Barry Newman

Passover and Baseball: A Grand Slam

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What immediately comes to mind when the subject of Passover is brought up cannot be more standard or consistent. Obsessive cleaning, seder menus and guests, matzoth to satisfy any and all diets, and unending bottles of wine are the associations that virtually every Jew has with this week-long holiday. For many Americans now living in Israel, though, one other association is invariably linked with Passover: baseball.

The opening of the major league baseball season coincides, more or less, with the Passover holiday and I’ve no doubt that more than a few expats, like myself, have vivid memories of packing hard boiled eggs, matzoth and macaroons into a paper bag and spending a pleasant spring afternoon or evening during Chol HaMoed at the ballpark.

Passover and baseball go together like, well, gefilte fish and horseradish. A dive into what the game is all about and how it is structured reveals an intriguing link between the great American pastime and the celebration of our freedom from Egyptian bondage. On this holiday, for example, we give thanks to G-d’ for His “mighty hand and outstretched arm” without which we might till be constructing pyramids and silos. Baseball too celebrates the ability of a good arm to take a team home. The similarities cannot be ignored or overlooked.

>Demonstrating the connection between baseball and Passover is more than a mere superfluous undertaking. In one of the more serious studies, in his 2011 book Take Time for Paradise, Americans and Their Games, Bartlett Giamatti wrote that baseball is all about seeking to come home. He spoke about a runner on the long journey around the basepaths searching for home after being so far away and how this is an experience which is so primal, so foundational for each human being.

The theme of traveling home sounds familiar, no? It is what Moshe demanded of Pharaoh, that he release the enslaved Hebrews from their four-hundred-year bondage so that they can round the bases, so to speak, and arrive at the homeland that they have been promised. Baseball, indeed, provides an apt metaphor for what our ancestors went through on their way to the home they were promised.

The seder itself, with specific rules and rituals, is not unlike sports in general but very much like baseball in particular. Indeed, rotate a matzah square a bit to the left or right, and a figure of a diamond, the core of a baseball playing field, appears. What lies beyond that diamond, though, is not at all standard. Although the basic rules are the same, the thirty major league playing fields vary in size and composition, creating a sense of variety and diversity that other sports lack. Similarly, the Passover seder, too, benefits from originality and creativity. Depending on family and community traditions, no two seders are alike despite the uniformity of the Haggadah and seder plate. The way children are encouraged to participate in the seder, the tunes to which the songs of the Haggadah are sung and the different recipes with which charoset is prepared are only some of the ways each seder has taken on an individual personality. Like baseball, there is a core infield that is common to all, but from there variety and diversity take over.

The Passover Haggadah celebrates and documents our freedom from Egyptian bondage. G-d realized, I believe, that the human being He created has a short attention span and a miniscule capacity for memory. Which is why He made it a requirement that we remind ourselves annually of his benevolence and love. Otherwise, what was endured enroute to the Promised Land would have been simply another set of chapters that are read in the synagogue once a year.

Much has been written throughout the last two millennia of the forty-year trek our ancestors made through the desert. As documented in four of the five books that comprise the Torah, we learn of the miracles that provided the two-three million journeyers food and water, the obligations that G-d commanded of them together with the associated rewards and punishments, and the threats to their existence from hostile nations encountered along the way. We also know they set up some forty-two different campsites during that period, spending in each one varying amounts of time, ranging from several days to quite a number of years.

Truth to be told, not very much of those forty years is actually documented. The Torah tells us what is essential for us to know and omits or glosses over that which is irrelevant or insignificant. Which is why we know very little of how those 14,000+ days in the desert were actually spent. We’re aware, of course, that the journeyers were engaged in activities that encompassed both the sacred (building of the tabernacle) and the profane (need there be a reminder of the golden calf fiasco), and that there were more than a few skirmishes – from both outside and within the confederation of the twelve tribes – that occupied them from time to time. But it can surely be safely assumed that there was ample leisure time as well, during which the travellers engaged in activities typically associated with rest and recreation. Of how that time was spent, unfortunately, very little is recorded.

It’s more than likely that during periods of leisure the children, youth and adults engaged in games and sports that they were familiar with from the time spent in Egypt, or that they invented based on the length of time they were in transit, the terrain on which they set up camp and the materials that were available. And while it makes sense that one-on-one competitions would be the ones most likely preferred – for example, racing, wrestling, marksmanship – that the group making this journey were meticulously assigned to twelve specific tribes suggests that team sports may very likely have been played as well.

Which ones?

Well, I guess we can exclude those that require physical characteristics beyond the norm, such as basketball and football. Present day Jews rarely reach the height generally required of successful basketball players (the Israeli star Deni Avdija being a notable exception), so we can assume that the members of the tribes would not have been particularly fond of hoops, and since it would take three or four well fed Jews from any generation to match the girth of a single offensive lineman, football most assuredly not have been on the agenda.

Soccer is certainly a possibility, but considering the fact that the wanderers have, almost from the very beginning of their journey, engaged in warfare, building construction and the physical challenges demanded by ongoing migration, I’m not sure that they would favor a sport that so severely limits the use of one’s hands.

Which leaves, then, baseball, and considering that the game would have easily accommodated intertribal rivalries and seems to hold a genetic fascination for Jews, it is more likely than not that some variation of “Play Ball” would have been heard echoing through the desert from time to time.

For the last century and a half, Jews have been both participants and spectators in what has been dubbed “America’s Pastime” and is currently played in over one-hundred nations, including Israel. I eagerly wait, therefore, for an archeological finding proving that baseball – or a variation of the game – was in fact a source of recreation and that the answer to the Passover question “Three, who knows three?” is “Three, I know. Three strikes and you’re out.” 

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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