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Games People Play

Can every occupation have dignity or are some off limits, no matter how dire one鈥檚 circumstances are? The Mishnah on daf 46b of Gittin discusses someone who sells himself to the Gentiles. While some commentaries explain this as selling oneself into slavery, the parallel Yerushalmi as well as the continuation of our Gemara seem to indicate something else:

鈥’If somebody sells himself and his children to Gentiles,’ if he sold himself repeatedly. But if he sold himself once, one buys him back, but if he sold himself to the ludim, one does not buy him back.” (Yerushalmi Gittin 4:9)

Similarly on daf 47 of our Gemara:

鈥淩eish Lakish sold himself to ludim.鈥 (Gittin 47b)

What are ludim? While some commentaries explain that they are cannibals, the more likely explanation is that we are talking about gladiators. The Latin word luda means games and a ludus can mean a gladiator training school (the term gladiator itself comes from the Latin for sword). Why would anyone, particularly a Jew, sell himself to become a gladiator? And what did that entail?

The Roman institution of gladiator games started about the third century BCE and continued well into the Christian era. The height of its popularity was during the period when the Romans were very much present in the Land of Israel: the first century BCE to the second century CE. The games were originally conceived to commemorate the death of someone important but soon became a useful political tool. They would be put on to accompany religious festivals and would be dedicated to a god or an ancestor of the patron. Games were a great way for a politician to promote himself and buy votes by putting on a good free show, sometimes with food and drink thrown in.

Gladiator games could cost huge sums. Roman writers tell us about leaders who went into enormous debt just to put on an extravagant event. Julius Caesar had more than three hundred gladiator pairs at his games in 65 CE, Trajan had ten thousand over a period of four months! The games took different forms, changing to keep the spectators interested. There were professionals who took different roles, were lightly or heavily armed, on horseback or even on a ship, with a flooded arena. Animals also played a part and there were even some female gladiators. But who were these players?

TimeTravelRome, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common gladiator fodder were slaves and captured prisoners. Those with the right physical qualifications were sent to special schools to study to be professional fighters. They were still slaves, except that now their master was the head of the school. That is what the Mishnah means by selling oneself to the ludim. Those who did not quite make the grade, or were sentenced to death for various reasons, were also sent in the arena to be used as the victims of the professionals. After the defeat of the Jews in the Great Revolt in the first century CE, many Jews were sold to be gladiators or were executed in the gladiator ring.

But why would someone voluntarily choose to enter a gladiator school? It meant giving up his freedom, being part of the lowest social class in Roman society and, most importantly, putting oneself at huge risk of being killed. The answer lies in Rabbi Abbahu鈥檚 response in the Yerushalmi:

There was a case of one who sold himself to the 鈥渓udim鈥; the case came before Rebbi Abbahu, who said, what can we do? He did it for his livelihood. (Yerushalmi Gittin 4:9)

A 鈥渟tudent鈥 in a gladiator school may have had to suffer physical hardship in his training but at least he was fed, housed, got medical care, and learned a trade of sorts. In the difficult economic conditions of late third century Eretz Yisrael, when Rabbi Abbahu lived, some saw this as a way to survive. And while losers in the game were usually put to death, winners could make money, become famous and even win their freedom.

Byzantine mosaic artist from the 5th century, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So perhaps becoming a gladiator, while not the best career choice for a good Jewish boy, was an option. But what about attending the games 鈥 could a Jew in good conscience be a spectator at a gladiator show? It would seem that doing so would be entirely forbidden. Besides the very nature of the show and its disregard for human life, the games began with a parade of idolatrous images. And yet we find a strange statement in the Tosefta:

鈥淚f one goes to the Gentiles’ theaters for government purposes, it is permitted, for enjoyment it is forbidden. If one sits in the theater, it is as if he shed blood. Rabbi Natan allows it for two purposes: because he can shout and save lives and so he can testify that a woman can remarry.鈥 (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:7)

We can see here three possible reasons why a Jew might be able to attend the games. He needs to network, to see and be seen among government officials, all of whom would attend the games. This makes sense for a person who holds a public position. But Rabbi Natan鈥檚 statement applies to everyone and it is not for the benefit of the one who visits the games but for the benefit of the (Jewish!) gladiators. If a gladiator is defeated, often the crowd determined his fate. If enough Jews attended the game, they could sway the decision and keep the gladiator alive, 鈥渟hout and save lives.鈥 And if, tragically, the gladiator was killed, his widow requires the testimony of a Jewish witness so that she will not be an aguna. Clearly in Rabbi Natan鈥檚 world, Jews became gladiators.

Voting on the fate of the loser

Jean-L茅on G茅r么me, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While we seem to have clear evidence that some Jews chose the gladiator path, or were forced into it, the rabbis took a very dim view of the whole enterprise. The most succinct statement about this is in a prayer that we say today upon completion of a tractate of Gemara:

鈥淩abbi Nehunia ben HaKaneh would pray a short prayer when he entered and when he existed the study hall. . . when I exit I give thanks for my lot. What did he say? I thank You my God and God of my fathers that You have put me among those who sit in the study halls and the synagogues and You did not put me among those who sit in the theaters and circuses; for I work and they work, I am diligent and they are diligent, I work to inherit paradise and they work towards the grave.鈥 (Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:7 )

May we continue to be among the ones who work in Torah!

Shai Grin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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