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Should a Chess Club keep Shabbat?

JeruChess players modelling their anti-COVID club masks. PHOTO CREDIT: Alon Cohen
JeruChess players modelling their anti-COVID club masks. PHOTO CREDIT: Alon Cohen

Should a chess club open on Saturdays? When the club in question is JeruChess and it is located in a Jewish area in the western part of Jerusalem, and the players are Israeli Arabs from the east side of the city, the answer is complicated. Negotiating the nuances of this question highlights the delicacy of Jewish-Arab relations, and how chess is playing its part in building bridges across the Holy City.

Both Arabs and Jews enjoy a long history with the Royal Game. While the precise origins of chess are mysterious,the game is thought to have been developed in India around 600 CE. After the Arab conquest of Persia, the game spread across the Islamic Empire, reaching Spain before 900 CE. Some of the earliest mentions of chess as a game come from Arab sources from this period. Harun al-Rashid of the Arabian Nights was one connoisseur. Chess – or Shatranj – as it was known – became an essential part of Arab intellectual life.

While a midrash suggests that King Solomon was a chess player, the earliest reference amongst the Jewish sources comes from commentaries to the Babylonian Talmud. It was then as a game for women. In Ketuboth 61b, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel suggests that a woman who delegates her chores to her servants should keep herself busy by playing “nardeshir”, which Rashi explains is “ishkukei”, cognate with the French word for chess, “échecs”. In the twelfth century Ibn Ezra wrote a poem on chess, and the Shulhan Arukh specifically permits chess to be played on the Sabbath.

In both cultures, chess has had its ups and downs within religious law. Maimonides declared in his Mishneh Torah that a professional chess player is not fit to be a witness, and that his testimony should not be accepted. Other rabbis have characterized chess as a waste of time and a “bitul Torah”, suggesting that players should rather use their time spent playing studying Torah. Similarly, in 2016 Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, ruled that chess is forbidden in Islam, saying that it encourages gambling and is a waste of time. Chess is “a cause of hatred and enmity between players,” the Sheikh insisted.

JeruChess founder and CEO, Alon Cohen, in action over the board. PHOTO CREDIT: Alon Cohen

Jerusalem’s chess experience proves the opposite. Since 2007, JeruChess, run by the indefatigable Alon Cohen, has worked to increase chess playing among both Jews and Muslims. It is common to see beards and yarmulkes alongside tee-shirts and bourkas, as religious Jews, Christians, Muslims and secular Israelis, fight it out over sixty-four squares. The club brings chess to patients in hospital and centers for at-risk youth, even to youth in prisons. It has satellites in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, including the Arab ones, where somewhat surprisingly there is a higher proportion of female players than on the Jewish side of the city.

Chess brings Jerusalemites together from both sexes across the generations and religious divide. PHOTO CREDIT: Alon Cohen

Last year the club opened its new headquarters, the first time it has operated a full-time chess center. Thanks to mainly private sponsors, the municipality and a crowd-funding campaign supported by hundreds of backers, it is now possible to play chess at any time of day in the center of Jerusalem, close to the popular Emek Refayim street, at Yochanan ben Zakai 5.

The entrance of the new JeruChess club includes graffiti art that includes the Arabic inscription, “Al nadi al qudshi al shatranji” – the Chess Club of Jerusalem. PHOTO CREDIT: Alon Cohen

Any time of day that is, apart from on Shabbat, when the club is closed. And that’s the issue.

Since its inception, JeruChess has eschewed all activities on the Jewish Sabbath. Its teams compete in the Israeli National League, which has a special “midweek” division that avoids matches on Shabbat to accommodate the religious players. While it may be halachically permitted to play chess on Shabbat, there are difficulties around use of the electronic clocks, and getting to and from the venue. Among Jewish champions, Samuel Reshevsky refused to play in tournaments on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, as did Jewish-born World Champion Bobby Fischer, during his period as an adherent of the Worldwide Church of God. It also gives the largely Jewish JeruChess management committee the chance to take a day off.

But recently one of the Arab committee members asked whether he could open the club for Arab players on Saturdays, and hold classes for children, leading to much debate amongst the rest of the committee. One of the more religious members of the committee and the current Jerusalem champion, Daniel Moskovich, consulted his rabbi to ask for his opinion. The answer was positive: “As Jews, you and I need to keep Shabbat. But a chess club does not need to keep Shabbat!”

As long as the club is open on Shabbat only for non-Jews, it is permitted. Interestingly the fiercest resistance to Saturday opening has come from the more secular members of the committee. They worry about how this Shabbat opening will look. The chess club is located on the borders of Baka and Mekor Hayim, religious Jewish neighborhoods. How will the locals feel about Arabs coming over to play chess each Saturday, with the banging of pieces disrupting their Shabbat peace?

Israeli Chess players enjoying a game or two in the Dead Sea. PHOTO CREDIT: Alon Cohen

Only time will tell. One hopes that chess, the ocean in which a gnat may bathe and an elephant drink, will continue to play a role in bringing Jerusalemites of all colors and backgrounds together over its black and white squares.

About the Author
Rabbi Alfred grew up in London and read Classics at King's College, Cambridge. After time spent in Budapest playing chess, he studied rabbinics in London and Jerusalem, receiving semicha in 2008. He led communities in Europe (Belgium and Luxembourg) and in Asia (Singapore), and now lives with his family in Jerusalem.
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