It’s a decision that hasn’t come up a lot, if at all, over the last almost century and a half of Major League Baseball. Two young pitchers, just drafted by the MLB and ready to start their careers, face a choice when it comes to playing on the seventh day of the week: the Sabbath or sliders?
The Orthodox Jewish athletes were chosen in last week’s MLB draft by National League teams. Pitcher Elie Kligman, 18, was drafted by the Washington Nationals, and pitcher Jacob Steinmetz, 17, is a choice of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Neither player has formally signed with either team yet.
Kligman, 18, has said he won’t play the game on Shabbat, the Hebrew term for the weekly day of rest. Steinmetz, 17, won’t ride in a vehicle on the Sabbath but has told various media outlets that he will pitch.
Speaking with The Washington Times from a road game with the Israeli Olympic Baseball team, Kligman said he would have to develop a specific strategy if he signs with the Nationals.
“I think it’s just a lot of whatever the team wants me to do,” Kligman said. “If they wanted me to go to the park, I have to be there. But you know, obviously, as long as they’re in the parameters of keeping [the Sabbath], then I think I’ll just kind of do what I need to do.”
The timing of the Sabbath in Judaism can pose particular problems for ballplayers. An observant player could miss a Friday night game, a Saturday afternoon start and even, in some instances, the beginning of a Saturday night game.
Deciding what to do on the Sabbath and what to abstain from can be tricky. Along with the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament, there are rules and regulations in the Talmud, which contains rabbinical teachings and commentary on the Bible’s teachings.
Drawing from the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures, rabbis over the centuries have defined 39 categories of activity that fall under the category of “work,” which is prohibited in Exodus 31:14-15. Those categories, called “melachot” in Hebrew, include agricultural and construction tasks. Although sports are not defined, one scholar suggested that some things that transpire while playing baseball would fall under the rubric.
“I think with baseball, you can come up with any number of kinds of work that would apply, including just, you know, digging up grass while you’re walking on the field,” said conservative Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut. “That’s, that’s a form of work. Not just digging up grass, but, but also throwing the ball a certain distance may involve work, and rabbis have gone back and forth on questions like this, hitting a ball.”
Baseball historian Ron Kaplan wrote in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency news commentary that just 1% of the 22,000 players in the major leagues over the years — roughly 230 — have been Jewish. Some of these players, such as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, have had varying degrees of observance. Koufax famously refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but he would pitch on the Sabbath, Mr. Hammerman said.
“I’m sure he didn’t love it. I’m sure he was aware of it,” Mr. Hammerman said of Koufax, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. “He was very aware of his Jewish identity. But he did [play], and that’s a compromise he had to make. He drew the line at holidays, especially Rosh Hashana [the Jewish New Year] and Yom Kippur.”
Neither Kligman nor Steinmetz, as Orthodox Jewish believers, is likely to consult a conservative-branch cleric for advice relative to the Sabbath. Still, Mr. Hammerman explained how he would advise them.
“I think it would become a matter of personal conscience. I wouldn’t hedge in saying that,” he said.
He noted the conservative tradition of having the principal Sabbath service on Friday evenings to provide a worship experience for immigrant constituents who had to work on the Sabbath, but he said, “It’s very hard to justify it in terms of the tradition.”
The question of the Sabbath in the National League may become moot, however, because both teens have college prospects. Steinmetz is considering Fordham University in New York. Kligman’s father, sports attorney and agent Marc Kligman, said his son hasn’t settled on a school.
Although the young sportsmen could bypass the majors for college — Mr. Kligman said his son might want to get “a bit more seasoning” — either one or both may have to reconcile their beliefs with baseball’s demands.