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Seventh-day Sports

Seventh-day Sports

Two Jewish kids are facing an age-old dilemma.

Elie Kligman, 18, and Jacob Steinmetz, 17, have both been chosen in July’s Major League Baseball draft. The Washington Times reported that the Washington Nationals want Kligman (who has been previously mentioned in this blog); Steinmetz was picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks. But now that personal dreams are becoming reality,these young athletes, both Orthodox Jews, are faced with a decision.

How does a person aiming to keep God’s law participate in professional sports, which often take place on the Sabbath? Somehow, the hoopla, the noise, the predominant focus inside a stadium or on the field doesn’t jive very well with the words: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:8–10).


An Old Issue

According to Jewish Orthodox practice, it seems as though the solution is still up in the air. Orthodox Jews heed the compilation put together by “rabbis over the centuries[, which] have defined 39 categories of activity that fall under the category of ‘work,’ … prohibited in Exodus 31:14-15.” However, in all those categories, “sports are not defined” and thus are left up to interpretation.

At least one rabbi has opined that certain aspects of playing baseball, such as “digging up grass while you’re walking on the field” or “throwing the ball a certain distance,” would be considered “work” in adherence to rabbinical law.

The two athletes themselves have reached different conclusions about what it means to keep the Sabbath. Said the Times article: “Kligman … has said he won’t play the game on Shabbat, the Hebrew term for the weekly day of rest. Steinmetz … won’t ride in a vehicle on the Sabbath but has told various media outlets that he will pitch.”

This isn’t anything new. The contention over keeping the Sabbath goes back into antiquity.

In Exodus 16, for example, even before God gave Moses the law written in stone, the children of Israel were told not to gather manna on the Sabbath. “‘Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.’ Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?’” (vv. 26–28).

Centuries later, in Jesus’ Sabbath controversies with the scribes and Pharisees, the issue was never over the validity of the Sabbath but over how to keep it. No question, in response to their experience as captives in Babylon, the Jewish leaders wanted to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath. But however well-meaning, they ended up making Sabbath-keeping a legalistic burden with a bunch of manmade regulations.

Is keeping the Sabbath about limiting the amount of energy you exert or, in this instance, about how far you can throw a ball?

Or is there something more to this seventh day?


Seventh-day Sports?

While it is yet to be seen if these two young Jews will sign with these teams, perhaps it would be advantageous to look at another athlete’s Sabbath-keeping venture to answer this question.

Several years ago, the Adventist Review, an official publication of the Seventh-day Adventist church, reported on Carlos Vítor da Costa Ressurreição, at the time a newly baptized Seventh-day Adventist and soccer goalie in Brazil—where passion for the sport makes even the most rabid NFL fan look tepid—who declined to play on Sabbath. The blowback was substantial, to say the least. 

“The furor,” said the article, “is in no small part linked to the fact that Ressurreição has made a number of important saves in the past year that moved his Londrina Esporte Clube up from Serie C to Serie B in the Brazilian National Championship, the main soccer league championship in the country. Ressurreição was named player of the year, resulting in a job offer from Serie A team Chapecoense that would have doubled his salary.”

Ressurreição declined the offer, again because of the Sabbath. To him, the fourth commandment is clear. Playing the game at all on the Sabbath would be dishonoring God. As it says in Isaiah 58:13, “Turn away … from doing your pleasure on [God’s] holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight[;] … honor Him, not doing your own ways.”

To Ressurreição, his decisions are not based around the game or the fans but on the One who created the Sabbath day in the first place. “Without any doubt, I choose my faith. … I’m at peace because my life is in the hands of God. … As long as there are teams that respect my beliefs, sports will always be an option. If not, the Lord has already shown me in the past that He will take care of me,” he said.

Sports are optional; God is not. The Sabbath isn’t a dead letter. It’s not about measurements or distances. It’s not a system of alarms by which you must not pass. The Sabbath is a direct indication of your belief in God.

The story of Kligman and Steinmetz isn’t over. They are confirmation that we are still given daily opportunities to choose either for or against God.

What will be your decision on keeping the seventh day holy, on keeping the whole law of God?

To learn more about the Sabbath—and about God’s law—and its importance for us today, check out this online Bible study “Christ the End of the Law.

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