This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Tennis, Anyone?*

In sixteenth-century Italy, tennis was all the rage. In its tortuous wanderings since ancient times, the game had spread from Egypt, through the Middle East and medieval Spain, to the cloisters of French cathedrals. It was in Italy in 1555 that Antonio Scaino composed the first detailed treatise on the game, "Trattato del Giuoco della Palla," carefully outlining its rules and regulations.

The Jews of Italy, who were so deeply immersed in the culture and mores of the Renaissance, were no strangers to the game. This was especially true in the prosperous community of Mantua, whose Duke had extended a warm hand of hospitality to Jews, decreeing in 1545 that they should be "as free and secure in pursuing their business and professions in our City and Duchy as Christians."

As is often the case, comfort and affluence can give rise to religious problems. And so it was that in 1560, the colourful and controversial Rabbi Moses ben Abraham Provencal had to respond to a halakhic query "whether or not it is permissible to play ball on sabbaths and festivals."

Rabbi Moses' responsum on the topic, in addition to its importance as a precedent for Jewish religious law, provides us with valuable glimpses into the daily life of Renaissance Jewish society.

The responsum deals with several variations of the game of tennis. In addition to a description of the familiar flat tennis racquet netted with gut and string, reference is made to scooped implements like those used in lacrosse or pelota; and to handball-like games in which no racquets were used at all.

In fact, this was not the earliest discussion of such games in rabbinic literature. The medieval Talmudic commentators had focused on the question of whether a ball qualifies as a vessel or utensil so as to allow its carrying on the sabbath or festivals.

The Tosafot, reflecting the custom in France and Germany, noted that it was common to play pelota in public on festivals, showing that the use of a ball for play is a legitimate reason for considering it a utensil.

From the Rabbu Provencal's halakhic give-and-take we learn that special buildings and courts were constructed too house tennis clubs. The fact that those buildings had windows underlies the concern lest the balls bounce out from a private house into the public domain, thereby violating a sabbath prohibition.

In making his decision, Rabbi Provencal took into account the motivations for which the players were pursuing the activity. Differentiations were made between those who played for sport, for relaxation or friendship, and those who played for stakes.

The ensuing discussion reveals much interesting information about the diverse frameworks in which young Italian Jews could participate in amateur or professional sports, and the different arrangements that were devised to pay for the maintenance of the tennis courts.

Though some clubs were supported through user fees paid by the players, others were run as gambling establishments, with the owners taking a percentage of the prize money. Rabbi Provencal lamented that this latter situation called into question the ethical permissibility of the game. Whereas earlier generations might have been satisfied with nickel-and-dime wagers to add a bit of spice to the competition, in his own days people were risking extravagant sums of money, eliminating its tennis' right to present itself as an innocent diversion.

The propensity to bet money on the match's outcome controverted the religious prohibition against doing business on the day of rest. Rabbi Provencal's responsum notes that clever sportsmen tried to circumvent the law by measuring their stakes in terms of commodities, especially food, rather than cash. However, the rabbi noted with misgivings that this legal subterfuge was patently disingenuous since the units were immediately afterwards translated into their cash values.

As if all this were not enough, the responsum went on to observe, with understandable consternation, that the matches were often scheduled to coincide with the delivery of the sermons in the synagogue!

In light of all the above, it is surprising to note that Rabbi Provencal does in the end decide that tennis playing can be allowed on Shabbat, provided that certain strict conditions are observed.

In addition to the elimination of betting, he declared that racquets could not be used be used at Saturday games lest a player be tempted to mend a snapped string, which would be in violation of the sabbath. This stricture was not as radical as it strikes us today, since the use of racquets had at that time not yet become an inseparable part of tennis.

And for God's sake, urged the rabbi, don't play tennis during the sermon.

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressMay 13 1999, p. 18.

  • Bibliography:

    • Bonfil, R. (1990). Rabbis and Jewish communities in Renaissance Italy. Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York, Published for the Littman Library by Oxford University Press.

    • Henderson, R. W. (1935). "Moses Provençal on Tennis." Jewish Quarterly Review` 26: 1-6.

    • Rivkind, I. (1930). "Teshuvat harav moshe provencialo 'al mis-haq ha-kadur." Tarbiz 4: 366-76.

    • Roth, C. (1965). The Jews in the Renaissance. New York, Harper & Row.