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Avodah Zarah 18b (Soncino translation):

Our Rabbis taught: One should not go to theaters or circuses because entertainments are arranged there in honor of the idols. This is the opinion of R. Meir. But the Sages say: Where such entertainments are given there is the prohibition of being suspected of idolatrous worship, and where such entertainment is not given the prohibition is because of being in ‘the seat of the scornful.’

According to the Sages, there are two reasons to prohibit attending theaters and circuses: 1) the idolatrous practices that were attendant at ancient celebrations, 2) Moshav letzim, “the seat of the scornful,” which is a phrase taken from the first verse of Psalms. This latter reason seems to apply even when there is no idolatrous aspect to the proceedings (see the Rashash’s gloss to Rashi, sv. nasa ve-nasan). This point is made further by the Magen Avraham (224:3) who prohibits attending theaters and circuses run by Jews, that entirely lack idolatry (cf. MA 338:8).

What does it mean to be in “the seat of the scornful”? One might be tempted to say that it refers to wasting time rather than studying Torah. However, the Maharsham (glosses to Shulhan Arukh 224:1) states that this prohibition applies to women, who are not obligated in consistent Torah study. Clearly, it refers to being in an inappropriate environment, as the Seder Ya’akov (Avodah Zarah, ad loc.) elaborates.

With all this in mind, is it permissible for any of us to go to the theater, circus or even a sporting event (as a spectator)? Every rabbi with whom I have discussed this seriously told me not to pursue the issue further. In other words, they have no good answer but don’t want to say not to go. Last year, word came out of Lakewood that kollel families should not go to circuses. This was roundly mocked (or, perhaps, “scorned”), but sounded to me quite reasonable. That is, after all, the standard halakhah.

R. Asher Meir, the Jewish Ethicist, tackles this issue and also doesn’t really have a good answer.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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