Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chess in Jewish theology and practice

The Jewish Encyclopedia s.v. chess has a fantastic overview of some of the discussion involving chess in Jewish literature (EJ just copies that entry and adds little). I thought I would update this with some more references.

In the introductory statement to Hilchos Chanuka in Mor U' Ketziah , R' Yakov Emden writes:

meaning that many had the custom to spend the nights of Chanuka playing chess, dominoes (?), cards (See R' Brodt's post on cardplaying here),

[The rest of the statement is hard to follow (I am surprised that Prof. Schacter didn't add some explanatory note) although the same expression appears in Yaavetz's commentary to Avot:

The same custom of playing chess on Chanuka can also be found in the book of Minhagim of Worms that forbids gambling except in the case of chess (see v. 1 pg. 343). R' Yaakov Emden in the additions to his siddur forbids his descendants to play any game of skill except for chess in order to sharpen the mind a bit (but for no longer then an hour).

The Maharal also knows of the benefits of chess in sharpening the mind anin one of his famous polemics against pilpul (Tiferet Yisroel pg. 168) he writes:

People believe that one can develop into a Torah scholar only through the mental gymnastics of pilpul, which posits theories of halakha and then analyzes these empty contrived hypotheses. They create new explanations of Torah that are unfounded, claiming that this method is necessary to sharpen the mind. How can they think like that? A person should tear his heart out over this practice of turning truth into falsehood in order to sharpen the mind! Such a thing should not be found in Israel - to sharpen the mind with falsehood or to even spend time on falsehood - for the Torah is a Torah of truth. Indeed, as a result, they become more foolish, rather than wiser. It would be better to learn carpentry or another trade, or to sharpen the mind by playing chess. At least they would not engage in falsehood, which then spills over from theory and into practice...

Chavos Yair mentions chess in his Mekor Chaim (siman 338 - cited in the excellent notes to the Minhag book):

but I have not yet had a chance to follow his references. I think this means - שיק צום פעלד - send (the army) to the field (of battle) but see aforementioned notes.
One of the more interesting aspects of Chabad theology is a lengthy dissertation on Chess as an allegory for Avodas HaShem that can be found in Yemei Bereishis pg. 337 ff. which also has a pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Z"l and his Father in law, deeply engrossed in a game of chess on the night of Nitel.


Dan Rabinowitz said...

You need to read the three volume work by Keats, Chess and the Jews where he provides many sources on Jews and chess.

Yitzhak said...

דמיטללא בגורייתא קיטנייתא ונדרשיר is a reference to Kesuvos 61b; it is a description of a nonproductive leisure activity.

I mention a fascinating, albeit apocryphal, Jewish chess anecdote here:


Wolf2191 said...

Thanks!! I should have remembered that, its the בטלה מביא לידי זמה.שעמום Gemara. And the point is she can play with a lap-dog or play games. I'm still not sure of the first part of the statement.

Dan, thank for the reference!

Yitzhak said...

If you're referring to "כי הויתו ביה מר שמואל", that's Kiddushin 21b:


I'm intrigued by the very last phrase:

עושים לחם כזבים להתעלס באהבים

Wolf2191 said...

Thanks!! Reading R' Yaakov Emden's works are a real intellectual challenge since there is always three meanings and a biblical or talmudic allusion behind very phrase. He was quite unique in that respect and invented his own style of Melitzah

Mendel said...

The picture of the Rebbe's playing chess was not on nitel. The doctors told the Previous Rebbe that he should refrain from mentally strenuous work and they played chess to relax (see the note under the picture). The sicha was said at a kiddush where Sam Reshevsky http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Reshevsky was present. See note 4 in the sicha about S.R. asking for a bracha to win.

Anonymous said...

I can not locate the source in Teferet Yisroel maybe you can tell me which chapter it's in?
Which edition do you have?
thank you

Anonymous said...

I can not locate the source in Teferet Yisroel maybe you can tell me which chapter it's in?
Which edition do you have?
thank you

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