A few days ago at the Mandel JCC, a member who is a regular and long-time runner–who knows that I am a rabbi and a personal trainer–asked me (out of curiosity, I suppose), if running is permitted on Shabbat (the Sabbath).
This was not really the kind of question that I could answer on one foot (even though my left foot is still in a boot!), but I gave him the short answer, and promised to do a little more research. The short answer (so Jewish!) is: yes…and…no. It depends.
I started my “little more research” at my favorite Halachic (Jewish legal) source, Rabbi Googlowitz. A simple search on http://www.google.com revealed a surprisingly large number of web pages on this topic.
The long and the short of it…here is the issue. Traditionally, Shabbat is seen as being observed in two general ways: Shamor (guarding) and Zachor (remembering). These two broad categories come from the fact that the Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Commandments) appear twice in the Torah–once in the Book of Exodus and once in the Book of Deuteronomy–in almost identical form. With regard to the observance of Shabbat (the 4th Commandment), one version uses the word Shamor and the other Zachor. Commentators said that the verses differ in order to instruct us that there are two aspects to making Shabbat holy and special. One is through guarding (observing the myriad laws about what can and cannot be done on the 7th day); the other is through remembering (doing the non-legal things that bring enjoyment to the day like having a festive meal, visiting friends, studying Torah, etc.) , often referred to as Oneg (literally, “joy”). The question becomes: is running simply exerting one’s body and therefore considered to be a violation of shamor–a kind of “work” with a productive purpose…or…is running an enjoyable activity in whose participation we can derive enjoyment, and therefore a kind of Zachor/Oneg? If the answer is the former, it is forbidden; if the answer is the latter, it is permitted. So…you are allowed to run, but only if it’s fun!
This is a very condensed version of the answer, but I was surprised to find that two pretty traditional websites: http://www.aish.com (Aish HaTorah) and http://www.ohr.edu (Ohr Sameach) said pretty much the same thing. Check them out for yourself to get the sources and the context.
By far the most comprehensive article I could find on the topic was written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner; it was endorsed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbinic association of the the Conservative Movement–which is ironically the name of one of the liberal/progressive branches of Judaism). He covers all kinds of exercises and the various circumstances and contexts in which athletic activities are permitted or not. Here is the web address: https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/lubliner-recreation-sports-shabbat.pdf
My conclusion: like everything else having to do with exercise and athletic activity, if you’re not enjoying it…either you’re doing it wrong or perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it at all!