Maccabi, Memorial Day and the Sabbath

Expect Religious Zionism to continue backing legislation limiting Shabbat violations. It is part and parcel of our effort to remain an integral part of Israeli society.

Maccabi TA 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi TA 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
MEMORIAL DAY COVERAGE IN THE ISRAELI MEDIA is incomplete without the cliché of ultra-Orthodox haredim disregarding the sirens summoning the public to observe a moment of respectful silence for Israel’s fallen soldiers and terror victims.
Israel’s modern Orthodox community fully shares Memorial Day and its mixed message of remembrance, sorrow and inspiration. This year was no different but a discordant note was injected by, of all things, professional sports. And, for once, I felt a contrarian modicum of empathy for the ultra-Orthodox position.
The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team had made it to the final four of the European Cup held this year in Barcelona. The final was originally scheduled to take place after Memorial Day had started at sundown on Sunday Israel time. The idea that Israelis, instead of engaging in somber reflection, would be ardently rooting in front of their TV screens was anathema. Maccabi’s chairman, Shimon Mizrahi, who received the Israel Prize on Independence Day for his role in transforming Maccabi Tel Aviv into a European basketball powerhouse, came to the rescue. He exploited his impressive connections in the Euroleague to move up the championship game by a few hours, thus narrowly avoiding a conflict with Memorial Day. Mizrahi’s ultimate threat was that Maccabi was prepared to forfeit its chance to win Europe’s most prestigious basketball title if the organizers held firm to the original schedule. In the end, Maccabi made it to the rescheduled final, but lost to perennial Greek champions Panathinaikos.
Mizrahi and the Maccabi organization were prepared to go to the brink for Memorial Day and for that they deserve our thanks.
Unfortunately, they did not display similar tenacity over the semifinals, played on Friday night, after the Jewish Sabbath had started. This situation is most ironic because Israeli basketball, as opposed to soccer, schedules its games on weekdays and, as a result, religiously observant fans can and do attend games or watch them live on television. For all their empathy and equal partnership in Memorial Day, religious Zionists still accord Shabbat a far more exalted status.
As I live in a mixed religious-secular community, I figured that we would not have to wait till the close of Shabbat to find out what happened in the semis, and true enough the glad tidings of Maccabi’s victory arrived in the afternoon. It brought back memories of growing up in New York, where on Shabbat or holidays we would make sure that our afternoon stroll took us past a local sports bar, allowing us to eavesdrop on the latest score. When the World Series of baseball was still the October classic rather than an event stretching into November, we could usually count on an intelligence source to brief the congregation during the Yom Kippur recess.
Nobody remotely considered the possibility that professional sports in America would come to a standstill for the Jewish Sabbath or holidays.
Our heroes were therefore baseball players like Sandy Koufax or Shawn Green, who abstained from playing on Yom Kippur. That may have been good enough for America, but some of us moved to Israel to be completely part of things.
The press both here and in the Diaspora is filled with forebodings about religious coercion and the dangers of Israel becoming a theocracy.
For the sake of balance, it is worth considering a growing reality that imposes a form of secular coercion. With the rise of Saturday shopping in malls outside the city or in kibbutzim, religiously observant workers face the challenge of “if you don’t come in Saturday, don’t come in Sunday.” This can be taken to even greater extremes. For example, as some argue, if we take into account the scheduling realities of international sports, why shouldn’t our financial markets synchronize their activities to trading on the global markets and make Sunday their day of rest, with all that implies for Shabbat? It is easy to receive rabbinic dispensation for security-related and lifesaving jobs on Shabbat in the military and health services. Therefore, there is no longer any glass ceiling in the security establishment, as illustrated by the recent appointments of religiously observant Jews to head the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the National Security Council.
The fears expressed by one newspaper that they would not answer the telephone on Shabbat were quickly dismissed, because everyone is aware of the true situation when it comes to security.
However, buying a set of cookware, trading in foreign currency or even a European basketball championship are not life-saving activities and are not permissible for religious Jews on Shabbat. Therefore, expect Religious Zionism to continue backing legislation limiting Shabbat violations.
It is part and parcel of our effort to remain an integral part of Israeli society.
Contributing editor Amiel Ungar is a columnist for the “Makor Rishon” daily and the national religious monthly “Nekuda.”