South African Jewry’s Shabbos/Rugby dilemma

South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is a Shabbos champion. Rabbi Goldstein revolutionized Shabbos observance globally, when he launched The Shabbos Project in 2013. It’s been a smash hit. From a groundbreaking special Shabbos shared across Joburg, Cape Town and Durban back in 2013, the Project will, later this month, see 1511 cities across 101 countries commit to Shabbos. To date, over a million Jews have joined this incredible Shabbos initiative.

South African Jews are so proud of this achievement that we claim it as our own. Even South Africans living abroad feel like the proud parents of this baby. We enjoy nachas from every grand Challah bake, Havdalah concert and Friday night street dinner, be it in Baltimore, Bordeaux or Brisbane.

Those of us who already keep Shabbos are thrilled anew each year to introduce friends and co-workers to the magic of Shabbos. We invite them for Challah and chicken soup at home or at our Shul’s mega-Friday night dinner. We might even share a well-guarded Shabbos recipe (plus the do’s and don’ts of Shabbos catering) with them. We promise them that Shabbos will de-stress and rejuvenate them (and, boy, are we excited when they admit that the tech-free Shabbos experience is the best downtime they’ve had in ages). We advise women to pause and breathe in the serenity of Shabbos candles. We point out to the guys how special it is to spend time with their families, without free of the pull of the office or the golf course.

As we extinguish the braided candle in the spilled wine of Havdalah, and hear the pensive sighs that precede the renewed beeping of cellphones, we shoot a subtle “you know you can do this every week, right?” look at our Shabbos Project friends.

And we wonder, why don’t they just do it every week. Like us. How hard could it be?

How hard indeed?

Humans are quirky. We are so good at seeing precisely what the next person needs to do to improve their life. And we’re so poor at discerning our own best next step. After all, other people’s challenges appear so easy to resolve (if they would just listen to us), whereas ours are just too tricky to put right.

We view ourselves as Shabbos champions- like Rabbi Goldstein- and wonder why not everybody gets with the programme.

Here’s a little secret: Not all Shabbos champions wear black hats.

Estee Ackerman is a true Shabbos champion. Three years ago, at just fourteen, she was one of the top table-tennis players in the USA and was pipped to make the US Olympic team. But, the selection trials fell on Shabbos, so Estee forfeited her star opportunity.

Omer Adam is a Shabbos champion. Adam is one of Israel’s most popular singers. His song “Shnei Meshugaim” was Israel’s top-selling song of 2017-8. Last January, Adam declined to perform at the Eurovision opening concert, because it would have entailed rehearsals over Shabbos. Adam is not religious per se, but he will not work on Shabbos.

Israel’s Shalva band are real Shabbos champions. Shalva brings together eight talented singers and musicians, each of whom lives with disability. Earlier this year, they captured the hearts of Israeli society in the “Rising Star to Eurovision” show. They were favourites to make it the Eurovision finals, but turned down the opportunity when they learned that it would have required rehearsals over Shabbos. You can only imagine what the Eurovision finals would have meant to people who had defied impairment and societal stigmas to hit the Big Time. But, Shabbos was more important.

Shalva, Omer Adam and Estee Ackerman did the Shabbos Project for real, at great expense to their careers. Shabbos champions indeed.

While they don’t pass up stardom each year for a Shabbos, your family and friends who make that annual Shabbos Project commitment are Shabbos champions too. You may never know how challenging it is to concede a four-ball for the sake of Shabbos, or how much self-restraint it takes not to update “Totally rocking the #challah here at #ShabbosProject2019”.

We “keep Shabbos”. Every week. It’s on our calendar, a welcome hiatus in our routine, replete with good food, family and friends, and a good Shabbos shloff. No heroics. No drama. No swimming upstream. Pure bliss.

Except perhaps this Shabbos.

The same amazing South Africa Jewish community who raised the banner of the Shabbos Project, is oh-so tempted this week to rather fly the S.A. flag. They face a monumental Shabbos dilemma. South Africans love sport. When our national team competes in an international championship, it’s more serious than life and death. Rugby? You have no idea what a big deal that is.

And this Shabbos South Africa plays in the Rugby World Cup Final, which is huge! If we win, it will be epic! And, it’s scheduled for just after Torah reading. This may well be the first time in South African Jewish history when there will be fewer people at the kiddush than at the service.

I will never forget the Rugby World Cup of ’95. Shabbos afternoon, 24 June, just after Mincha. We were anxious. How had our fledgling democracy’s newly reconstituted team fared against the mighty All Blacks? We would have no way of knowing until after Shabbos. Or so we believed. Our thoughts were interrupted by the eruption of 63 000 voices in a victory roar that we could clearly hear from Ellis Park Stadium, seven kilometres away. Then the car horns started blaring down every street. It was electrifying! When Nelson Mandela handed the trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, it was a symbol of healing for a fractured country. The exuberance and goodwill that was generated that day still lingers in this country’s collective memory. This Saturday, when the Bokke take to the field in Yokahama, every South African is wistfully hoping for another rugby miracle to reunite and lift our beleaguered country.

“So, Rabbi, can we move the service an hour earlier?”

“Rabbi, if the TV is on from before Shabbos, may we watch the game? How about if we just ‘happen’ to pass a pub on the way home from Shul and they’re watching the match, can we linger outside?”

Here’s how to keep Shabbos and watch the game: Watch it on Saturday night. Tough news for many Shabbos-observant Jews who wish for an Halachic loophole.

We’ve cajoled our cousins and work colleagues to sign up for the Shabbos Project in two weeks’ time. We’ve promised them that Shabbos is worthwhile enough to ditch gym, coffee shops and the TV. We’ve persuaded our children how fortunate we are to be able to free ourselves from the world’s influence for one day out of every week.

Now we have to grapple with our own moment-of-truth: “Am I also willing to sacrifice for Shabbos?”

The Springboks’ tagline is #StrongerTogether. The Shabbos Project’s is #KeepingItTogether. To help the Bokke bring it home, we need to #keepittogether back home.

Shalva, Omer Adam and Estee Ackerman are incredible Shabbos champions. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is an inspiring Shabbos champion. A million Jews have become Shabbos champions over the last six years. This week is our moment, as those who “keep Shabbos” religiously, to become Shabbos champions.

Thanks to Rabbi Yehudah Stern of the Sydenhman Shul for sparking the idea for this post. 

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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