By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
They can be found in virtually every neighborhood in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway. Walk from Lawrence to Woodmere and you will find many dozens of them. And, even on Shabbos, they are being utilized.
They are portable basketball hoops.
What is the halachic status of this pastime when done on Shabbos? Should parents discourage their children from playing ball on Shabbos? Is there a difference between very young children, children who have reached the age of chinuch, and children above the age of bar mitzvah?
Certainly, we can all understand the sentiment that children need to be given some space and time to let off steam or energy. Every child is different and “chanoch lana’ar al pi darco.” If the underlying aspects of this activity are not forbidden, should we really be making an issue out of it?
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanis 4:5) tells us of a great city named Tur Shimon with its very own tomchei Shabbos that delivered 300 barrels of material to the poor each Friday.
The Talmud, however, goes on to explain that this city was ultimately destroyed. Why was it destroyed? One opinion says that it was because of untoward activity. Another opinion says that it was on account of, yes, ball-playing.
Ostensibly, it was ball-playing on Shabbos, as most of the commentators explain. Indeed, Rav Huna in Midrash Eichah Rabasi explicitly states that the ball-playing was on Shabbos. This Yerushalmi is cited by the Beis Yoseph (OC 308). Finally, there is a third opinion (See Rokeach Hilchos Shabbos 55) that they played ball on Shabbos and did not learn Torah.
What is remarkable is that nowhere in these sources (other than in the words of the Rokeach) is the exact problem with ball-playing on Shabbos fully or even partially explained. What was the exact violation? There is, of course, an entire litany of halachic possibilities as to the exact nature of the problem (which, as the reader may have surmised, will be explored), but perhaps the very silence of the sources is instructive in and of itself.
Perhaps, the reason Tur Shimon was destroyed was that this remarkable town, with such remarkable chesed going on in its midst, should have utilized the Shabbos as a means to further their dveikus Bashem, their cleaving to Hashem. Excessive ball-playing, or any other mundane activity, can sometimes be indicative of a lack of such a relationship with Hashem, and that lost opportunity may very well have been the reason for Hashem not having saved this town from destruction.
But let’s get to the possible halachic issues involved. One possibility is the prohibition of carrying (not the basketball violation—the Shabbos one). The Machzor Vitri (Hilchos Pesach #94) actually permits a type of ball-playing on yom tov on account of it being a form of simchas yom tov! Indeed, the Responsa of Rashi (285:2) entertains a similar position. But even according to this more lenient view, the permission is limited to yom tov and not Shabbos. If this is the sole reason (which is by no means clear), then in our communities, where an eiruv exists, is the prohibition and the destructive potential of ball-playing still an issue? Or perhaps the problem was that the ball-playing may lead to the ball rolling outside of the eiruv. But here where are eiruvin often extend far distances, perhaps it may not be an issue.
There is a second possibility. The Shevilei haLeket (Shabbos 121) considers balls as items of no purposeful utility and deems them to be muktzeh. The Rema (OC 518:1 and 308:45), however, rules that it is not considered muktzeh and that a ball would have utility. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 308:45) rules that it is forbidden to play ball on Shabbos and on yom tov. The Mishnah Berurah explains that it is because he holds that the balls have no purposeful utility and are muktzeh.
The Mishnah Berurah adds that if children would not listen, it is best not to stop them because it is preferable that they sin inadvertently rather than on purpose. The Aruch HaShulchan tends to be stringent as well, in regard to ball-playing on Shabbos. It may be argued that even the muktzeh issue in our day and age is different because nowadays the balls are manufactured for the purpose of playing. It could be argued that in the days of the Shulchan Aruch and before, the balls were made on an ad-hoc basis and therefore the issue of muktzeh was more acute. The Shvus Yitzchok (p. 90), a contemporary sefer on muktzeh, makes this point in the name of Rav Elyashiv, zt’l.
Leveling The Ground
Another possible issue is the problem of leveling the ground. The ball may inadvertently roll into an unpaved area and cause some ground leveling. It would seem, however, that the ground leveling problem is limited to games where the ball is to be rolled on the ground as the purpose and method of game-playing (Rabbeinu Chananel would disagree with this, but halachah seems to follow other opinions). There thus might be a distinction between soccer and basketball, at least in regard to this particular concern. Some (e.g., the Shvilei HaLeket) are of the opinion that the rabbis therefore prohibited ball-playing even in areas that are paved. There is also the possibility that the noises involved in ball-playing may be halachically problematic (ibid.). However, the views of the Shvilei HaLeket have not been cited authoritatively by the poskim.
The Great Debate
On the stricter side, it is interesting to note that the Rema’s own cousin, the Maharshal (Beitzah 1:34), questions the lenient position of his cousin and writes that if he had the ability he would forbid it entirely. The Maharshal is quoted by the TaZ (OC 518:2) and he labels it an “evil custom.”
Rav Shlomo Kluger (Ha’elef lecha Shlomo 339), however, is more lenient and strongly questions the attack on the Rema by the Maharshal and TaZ. The Aruch HaShulchan likewise questions the strong words attacking the Rema and provides room for leniency.
Case Of Maharitatz
Rabbi Yom Tov Ben Moshe Tzahalon (1559–1638), author of the Maharitatz in the new responsa (#202) discusses the question of a large city of Torah scholars that never had any ball-playing and a group of gentiles came and began playing. Eventually a group of young men arose and began playing on the Shabbos with gambling and betting, and eating without rinsing their hands. Some wished to refrain from forbidding it on account of the position of the Rema. The Maharitatz blasted those who refrained from forbidding it and that those who violated it should seek acts of contrition and teshuvah.
In conclusion, Tur Shimon was a wealthy, vibrant town filled with acts of charity and unprecedented chesed. It fell, according to many authorities, on account of ball-playing running out of control. Hundreds of years later, in the time of the Maharitatz, another great city also fell victim to Shabbos violation and other violations on account of the inroads made by this type of activity.
Whenever one deals with issues regarding youth, there are no easy answers. One might wish to object that our youth are subjected to so many pressures, if the Rema permits it why not allow it? On the other hand, we must realize that quite often one thing leads to another. We have witnessed, unfortunately, cases where our youth have taken other paths not in accordance with our traditions because of various other activities that have developed. The real answer is that each parent should ask their rav how to approach the situation with their particular child.
In this author’s opinion, it might be preferable to arrange for wholesome ball-playing on motzaei Shabbosos and Sundays, and some other type of spiritually nurturing activity on Shabbos. If not, at least an indoor packaged game is preferable to outdoor ball-playing. Perhaps what is really required, in addition to the rigorous Torah learning programs that already exist, is organized chesed programs similar to those that allow the young ladies in our community to flourish spiritually. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.