The Games Our Children Play

Jewish children have long been creative in their playtime, leaving the rabbis with not a few conundrums to unravel

By David Lazarus | | Topics: Judaism
Photo: Corinna Kern/Flash90

Summer is upon us with sun-filled days and plenty of cold drinks, and, of course, lots of kids out playing games everywhere across Israel. Usually, when we think about the lives of Jewish children through the ages, the picture is quite different. We imagine short and difficult childhoods with kids spending long hours sitting behind a desk studying the Jewish sages, or working in the market to help support a large family. But even during Judaism’s darkest hours, kids found a way to play games.

Through the Middle Ages, when Jews lived under extreme duress, and parents and rabbis thought that games were a silly waste of time, forbidding play on the Sabbath and holidays, Jewish children still found ways to escape the pressures of a grownup world.

The Jerusalem Talmud offers the ominous opinion that a Jewish city was destroyed because children were playing with a ball on the Sabbath, wasting time instead of studying Torah. And yet, Jewish children played on while parents just looked the other way.

Perhaps it was inevitable that children’s games would become part of Jewish Holy Days like Simchat Torah, Succoth, Pessach and Purim. How else could parents cope with all the kids at home for holidays that sometimes last a week! 

One Jewish sage from the Middle Ages reveals just how much children love to play, and how the rabbis found ways to yield and allow games on the Sabbath. “It is impossible to prevent children from playing, even on the Sabbath. Therefore, it is better not to remind them that it is forbidden so that they will not disobey intentionally.” The lengths we think we go to for our children. 

Take, for instance, the walnut games that rabbis allowed even on Yom Kippur! Jewish children loved to play with walnuts, which were easy to find in the field and offered plenty of games to play, and which afterward could be enjoyed as a delicious snack. When it was evident that the children would play their nutty games even on Yom Kippur, the rabbis found a way to defend the children’s play on the holiest day of the calendar. They ruled that because the children could not eat after playing their games, that refraining from enjoying the awaited nut would be considered a “torment of the soul,” as commanded in scripture for the Jewish fast days. Thus, the children played while the parents prayed.

Card games were particularly offensive in Jewish tradition, stirring up images of forbidden eastern occult practices, or gambling. Yet even here, children found ways around the rules like building a house of cards, or throwing cards against a wall. Like chess, an ancient game from India that became very popular among Jewish children, it was permitted to play a game as long as there were no hidden (mystical) aspects.

One particularly popular game for Jewish children presented a unique problem for the sages. Children loved to dress up as bride and groom and perform a wedding under a chuppah, the traditional marriage ceremony canopy. The rabbis had long discussions as to whether this should be allowed, and if the “couple” must then get “divorced.” To us this may appear extreme, but remember, Judaism preserves strict rules governing marriage in order to protect the family unit, and performing a wedding, even by children, was a holy ceremony, not a game. Perhaps we could compare it to allowing our children to play at taking the Eucharist. 

In the end, the rabbis allowed this and other traditional religious practices to be played out by children. A ruling that acknowledges the need for children to imitate in their games as a way of learning. It also recognizes that children do not need to see the world as adults. They will have plenty of time for that later.

Hopefully, these examples from Jewish history will encourage you to enjoy your children this summer, and allow the wiggles and the giggles of the games that children play while they are still young enough to enjoy being kids. Appreciate childhood, and when you are weary and lack patience, go that extra mile, or maybe two, depending on how fast your child tries to run!

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