The question as to the permissibility of playing ball on Shabbat did not arise in recent years. It was raised and discussed in earlier generations, and was in fact addressed already by the Rishonim (Medieval Halachic scholars), and even in the Talmud Yerushalmi.
Maran, author of the Shulhan Aruch, in his encyclopedic work Bet Yosef (Orah Haim 308), notes the ruling of the Sefer Ha’aguda, citing the Shiboleh Ha’leket (121), that it is forbidden to play with a ball on Shabbat. The reason given by the Shiboleh Ha’leket is that a ball has no constructive use on Shabbat, and is filthy, and it is therefore forbidden to be handled. It appears that according to the Shiboleh Ha’leket, ball playing is forbidden because a ball is considered Mukseh on Shabbat. And it would thus follow that the Shiboleh Ha’leket would forbid not only playing with a ball on Shabbat, but even handling a ball in other contexts on Shabbat. Since a ball is regarded as Mukseh, it may not, according to this view, be handled on Shabbat at all. The Bet Yosef then cites the view of Tosafot, in Masechet Besa, as presenting a different view, and allowing ball playing on Shabbat.
Thereafter, Maran notes another relevant source – a comment by the Talmud Yerushalmi at the end of Masechet Ta’anit. The Yerushalmi says that according to one view, the Jewish city of Tur Shimon was destroyed because its inhabitants played ball on Shabbat. Neither the Talmud Yerushalmi nor Maran explains the reason for the prohibition according to this view. However, if the Yerushalmi attributes the fall of a large city to this transgression, we may reasonably assume that it considers ball playing not just a violation of Mukseh, but a more general desecration of the special sanctity of Shabbat. According to the Yerushalmi, it appears, one may not play ball on Shabbat because it undermines the spirit of the day and the aura of sanctity that should characterize our Shabbat observance.
If so, then the Talmud Yerushalmi would forbid only playing with a ball on Shabbat, but not necessarily handling a ball on Shabbat. Since the problem, according to this view, involves the act of ball playing, and not Mukseh, it seems that the Yerushalmi would allow one to handle a ball on Shabbat.
There is also another practical difference between the Shiboleh Ha’leket’s ruling and the implication of the Yerushalmi. If we attribute the prohibition against ball playing to the issue of Mukseh, then one could conceivably distinguish between the balls manufactured today and those used in Talmudic and Medieval times. Today, balls are specifically manufactured for playing, and are not dirty. One could argue, then, that even the Shiboleh Ha’leket would allow ball playing on Shabbat, since today’s balls are not regarded as Mukseh as they are made for the purpose of playing. This notion, however, is subject to some debate. Rabbi Moshe Halevi (Israel, 1961-2001), in his work Tefila Le’Moshe (22), dismisses this distinction, and claims that even today’s balls are considered Mukseh according to the Shiboleh Ha’leket. He argues that playing is not significant enough to make a manufactured ball an object that serves a meaningful purpose, and it is therefore Mukseh. (Rabbi Moshe Halevi tries to draw proof to his position from the Rambam’s comments in Pe’er Ha’dor, 117.) Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (contemporary), however, disagrees, and maintains that the balls manufactured nowadays do not have the status of Mukseh.
It emerges, then, that three positions exist with regard to ball playing on Shabbat:
1) The Talmud Yerushalmi, cited by the Bet Yosef, forbids playing ball on Shabbat, seemingly because it undermines the sanctity of the day. According to this view, a ball is not necessarily Mukseh, but ball playing is nevertheless forbidden, and it is forbidden even nowadays.
2) The Shiboleh Ha’leket rules that a ball is considered Mukseh, and is thus forbidden to be handled at all. According to this view, there is room to suggest that nowadays balls are not considered Mukseh and thus ball playing is permissible.
3) Tosafot maintain that ball playing is permissible on Shabbat.
In the Shulhan Aruch, Maran rules that it is forbidden to play with a ball on Shabbat, whereas the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Cracow, 1525-1572) cites Tosafot’s view that ball playing is permissible, adding that this was the common practice in Ashkenazic communities.
