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FESTIVALS, GAMES, AND AMUSEMENTS OF
THE ANCIENT JEWS.
“ There, take thy pastime and do what thou wilt, but sin not by proud speech."--Eccl. xxxii. 12. “ Now therefore see that thou make a copy of these things."
1 Macc. xi. 37.
As the Jews are the earliest nation of whom we have any authentic records, they are entitled to our first attention in the following inquiries. From their warlike character, the theocratical form of their government, their stern fanaticism, and that stubborn intolerance of all foreign customs, which led them to repudiate with loathing the sports and pastimes of the gentiles, it has been concluded by many that they were averse from public shows, or social amusement of any description. This is but the repetition of an old charge adduced against them by their Roman conquerors; but instead of inferring such an anomaly in the history of the human race, as that a whole people should reject the occasional recreations which our common nature imperatively requires, it would have been more judicious to surmise that although they differed in these respects, as in every thing else, from the surrounding nations, they must have had
FESTIVALS, GAMES, AND AMUSEMENTS, ETC.
13 some diversions peculiar to themselves. In inquiring into their nature, it will be seen that they were of a loftier character, and even of more frequent occurrence, than those of the Pagans, to which they scarcely bore more resemblance than to the pastimes of the existing generation. Game-laws, that remnant of a barbarous
which forms the grossest outrage upon modern civilization, were unknown to the Israelites : whatever they found in their fields they might without scruple consider as their property, and hunt, catch, or kill as they chose, with no other restriction upon this common and natural right than such as was imposed by the limitations of the seventh
in that year on the fallow land was for the game,* which was then to be left unmolested. From the dense population, and the scarcity of cover in Palestine, it is probable, notwithstanding this measure for its preservation, that among a nation of farmers, all equally licensed for its destruction, it would soon become too scarce to afford amusement in its pursuit. Certain it is that fieldsports, in the ordinary acceptation of that term, seem to have been little practised by the ancient Jews. Some of the common objects of the chase, such for instance as the hare, being pronounced unclean by the law, and placed among the prohibited meats, could not be eaten, although they might be destroyed as depredators. From the expression of Moses, that oxen, sheep, and goats throughout Palestine might be eaten even as the hart and the roe, we may conclude that these latter animals furnished the chief
of the sportsman. The Jewish legislator, however, gives no ordinance for the regulation of the chase, nor do his writings afford any clue by which his intentions in this respect can be divined. Perhaps he considered the matter too trifling to deserve special regulation : perhaps he held it better adapted for local policy than for any general law, except that of the sabbatical year.
* Exod. xxiii. 2 ; Lev. xxv. 7.
Anxiety to prevent the extirpation of the game, combined with that humanity towards animals which forms so prominent and honourable a feature of the Mosaic law, dictated, however, several minor directions not altogether irrelevant to this point. It is the command of Moses, that if a person find a bird's nest in the way, whether in a tree or on the ground, though he may take the eggs or the young, he shall not take the mother, but always allow her to escape. From analogy we might perhaps infer that no one durst kill the hind, either when pregnant, or when suckling her fawn. Both these rules are observed by modern sportsmen as necessary for the renewal of the game; but as there was no privileged class among the Jews interested in preserving it for their own amusement; as they were, on the contrary, mostly farmers who would be benefited by its extinction, we may safely conclude that if it did not altogether disappear, it soon became too scarce to allow the existence of such a character as a mere sportsman : an inference supported by the general silence of the Bible upon this subject.
A law so delicate in its humane injunctions, so averse even from an appearance of cruelty, that it forbade the Jews from seething the kid in its mother's milk,* would of course be understood even without any express injunction, as prohibitory of horseracing, the bating of beasts, animal combats, and similar barbarous pastimes. Still more imperatively would it be held to interdict those savage sports where human beings destroyed one another for the
This law, though doubtless calculated to prevent cruelty, bore reference chiefly to a gross and idolatrous practice among the Canaanites.
gratification of a brutal populace. Gladiatorial games, and the brutalizing scenes of the Arena, were abhorred by the Jews, not only as infractions of their peculiar law, but as being utterly repugnant to the common law of nature. The struggle of the twentyfour combatants, whom Abner and Joab caused to play before them until they were all unnaturally murdered, bears some resemblance, indeed, to a gladiatorial combat; but as it occurred in the presence of two hostile armies, it should rather perhaps be viewed as a challenge between an equal number of champions, selected from the hostile ranks. From arts and literature the early Hebrews appear to have derived no amusement whatever. Owing to a mistaken interpretation of the decalogue, they held statuary and painting to be flagrant offences in the sight of the Lord, as having an idolatrous tendency. No theatre, no circus, no hippodrome, no gallery, nor odeum, was to be found within the walls of Jerusalem, or in the whole territory of Palestine; until in the latter days of the nation, when the corruption, degeneracy, and neglect of every sacred injunction that disgraced the reign of Herod, led them to adopt many of the heathen practices, and prepared the way for the final downfal of the people.
In what then, it may be asked, consisted the sports and pastimes of the Jews, since they refused, with such an inflexible obstinacy, to adopt those of other nations, and do not appear to have possessed any public shows or amusements of their own? It will not be difficult to answer this question, if we recollect that as religion was the source of all their institutions, and the observance of its injunctions the chief public duty they had to perform, they must have derived from it their pleasures as well as their occupations. The sacred ceremonies which, exclusively of the pomp of sacrifice, the perfume of rich odours, and a stately display of gorgeously-attired procession
ists in the courts of their venerated temple, and in the presence of a whole assembled people, combined the attractions of male and female dancers, with all the enchantments of the most exquisite musicians and singers, were not only incomparably more grand, imposing, and magnificent, as a mere spectacle, than any theatrical exhibition that the world could produce, but appealed to the heart while they delighted the eye, gratified the soul as well as the sense, awakened feelings of patriotism as well as of religion, and by uniting the splendours of earth to the glorious hopes of heaven, constituted a union of fascinations which no sensitive or pious Jew could have contemplated without an ecstasy of delight. Well might the people of the Lord, whose highest duties were thus enlivened and sweetened by a public festival, and whose pleasures were sanctified and exalted by religious associations, look down with contempt on the cruel sports and vulgar pastimes of the heathen. So long as the Hebrew people retained their attachment to their religion, they remained satisfied with the festivals and stately celebrations that it afforded; and not until all classes were desecrated by a general impiety, did they consent to adopt the games and amusements of their Roman conquerors. This innovation seems to have been first openly practised in the time of the Maccabees, when Jason, a Hellenised Jew, having procured himself to be illegally made high-priest, “ Forthwith brought his own nation to the Greekish faction, and brought up new customs against the law; for he built gladly a place of exercise under the tower itself, and brought the chief young men under his subjection, and made them wear a hat. Now such was the height of Greek fashions, and increase of heathenish manners, through the exceeding profaneness of Jason, that ungodly wretch and no high-priest, that the priests had no courage to serve any more at the altar; but despising the temple, and neglecting the sacri