Major League Baseball on Shabbat

News about Jacob Steinmetz’s selection to become the first orthodox Jew to play Major League Baseball as he was drafted to the Arizona Diamondbacks has shaken the Orthodox and Jewish world. Twenty-four hours hardly went by, and a second announcement was made; the Washington Nationals selected Elie Kligman; a second Orthodox Jew was drafted to Major League Baseball within 24 hours. History was made. 

Elie Kligman (Instagram via JTA via The Times of Israel)

The pride in representation, the joy for Jacob and Elie reaching such a desired goal, and the happiness of so many who followed them and cheered them along the journey permeated the community. Yet, it did not take long before the question was raised—what about Shabbat? The demanding schedule of an MLB Baseball player would likely require him to play on Shabbat. Would he be allowed to play or practice on Shabbat? What halachic parameters would be involved? What if he would be staying near the field and not driving? 

While many took this as an opportunity to discuss the various Halachot and laws of Shabbat related to professional baseball on Shabbat, there are much broader questions that need to be discussed first. 

Is Shabbat a day of rest regulated by the halachic laws and restrictions of Shabbat—resulting in the thinking that if something does not violate those laws, is it permitted on Shabbat? If not, how is Shabbat defined? 

 

To better understand that, I turned to a passage in the book of Isaiah, read as the Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashana:

“If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord honored, and you honor it by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words. Then, you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will give you to eat the heritage of Jacob, your father, for the mouth of the Lord, has spoken. “(Isaiah 58)

The fascinating thing about this passage is that of all the strong words given about how to treat Shabbat; there is no reference to the technical aspects of the laws of Shabbat. What does show in this passage is a most unique requirement of Shabbat: it must be different than all other days. The most powerful message we can deliver as we observe the Shabbat is by showing that it is not a day for our affairs. Sure, Shabbat is a time for pleasure, joy, and rest, but those ought to be enjoyed in the context of being guests. Shabbat is God’s home, and we are the guests who should enjoy themselves, even as they respect the home in which they are. 

Like being hosted by a luxurious place of hospitality, Shabbat is a time for pleasure—not without the recognition that we are guests. Feeling like guests on Shabbat goes to the essence of what the day is about; it is about recognizing we are guests in this world. Just like our host would like us to take pleasure in this day, we are to prepare ourselves for the ultimate Sabbath—the world to come. 

In 2015 my wife was invited by a fellow prominent neurologist to have dinner with Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who, through his books, had inspired her to become a neurologist as well. My wife was very much looking forward to having dinner with a world-renowned author as Oliver Sacks. Shortly before the dinner took place, Oliver Sacks said he would not be able to join since he needs to meet a deadline for a New York Times article he needs to submit. The disappointment was great. Yet shortly thereafter, that disappointment was replaced with both mourning and awe. Having written dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Oliver Sacks had written his last piece and passed away. The name of the article was “Sabbath.” 

Shortly before succumbing to cancer, Sacks wrote (New York Times, “Oliver Sacks: Sabbath,” August 2015):

“The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived? …And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

The spirit of Shabbat is one of both reflection on our past and contemplating the future, both of which are only possible by disconnecting from the present. That is the spirit of Shabbat, insufficiently manifest in the laws of Shabbat. 

Referring to these very passages in Isaiah, Moses Maimonides explains the rabbinic prohibition of Muktzeh on Shabbat.

“The Sages forbade the carrying of certain objects on the Sabbath in the same manner as [one carries] during the week. Why was this prohibition instituted? [Our Sages] said: If the prophets warned that the manner in which a person walks on the Sabbath should not resemble the manner in which he walks during the week, and similarly, one’s conversation on the Sabbath should not resemble one’s conversation during the week, as it is written, “[refraining from]… speaking about [mundane] matters,” surely the manner in which one carries on the Sabbath should not resemble the manner in which one carries during the week.” (Mishneh Torah hilchot Shabbat 24:12)

The idea that Shabbat is an exception to the present does not necessarily stem from the specific rules of the 39 Melachot and forbidden work of Shabbat; it does, however, initiate a new set of rules by which we relate to it. Maimonides continues the explain the exceptionalism of Shabbat. 

“In this manner, no one will regard [the Sabbath] like an ordinary weekday and lift up and repair articles, [carrying them] from room to room, or from house to house, or set aside stones and the like. [These restrictions are necessary] for since the person is idle and sitting at home, [it is likely that], he will seek something with which to occupy himself. Thus, he will not have ceased activity and will have negated the motivating principle for the Torah’s commandment [Deuteronomy 5:14], “Thou… will rest.” 

The idea that Shabbat might be treated as just another day of the week, even as its laws are being observed, is not new; it concerned the rabbis more than 2,000 years ago. That is why they instituted the laws of Muktzeh. Yet we will not have rabbis in every generation making new official rules on how to preserve the spirit of Shabbat; it will often depend on us as a community. There will always be new ways to bypass the laws of Shabbat and turn it into just another day. It is for us to preserve the very essence of Shabbat as a heaven on earth and a time away from the here and now. 

As we are blessed to see a generation of proud Jews succeeding in so many fields of life, we are once again reminded, like Oliver Sacks, that we must make sure there is one day a week committed to both our past and our future. We have six days a week to live our current life to its fullest; let us dedicated one day to our past and present. It will not always be easy, nor will it always be rewarding, yet like Sandy Koufax refusing to play on Yom Kippur or Oliver Sacks reflecting on Shabbat, it may be the part of ourselves we cherish most. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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