This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Keeping the Ball in Play*

Analogies taken from the world of ball-playing are in frequent use in our society, whether they are being employed to describe aggressive business campaigns or romantic conquests. So widespread was ball-playing during the talmudic era that the Jewish sages could not avoid the use of such imagery.

In his philosophical and moralistic writings, the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca made skillful symbolic use of ball-playing analogies. He found them especially appropriate for illustrating the most effective forms of charitable giving.

By means of the example of the ball-game, Seneca was able to demonstrate that the donors must not only give according to their means and abilities, like skilful pitchers, but they must also bear in mind what the recipient is capable of receiving: Like a good game of catch, successful philanthropy depends of careful coordination of the strengths, weaknesses and individual qualities of each of the players.

In various passages in his writings, Seneca extended this metaphor in order to elucidate such topics as the most gracious way to return a favor, how to judge the quality of good givers who are prevented by external circumstances from carrying out their philanthropy, and so forth.

Characteristically, they were most concerned with illustrating values related to the study and observance of the Torah.

"The words of the wise are like goads," taught the wise Ecclesiastes (12;11). The Hebrew word that is translated into English as "like goads" is kedorbonot, and to the astute ears of the rabbinic preachers this suggested a word-play on the expression of kadur banot, a girls' ball.

This verbal association inspired the rabbis of the Midrash to examine the parallels between a ball game and the transmission of the Jewish oral tradition, from its first revelation at Mount Sinai to Moses, down to their own times in the first and second centuries of the Common Era.

...It is just like a ball among the girls. Just as the ball is caught as it passes from hand to hand, and it eventually comes to rest in one hand--even so did Moses receive the Torah at Sinai, and hand it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly.

The ball-game that is described here is one that seems to involve no throwing, but merely handing the ball from one person to the other. Just as this description does not seem to fit most of the ball games that are played today, it contradicts the information we possess about ball-playing in the ancient world.

The most popular forms of ball games among the Greeks and Romans were variations on "pitch and catch." The players would toss the ball back and forth, trying to keep it continually aloft.

When compared with these familiar games of throwing and catching, the rabbinic parable that we cited above is striking in its exclusive focus on the perspective of the receiver, rather than of the passer.

If we focus upon the metaphoric use of this image, we can evidently deduce that the midrashic author held that the most crucial role in Torah scholarship is played by the learner, the recipient of the tradition. The transmission itself is depicted as a very cautious and painstaking passing from hand to hand, in which more daring long-range passes are assiduously avoided.

A subtle change in the phraseology may be discerned in a different midrashic collection:

...Said Rabbi Berakhiah: It is just like a girls' ball, like this sphaira [the Greek word for "ball"] of young girls, which they toss about. One of them throws it here, and another one throws it here.
In this way, the sages enter the house of study and occupy themselves with Torah. One proposes his interpretation, and the other proposes his interpretation...

In Rabbi Berakhiah's version of the metaphor, good throwing is the key to a successful ball game. The role of the sages is not limited to passively accepting the teachings of previous generations, but rather it involves acts of creative originality, as they continue to enrich the tradition with their novel interpretations.

Another crucial variation on the parable is found in yet a third midrashic source:

...It is just like a ball among the girls. Just as the ball is rolled from hand to hand and never falls to the ground, so "not one thing has failed [literally: fallen] of all the good things which the Lord your God spoke" (Joshua 23:14).

The Biblical proof-text, cited from Joshua's charge to the people upon entering the Promised Land, places its emphasis neither on the creating of the tradition nor on receiving it, but on the importance of keeping it "in the air." This implies that the oral Torah, by its essential nature, can endure only as long as each living generation conscientiously passes it to its successors. Any fumbling of that transmission will cause an irretrievable loss.

This version expresses a similar attitude to the one we encountered in Seneca's allegory about the process of philanthropical giving. Both sources agree that a ball-game should not be equated with one particular player, but represents the totality of all of their contributions.

Aside from reflecting more accurately the goals of actual ball playing, our midrashic author has made astute use of the sports imagery in order to call for a concerted team effort, as the best strategy for perpetuating the Jewish religious heritage.

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressMay 17, 2001, p. 6.

  • Bibliography:
    • Krauss, S., 1910-2, Talmudische Archaeologie, Leipzig

    • Schwartz, Joshua, 1995, "Ball Play in Jewish Society in the Second Temple, Mishnah and Talmud Periods," Zion 60 (3):247-76