it; nevertheless, Ashkenazim should also avoid playing games * Young children are allowed to play games, but should be trained to devote time to Torah study on Shabbat, and preferably, parents should learn together with them * Games that are prohibited due to Melakhot Shabbat: building a tent, molding with clay, forming shapes with moist sand, and musical instruments * Playing soccer, basketball, cycling and riding a scooter belittles the character of Shabbat * Children may play with balls and ride bikes designed for preschoolers

Games on Shabbat

Q: Are adults allowed to play chess, checkers, or household ball games on Shabbat?

A: There is a disagreement among the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) in this issue. All agree that one should not spend a lot of time playing games on Shabbat because of bitul Torah (wasting Torah study time), seeing as the main purpose of Shabbat is to study Torah and enjoy meals and sleep, as was determined by halakha, that Shabbat should be divided into two – half the time for physical pleasures of eating and sleeping, and half the time for the spiritual pleasure of Torah study and prayers. If a person spends his time playing games, he squanders the precious and sacred time of Shabbat on mundane matters, and will find it difficult to devote half of Shabbat to Torah study. However, the poskim disagree about whether it is prohibited to play games on Shabbat during the part of the day dedicated to physical pleasures.

Some poskim say that as long as the games are not for money they are permitted. Others even testified about Talmidei Chachamim (Torah scholars) who played chess on Shabbat. On the other hand, some Achronim (poskim from roughly the 16th century to the present) wrote that it is forbidden to play any games on Shabbat, and consequently, the pieces of the games themselves are muktzeh (items that are not properly designated for Shabbat use). As far as the rabbis who played chess on Shabbat are concerned, they did so because they suffered from depression, and in order to take their minds off their worries, they played chess, after which they were able to return to their Torah study (and perhaps they felt more depressed and a greater need to play precisely on Shabbat and Yom Tov). However, barring this situation, it is forbidden to play on Shabbat. 

Why was Tur Shimon Destroyed?

Our Sages in the Jerusalem Talmud asked: Why was the town of Tur Shimon, whose residents often gave charity and honored the Shabbat, destroyed? They answered that some Sages said it was because of sexual immorality, while others said it was because they played games with a ball on Shabbat.

Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (‘Ha’Rokeach’) [c. 1176–1238] explained that because they played games with a ball, they were “wasting Torah study time”. This is the foundation of the opinion prohibiting playing various games on Shabbat. And since it is forbidden to play such games, they are muktzeh.

The Gaon from Vilna explained their sin was that they carried the ball in the public domain, and consequently, the prohibition of playing games in one’s household cannot be construed from this.

The Practical Halakha According to Sephardic Custom

According to most Sephardic poskim, one should be machmir (stringent) not to play games on Shabbat at all, seeing as the Shulchan Arukh ruled that it is forbidden to play with a ball and that it is muktzeh, intending to say that all games are muktzeh. Indeed, some poskim are of the opinion that the Shulchan Arukh was machmir only in regards to a specific type of a ball played with outdoors and in very dirty conditions, that it specifically was muktzeh, but was not machmir concerning other types of games. Therefore Sephardi Jews who also wish to be lenient, have halachic authorities upon which to rely.

The Ashkenazi Custom

It is the custom of many Ashkenazi Jews to be lenient and play games on Shabbat, as the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) wrote, that as long as there is no money involved, games are not prohibited. However, Ashkenazi poskim also wrote that l’chatchila (ideally), it is preferable not to play games on Shabbat, partly because spare time on Shabbat should be devoted to Torah study , and also because it is proper to take into consideration the opinion of those poskim who believe that all games are forbidden on Shabbat.

It may very well be that because of the resolute stance of many Sephardic rabbinic authorities, many Sephardic balebatim (laymen) today are accustomed to studying more on Shabbat, while in Germany, where the directive was that only l’chatchila one should be machmir, many tend to be lenient and play games on Shabbat, and as a result, waste Torah study time. It would be appropriate for Ashkenazi Jews to also act according to the stringent opinion, and thereby increase Torah study on Shabbat.

The Halakha for Children

It is a mitzvah to educate children to study a great deal of Torah on Shabbat, and to minimize playing games so they will not get used to wasting the precious and holy time of Shabbat on mundane activities. The closer they get to the age of Bar or Bat Mitzva, the more they should be encouraged to increase Torah study and play less games. It is good for parents themselves to learn with their children, thus fulfilling the mitzvah of: “Teach them to your children” (Devarim 11:19). It is proper for each community to offer many Torah classes for children on Shabbat.

Still, according to most poskim, children are permitted to play games on Shabbat. Indeed, there are poskim who are of the opinion that according to the Sephardic minhag, it is forbidden for children who have reached the age of chinuch (6 or 7) to play games on Shabbat; on the other hand, however, some authorities believe that even according to the Sephardic minhag children are permitted to play games on Shabbat. Those who wish to be lenient have halachic authorities on which to rely (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 24:7).

