“I don’t roll on Shabbos!”
Should Jewish sports clubs compete on Shabbat?
This question has confronted me since early adolescence, when I began playing competitive basketball with Maccabi NSW. It was around the time of my bar-mitzvah when I faced a dilemma which took many years to resolve. With junior competitive sports in Australia traditionally played on Saturday mornings, Maccabi has forever had to enter teams in these competitions if it wished to remain a seriously competitive club and impress upon the “seventy nations” that Jews can excel in sport.
Having had a solid Jewish education, I was always taught that Jews should not desecrate the Shabbat (at least) in public. If becoming bar/bat-mitzvah is about an adolescent accepting the yoke of the commandments – the mitzvot – then how could I in good conscience continue to participate in these basketball competitions?
So I missed basketball one week in order to have my bar-mitzvah. But the following week I was back on the court, convinced I was on my way to playing in the American NBA. I eventually advanced to the U-16s competition which was held on Friday nights. Like many “traditional” Jewish families, this posed less of an issue for us because it meant that after the match we could sit down to dinner together and the following morning I would go to shul with my father.
Sometime in Year 11, I decided that perhaps the path of shmirat Shabbat – Shabbat observance – was “the right thing to do” for me vis-à-vis world Jewry. It helped that by this time, the U-18s and subsequent adult tournaments were played on Sunday evenings.
I began to resent Maccabi for putting young Jews in a position where they misrepresented our values, and to an extent I continue to do so, if only because I believe it is plainly wrong for a representative Jewish agency to publicly desecrate the Shabbat.
I recall that sometime during this whole period a wealthy observant Jew in Melbourne offered to sponsor all of Maccabi Victoria’s sports clubs on the condition that they cease playing on Shabbat. The organisation agreed and I felt good, proving that nothing is impossible to achieve.
Shmirat Shabbat has always been central to the Jewish people’s experience and existence, at least until the last two or three generations. There is an expression that more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
Today, with more unaffiliated Jews discovering the beauty of our traditions and taking on Shabbat observance (based purely on my own observations of those I know), clubs like Maccabi may struggle to maintain their membership levels over the coming generations. I know many talented sportsmen who are also frum (observant), but are precluded from participating in many Maccabi events because they are held on Shabbat. Granted, there are opportunities for adult competition on Sundays, but what about the kids whose age groups primarily compete on Saturdays (there are one or two sports which are the exceptions)?
I don’t pretend to have a solution to the sport on Shabbat dilemma, but I contend that it is a communal dilemma, which should be addressed seriously. We are blessed to live in a free and fair country where all ethno-religious cultures are respected. There is no reason why the Jewish community should have to renege on its most quintessential traditions for the sake of amateur sports. I do not believe others would do the same.
I am convinced that a number of solutions to this problem will emerge, given serious consideration. None will be perfect, but one will be the best of the lot and we should run with it when it reveals itself.
Ariel is a full-time Jew with an interest in a variety of Jewish issues, and a passionate political analyst with a keen eye for hypocrisy and mismanagement. In order to pay bills, Ariel works as an electrical engineer in the Energy Supply Industry, but is not responsible for any electrical failures you may have experienced recently. Hopefully, someone will listen to what he has to say.