Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Should we celebrate Orthodox Jewish professional baseball players?

The classic Jewish joke goes like this.  What happens when a boy becomes bar mitzvah?  He realizes that he has a better chance of owning a professional baseball team than playing for one.  And that is why the whole orthodox Jewish world is abuzz with the fact that not one, but two orthodox Jews have been drafted by major league baseball teams.  First, Long Island native Jacob Steinmetz was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third round, 77th overall, on Monday, and then Las Vegas native Elie Kligman was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the twentieth round, 593rd overall, on Tuesday.  As I’m sure we all have read, there is a difference between the ways these two young men plan to practice in their new roles.  Jacob Steinmetz will play baseball but he will not use transportation to and from the ballpark on Shabbat, while Elie Kligman has said that he will not play at all on Shabbat.

It is easy for us to celebrate Elie Kligman because he is someone who will ensure that God and halacha completely take priority over baseball.  I’m sure that famous Uncle Moishe song, “Ain’t gonna work on Saturday.  Ain’t gonna work on Saturday.  Double, double, triple pay won’t make me work on Saturday,” echoes loudly in our hearts and souls as we take pride in the fact that a childhood dream of becoming a professional baseball player takes second fiddle to our commitment to God in the case of Elie Kligman.

How to feel about Jacob Steinmetz is a bit more complicated.  He is committed to observing Kashrut and certain halachic aspects of Shabbat.  However, it is difficult to live a fully halachic life while playing professional baseball on Shabbat as there are a number of prohibitions or potential prohibitions other than taking transportation that are associated with this activity.

Therefore, some orthodox Jews are fearful to celebrate Jacob’s accomplishments because doing so will provide the wrong message for our children.  We are trying so hard to make Shabbat a day of rest for us and our families, a day when we keep not just the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law and celebrating an orthodox Jew playing professional baseball on Shabbat would seem to run counter to our value system.  Is it, then, appropriate to celebrate Jacob Steinmetz’s accomplishment?

I don’t think that celebrating Jacob Steinmetz’s accomplishment necessarily is an endorsement of loosening our commitment to meaningful Shabbat observance.  I think that we can celebrate his accomplishment on one level, namely that he’s one of our own and he “made it” in American society.  As an example, we were excited when Joe Lieberman was a Vice-Presidential nominee because he came from our “family.”  As orthodox Jews, we are more than simply a group of people who observe halacha.  We are a community.  We are a family.  Jacob Steinmetz is from our community and from our family.  He came from one of our Yeshiva day schools and he still identifies as an orthodox Jew who keeps kosher and the most fundamental halachot of Shabbat (no driving, no use of electronics, etc).  There is something exciting about a member of our “family” making it big for those of us who love the national pastime of baseball, and I don’t think that we need to hide these feelings.

At the same time, we understand that there may be halachic issues with playing professional sports on Shabbat and that doing so seems to run counter to the essence of Shabbat.  As an example, the Ramban writes (Vayikra 23:24) that “we are biblically commanded to rest on Yom Tov even from those activities that technically do not qualify as melachah. We should not strain all day to measure grain, weigh fruit… to move utensils, and even stones, from house to house and place to place… to load up donkeys… And all packages would be delivered on Yom Tov; and the marketplace would be filled with ongoing commerce… and the workers would arise for their duties and hire themselves out like the rest of the week, and so on… Therefore, the Torah commands us “Shabbaton”– that these should be days of rest and cessation of work, and not days of labor and toil.”  It seems, then, that the Ramban would rule that this activity would violate the Torah prohibition of “Shabbaton.”  That being said, if we have meaningful Shabbat experiences with our family, from the davening to the shiurim, to the family time, to the Divrei Torah and Zemirot at the Shabbat table, then an orthodox Jew who may not observe Shabbat fully according to our value system does not pose a spiritual threat to us.

Furthermore, who are we to judge what kind of person Jacob is?  The pressure on him to play on Shabbat must be unimaginable.  Who knows if at this stage in his career he can advance professionally while refusing to play on Shabbat?  Even though Elie Kligman has refused to play on Shabbat, we don’t know at this point what effect his refusal ultimately will have on his success in professional baseball.  Perhaps even Jacob’s decision not to take transportation on Shabbat was a major spiritual challenge that he had to overcome and he will receive tremendous spiritual reward for that decision.  We just don’t know.  As such, I think that it is both wrong and unnecessary to judge him.  If we want our children and families to observe Shabbat as a day of spiritual growth, we don’t need to criticize others.  That’s the easy way out.  The easy way out is to blame society,  blame the schools,  blame the Rabbis and blame everyone else.  Instead, we just need to make our own Shabbatot that much more meaningful, both for us and for our families.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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