Should Sports Take a Break for Religious High Holidays?

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterOctober 7, 2011

Ryan Braun is playing baseball during the High Holidays. Should he have to make that decision?
Ryan Braun is playing baseball during the High Holidays. Should he have to make that decision?Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Friday night is the start of Yom Kippur. Jews around the world will pause, reflect and begin to atone for their sins.  There will be fasting. There will be praying. There will be no work. There will be the abstention of physical pleasures. There will be college football and hockey and US Soccer and playoff baseball. There will be…wait, what?

For millions of American sports fans—and hundreds of sports media and a handful of players—this weekend presents a huge conflict. Yom Kippur is the most important holiday on the Hebrew calendar; it's so important that Sandy Koufax once opted not to play in a World Series game because of the holiday.

But what are fans supposed to do?

There are 40 college football games on between Friday night and 7 p.m. local time Saturday. Forty games! There are two win-or-go-home playoff games in Major League Baseball. There are four NHL games on Friday night. The United States men's soccer team inexplicably scheduled a game in Miami (the city with the second-most Jews in America) at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Again, what are Jewish fans supposed to do? From CBSPhilly.com:

Rabbi Avi Winokur, of Society Hill Synagogue, says American Jews have a rich history with baseball.

“The relationship of Jews to baseball is a really fascinating one. Baseball was for Jews, and for many immigrant groups in those days, a way that they learned how to become American,” Winokur said.

Winokur says he will not be policing his congregation to make sure they are not checking the baseball score but he hopes they will have their minds in the right place.

“I hope and pray that the members of my synagogue, while they’re in synagogue, will keep their mind on their prayers,” Winokur said.

KoufaxA. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Thank goodness the Yankees weren't playing on Friday night. Some Jews in the media have publicly admonished Major League Baseball's decision to play games on the holiest of days on the Hebrew calendar. Ryan Braun has already said he plans to play for the Milwaukee Brewers, and while he won't ever have the same respect in the Jewish community that Koufax still garners to this day, you can't blame Braun for his decision.

You can't force religion upon anyone and you certainly can't tell someone how much they should or shouldn't care about their chosen faith. If baseball is more important to Braun than God, he should play.

I'd play. I consider myself culturally Jewish, keeping up with customs more than prayer. I fast every year and will continue to do so until I'm old and my health dictates otherwise. If I were a baseball player, I'd totally pull a Hakeem Olajuwon and fast while I played, which would still be a religious violation on six different levels, but imagine all the press it would get me!

(Wait, now that I think about it, none of the Jewish writers would be at the game to write my story. Drat!)

For most of us, we don't have Braun's dilemma. Most of us just have the dilemma of whether or not to turn on the TV. Some of us have the dilemma of deciding what to do with tickets to these games. 

PISCATAWAY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 1: A general view of the High Point Solutions Stadium during the first quarter of a college football game between North Carolina Central Eagles and Rutgers Scarlet Knights on September 1, 2011 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo b
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

In past years, Rutgers football tried to avoid playing home games during Yom Kippur out of respect for its many Jewish fans. The New York market is nearly 10 percent Jewish, with more than two million Jewish people calling that part of the country home. That doesn't seem like a lot. It certainly doesn't seem like enough people to make this an issue. But for many teams it is an issue, and this year, with a televised game at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday against Pittsburgh, it's a pretty significant issue for Rutgers. 

It might be a bit of an issue for Florida fans, too.  The Gators play at LSU on Saturday with the game scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m.  Florida has the third-highest percentage of Jewish people of any state, so should they cater to those fans who will miss the game because of the time, or does playing LSU on CBS trump a few thousand (or hundred thousand) fans who will have to catch the highlights later that night? 

It's obvious that the sports world can't stop for a holiday like Yom Kippur, but it is an interesting situation nonetheless.

Most traditional "American" holidays aren't as solemn and reflective as Yom Kippur. Thanksgiving is a celebration, so it stands to reason that we would have sports to help us give thanks. Religious holidays like Christmas and Easter are celebrations of life (and rebirth) as well. There's a lit-up tree in the house and eggs hidden behind lawn furniture. Let's be sensible here. 

27 May 1997:  Center Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets tries to fend off center Greg Ostertag of the Utah Jazz during a playoff game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The Jazz won the game 96-91. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

For holidays like Ramadan, it would be logistically impossible to stop sports in America for that long a time. It's just not plausible. During Ramadan, players habitually play their sports, even while fasting, so it stands to reason that Muslim Americans watch sports while fasting too.

There are other religions I am leaving out (and feel free to share those in the comments). If you look at the college football schedule, other than Rutgers, there aren't too many home games in Jewish hotbeds. There aren't even too many FBS schools with traditional Jewish alumni playing during Yom Kippur, thanks in part to Syracuse scheduling their game at Tulane for 8 p.m. 

The biggest issue, obviously, is Major League Baseball scheduling playoff games during this time.

They could have played one Game 5 Friday afternoon and played the other on Saturday night, after sundown. Then, they could have easily juggled the schedule so the ALCS starts on Sunday and the NLCS on Monday.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 02:  Jimmy Rollins #11 and Chase Utley #26 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after scoring on a Ryan Howard #6 RBI single in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Two of the National League Division Serie
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Having said that, why should they?

Putting a decisive Game 5 on at 2 o'clock in the afternoon to cater to a small group of baseball fans, thereby making the overwhelming percentage of fans leave work early or try to find a way to watch the game at a terribly inconvenient time. I'm one of the fans who would be catered to and I think that's a pretty ridiculous thing to ask baseball to do. It just doesn't make sense.

I'm for Major League Baseball, or any sport, being respectful of all their fans, but it's just not plausible to put the playoffs on hold for such a small percentage of fans…even if we run the media and make stories out of things (like this one) that probably shouldn't be stories.

So it's fine by me. I'll fast while the games are on, and if anyone thinks I’m getting physical pleasures out of suffering through a Game 5 or in-conference football game for first place, God help you.


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