Yom Kippur and the Jewish Athlete
We are proud when a Jewish athlete succeeds, but a few have gained even more respect for refusing to play ball on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg recalled his 1934 decision:
Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came in September… and since we were in the thick of the pennant race, the first for Detroit in many years, it became a national issue whether or not I should play….The question was put before Detroit’s leading rabbi, Rabbi Leo Franklin. He consulted the Talmud… and announced that I could play on Rosh Hashanah… because that was a happy occasion on which Jews used to play ball in the streets long ago. However, I could not play on Yom Kippur… . So I played on Rosh Hashanah and, believe it or not, I hit two home runs.1
In 1965 Sandy Koufax was scheduled to pitch the first game of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the game fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax refused to play, but, as he pointed out, “There was never any decision to make… because there was never any possibility that I would pitch…. The club knows that I don’t work that day.”2
In 2004 another Dodger superstar, Shawn Green, faced a key weekend series in the September pennant race. Yom Kippur began at sundown on Friday, September 24. On Thursday, Green announced that he would play the Friday night game but sit out on Saturday. Although some rabbis accused Green of trying to have it both ways, Koufax was more understanding.
“That kind of call is totally up to Shawn,” he said. “There’s no way anyone can advise you on something like this.” 3
To play or not to play—what would you do if you were in their place? And is it “your call” to make or, like Hebrew National, do we answer to a higher authority?
Matt Sieger is the editor of ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective. ISSUES is our publication for Jewish people who are willing to consider the question, Who is Jesus? Matt also writes blogs, articles, and reviews for our publications and has edited the book, Stories of Jews for Jesus.