Oh no! England's big match is on Shabbat

For observant Jews, England's quarter final against Sweden comes on the wrong day. What's Daniel Sugarman going to do?

July 05, 2018 12:47

July 30, 1966. A day which, for England, forever basks in the golden light of footballing glory. World Cup Final day, when our national team took on West Germany at Wembley Stadium. 

The German side scored first, after twelve minutes, only for Geoff Hurst to level proceedings minutes later. England then took the lead via Martin Peters in the 78th minute. With victory within England's grasp and just a minute left on the clock, the referee awarded West Germany a free kick, which was launched forward and led to an equalising goal. The game went to extra time.

Almost every child in England knows what happened next – it’s a piece of history on par with William the Conqueror in 1066 and Henry VIII’s six wives. Geoff Hurst took a shot which hit the bar and bounced down onto the goal-line, and was awarded as a goal, with controversy raging over that call ever since. Then, as the game drew to a close, Hurst sent a thunderous shot into the roof of the West German net. Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC commentator, saw his words go down in history: “Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over: it is now!”

But one group of people in England weren’t watching the match. They were doing exactly what they always did on that day of the week. Because July 30 1966 was a Shabbat. And England’s strictly Orthodox Jews were observing the day of rest. 

Now, once again, 52 years later, this Saturday the roads will be empty of cars, shops will shutter and people will be spending time with their families. For ninety minutes (or, perhaps, depending on what happens, even longer), all of England will imitate the Saturday atmosphere to be found every week in Golders Green and Gateshead, Stamford Hill and Broughton Park. Because our national football team has a date with destiny. Or at the very least, a date with Sweden. 

But while the majority of England fans ask important questions – should Vardy start, or Sterling? Has the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from their World Cup squad left Sweden vulnerable? Will the thirty degree heat in Samara affect England or their Scandinavian opponents more acutely – Orthodox Jewish England fans will be asking a far more basic question – should they really be watching the match at all?

There are ways to watch the match, yes – as a religion, Judaism is blessed with a number of loopholes. You can prepare a timer before Shabbat to turn the TV on just before 3pm. You can somehow coax an infant into turning on the TV. You can even mysteriously take a walk and end up at the house of a friend who just happens to be watching the game. 

But the more Orthodox you are, the less likely you will be to be doing any of those things, because they are not considered to be “in the spirit” of Shabbat.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy”, it says in the Ten Commandments. And then elsewhere, in more detail, “Six Days shall you work, and on the Seventh a day of rest to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work, you, nor your sons and daughters, servants and maidservants that are in your employ.”

Sadly, there’s no codicil to this which says “unless, of course, Football’s Coming Home, in which case, go nuts.”

There is always the fear, of course, that flouting the laws of the Sabbath to watch the game could lead to divine displeasure. “I am the Lord your God”, it says earlier in the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other Gods before Me.” Heeding the siren song of the gods of football might prove costly – why take the risk?

Of course, many religious football fans have this quandary on a regular basis – after all many domestic League games are played on a Saturday. And of course, the FA Cup final is always on a Saturday (although, as an Arsenal fan, it gives me great pleasure to observe that Spurs fans have not had to deal with that FA cup final watching quandary for almost 30 years.)

But, as religious fans might observe, the World Cup is on another madreigah – a higher spiritual level. And the urge to watch England take on Sweden will doubtless be strong. 

But I have good news and bad news for frum fans.

The good news is that, if England do make it through the quarters, then the semis (and please God, the final itself) are not on Shabbat. 

The bad news is that by the time the final arrives, we’ll have entered into the Nine Days (a traditional period of mourning for the Jewish people). And considering that the Jews have had 1948 years of dreaming to date since the destruction of the Second Temple, it’s by no means certain that 52 years of dreaming for a football trophy will inspire much sympathy from the Creator.

We’ll just have to hope and pray. Either way, this Saturday we'll be able to guess the final score from the consequent celebration (or lack of it) in the streets."

July 05, 2018 12:47

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