Playing Games with Pretend Money (Monopoly)

Ideally, children should also avoid playing Monopoly and other games in which players win money or property, even if not real. Those who wish to be lenient have authorities to rely upon. But for adults, even if they tend to be lenient and play other games on Shabbat, they should be machmir and not play such games (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 24:7).

Wonder Blocks and Lego

Children may play with interlocking blocks, build with them, and take apart what they have built. Children may also make paper planes or boats. However, it is proper for adults to be stringent.
And although some authorities are machmir about this because it resembles the melakha of Boneh (building), since for children the entire obligation to keep Shabbat is of rabbinic ordinance in order to educate them in mitzvot, they can rely on the lenient opinion of poskim who say that because it is only a game, it does not constitute the prohibition of building. But for adults, even if they tend to be lenient and play games Shabbat, they should be machmir concerning such games.

Building a Tent

The Sages forbade making a temporary tent on Shabbat, therefore children may not drape a blanket over chairs in order to create a tent to play in. However, this is permissible if they hold the blanket horizontally in the air, and afterward place chairs underneath. It is also forbidden to use interlocking blocks to build a “house” or “garage” whose inside area is a square tefaĥ (7.6 cm) or more, but if they start by holding the roof up and then attach the walls from underneath, it is permitted.

Puzzles and Letter Games

All games that involve writing, pasting, cutting, or weaving are forbidden on Shabbat. However, minors may put together a jigsaw puzzle or form words by joining letters on a board. Even though adults must be stringent in these two cases, children may rely on those who are lenient. According to this opinion, there is no violation of Kotev (writing) since all the writing was already there, and the letters and puzzle pieces are simply being moved together temporarily.

Play-Doh or Modeling Clay

Children may not make shapes out of Play-Doh or modeling clay, as it constitutes Memare’aĥ (evenly applying a substance to an object in order to make it smooth). If they attempt to make shapes that have meaning, it also constitutes Kotev. Therefore, Play-Doh and modeling clay are muktzeh.

Sand

Sand is muktzeh unless it was set aside before Shabbat for children to play with. In that case, they may play with the sand as long as it is fine and dry enough that it cannot be used to fashion shapes. However, if the sand is wet enough that one can scoop out holes or fill them up, one may not play with it on account of the melakha of Boneh. One may not make sand wet, because of the melakha of Lash (kneading).

Toy Musical Instruments

Children may not play with toy musical instruments such as trumpets, pianos, guitars, bells, and noisemakers on Shabbat. Such toys are muktzeh. However, one may give a baby a toy that makes noise when it is shaken or a button is pushed. However, the adult himself may not cause the toy to make noise. 

Soccer and Basketball

Children may not play soccer or basketball on Shabbat seeing as such games usually involve a great deal of ceremony and have intricate rules and procedures, and are prohibited because of uvdin d’chol (a prohibited weekday activity). It is even prohibited to play with the balls associated with these sports at home or in a yard, because they are muktzeh, and because it is a weekday activity. For the same reasons, all of the above applies to tennis as well.

Children may play and run around for their enjoyment, but may not participate in exercise classes. 

Balls Designed for Young Children

Children may play with balls designed for young children, on condition that they play indoors or in a paved yard. However, they may not play on grass or on a dirt yard, out of concern that they will level the ground. They may play table tennis for fun, since that is generally played indoors. There is no need for concern that by allowing children to play with balls at a young age they will get in to the habit of doing so and continue as adults, since the permission is limited to balls designed for children, which, in any event, adults do not play with.

Bicycles

Children may not ride a regular two-wheeler bicycle, because this is a weekday activity. Even if a bicycle has training wheels, one may not ride it. However, small children may ride tricycles, because tricycles are only used by small children, and there is a significant difference between tricycles and bicycles. Therefore, riding them is not considered a weekday activity.

Scooters and Skates

Some poskim allow children to ride scooters and wear skates on Shabbat. According to them, just as children may run on Shabbat, they may use scooters and skates. Opposing them are those who feel that while children may run on Shabbat, that permission is limited to unassisted movement. In contrast, using equipment that makes one move faster and more effectively is considered a weekday activity.

Although those who are lenient in this matter have an opinion on which to rely be-di’avad (less than ideal), it is proper to be stringent, since the stringent opinion seems more compelling. Just as the widespread practice is to refrain from riding bicycles because this is a weekday activity that clashes with the spirit of Shabbat, it is similarly inappropriate to use scooters or skates on Shabbat. Additionally, by limiting younger children to simpler games, older children will learn to dedicate Shabbat to Torah study and rest.

 

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:
http://en.yhb.org.il/

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