As Sepharadim follow the rulings of Maran, we must analyze his ruling to determine its modern-day applicability. Rabbi Moshe Halevi writes that Maran adopts the position of the Shiboleh Ha’leket, that ball playing is forbidden due to Mukseh. However, as noted above, Rabbi Moshe Halevi also contends that the Mukseh status of balls would apply even nowadays, and therefore, according to Rabbi Moshe Halevi, ball playing is forbidden nowadays, at least for Sepharadim.
The Gaon of Vilna, in his notes to the Shulhan Aruch, gives as the source of Maran’s ruling the comments of the Talmud Yerushalmi in the end of Masechet Ta’anit. Clearly, the Gaon understood that Maran’s ruling is based not on the Shiboleh Ha’leket, but rather on the Yerushalmi, and thus the issue is concern for the sanctity of the day, and not Mukseh. This is also the view taken by Hacham Ben Sion Abba Shaul (Israel, 1923-1998), in his Or Le’sion (vol. 2), and Rav Mordechai Karp (contemporary), in his work Shabbat Be’Shabbato, in explaining Maran’s ruling. According to this reading of the Shulhan Aruch, ball playing is certainly forbidden for Sepharadim nowadays, because it violates the sacred nature of the day. This is also the ruling of another great Sephardic luminary, the Petah Ha’debir (vol. 4), based on the passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi, which, as he notes, appears also in the Midrash Echa. Rabbi Misod Raphael Alfasi, yet another great Sephardic Posek, reaches this conclusion, as well, in his work Mish’ha De’rabveta.
Some have raised the question of why we are suddenly establishing Halachic norms on the basis of an Aggadic passage in the Yerushalmi and Midrash, something which is not ordinarily done in standard Halachic discourse. Regardless, it is clear that already Maran, in Bet Yosef, as well as the Gaon of Vilna and others, as discussed, viewed this passage in the Yerushalmi as an authoritative source for the prohibition against ball playing on Shabbat. For whatever reason, they approached the Yerushalmi’s comments as a bona fide, binding Halachic ruling concerning the status of ball playing.
Hacham Ovadia Yosef, as recorded in Yalkut Yosef (p. 188), cites the various opinions and follows the view that playing ball is forbidden on Shabbat, and that balls should be treated as Mukseh, in accordance with the stringent position. This ruling was confirmed by an individual who studies personally with the Hacham.
It thus emerges that a clear consensus of Sephardic authorities – including the Petah Ha’debir, Rabbi Moshe Halevi, Hacham Ben Sion Abba Shaul and Hacham Ovadia Yosef – forbid ball playing on Shabbat.
Another important source relevant to this topic is a responsum of Rav Avraham Yishak Kook (1865-1935), in his work Orah Mishpat (Orah Haim 152). Rav Kook here is responding to a letter written to him arguing that professional Jewish soccer leagues should be allowed to play on Shabbat. He writes (listen to audio recording for precise citation) that anybody with any familiarity at all with the Halachic literature on the subject would never entertain such a notion. Rav Kook notes the Yerushalmi’s comments about the destruction of Tur Shimon, and adds that even those authorities who permitted ball playing (Tosafot) referred to quiet, private playing with a ball, not a public athletic spectacle which undermines the sanctity of Shabbat. He goes on to say that he accepts the theory of the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, Poland, 16th century), who wrote that the authorities who permitted ball playing referred only to children; they did not permit ball playing for adults. Rav Kook emphatically asserts that nobody even entertained the notion of permitting full-fledged sports activity on Shabbat.
It should be noted that other Ashkenazic authorities, too, forbade ball playing on Shabbat, despite the Rama’s ruling permitting ball playing. These include Rav Mordechai Karp, and Rav Moshe Stern of Debereczyn, who, in his work Be’er Moshe, wonders how some authorities could have even allowed children to play ball on Shabbat. When it comes to adults, in his view, it goes without saying that ball playing is forbidden.
Unfortunately, many people mistakenly think that in communities with an Erub there is no Halachic problem playing ball on Shabbat. As we have seen, the clear consensus of Sephardic and even Ashkenazic authorities is that such games are forbidden on Shabbat, as well as on Yom Tob. And although there is some discussion as to whether a ball is considered Mukseh, playing sports is clearly forbidden.