The Orthodox Jewish Guide to Following Australian Rules Football

September 28, 2017 by David Werdiger
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Congregant: Rabbi, I have a big problem. It’s Kol Nidrei and the <insert-team-name>  game is on. What should I do?
Rabbi: Haven’t you ever heard of a video recorder?
Congregant: Wow! I can tape Kol Nidrei?

David Werdiger

The ‘clash’ between Jewish observance and professional sport has a long history, and in the world of Australian Rules Football (AFL), a winter sport whose finals series (playoffs) usually overlaps with the High Holydays, this year will go down as one of the biggest, as the grand final falls on Yom Kippur itself.

But first, some history.

For many decades, when the competition had just twelve teams, Saturday afternoon was the ‘traditional’ timeslot for footy. Each week, there would be six matches, each starting at 2.10pm and finishing at about 4.45pm. For Shabbat-observant Jews, actually attending was not possible. Instead, we would mill around outside shule between mincha and maariv, hoping to catch a glimpse of cars driving home from the game with scarves flying out the windows, as an indication of which team won. The only matches we could attend were the two matches played on public holidays rather than on Saturday, and if your team wasn’t one of those playing, then it was just too bad.

Over the last twenty years as the competition expanded nationally and the value of TV broadcast rights grew astronomically, the AFL revised the schedule and introduced additional timeslots for matches: Friday nights, Saturday nights, and Sundays! A whole new world opened up for Orthodox Jews, who could now attend live matches on a regular basis, or at least watch them live.

Jewish law being a ‘creative’ discipline (for some), people devised many ways to get around the restrictions of being unable to attend or even watch the games that were still on Shabbat, especially for the more important matches. From leaving the TV on (in another room, of course), dropping in to visit your friendly non-Jewish neighbour who is watching or asking them to turn up the radio, to walking for more than an hour to the ground with a ticket pinned to your clothes, and sitting with someone who was able to purchase beer for you, there was a football will, which led to a halachic way.

But standards of observance being diverse and subjective, some of these were not acceptable for the more observant, and they too developed work-arounds that were ‘more’ halachic.

The Saturday afternoon and twilight fixtures gave rise to a way to watch the game known as ‘lockdown’: a group of people would gather in someone’s house on Shabbat afternoon, and stay together without any external contact so they would not know the result of the game. Then, after Shabbat, they would watch the replay on delay.

For Friday night football, the solution was even more novel: be in (or travel to) another timezone where it isn’t Shabbat. This made it very easy for expats in Israel and the US to spend their Friday lunchtimes or mornings enjoying the football. But the price of watching Friday night matches live meant you could not do the same for Saturday night matches.

This is all well and good for the 23 weeks of regular matches. But when finals and the High Holydays come along, it becomes a whole new ball game, so to speak. The intensity and urgency of the matches themselves cranks up a notch, and the lines people will to cross to attend or watch also shifts.

There are some who might attend or watch matches on a regular Shabbat, but not on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Like the baseball player Sandy Koufax, who refused to play on Yom Kippur, Melbourne has had its share of high-profile club presidents who have not attended big matches, as well as a Jewish player (there haven’t been very many of those) who did. Everyone has a line that they will not cross, and Yom Kippur is a big one for many Jews, no matter what their observance.

For me, whose team last played in a grand final in 1982, and last won any final in 2001, it has been a long time between drinks. Richmond supporters are often described as “long suffering”, and immensely patient. So as my team has finally made it to the most important game of the year, I have been inundated with mazal tovs in shule, with people also expressing sympathy that I could not attend, or asking what I’m planning to do.

The anticipation has been building for weeks. Our first final this year was on a Friday night, and I replied to those who asked – in a serious tone – that I would be flying to Dubai to watch it live. “Really?” they asked? “No.” The second final was a twilight fixture last Shabbat (immediately following Rosh Hashana), so we held a maariv minyan in my home, and phones remained switched off for an extra two hours as we sat and enjoyed the game. It was worth it.

But what would I do for Yom Kippur? It’s one thing to stay at home on a regular Shabbat and remain in media blackout, but on the holiest day of the year? “Mincha and Neila at my house”, I responded again in the most serious tone. I’m sure thirty or more would attend, even if just to escape the drone and shlep of their regular shules. But that will not happen either.

With the grand final match itself to take place roughly during the break between musaf and mincha (2.30pm until about 5.00pm), it is almost inevitable that the result will filter through to me before the shofar is blown to signal the end of the fast.

But while halachic gymnastics can permit almost anything, something I cherish about Shabbat is the digital detox – an antidote to our always-connected lives that preceded it by thousands of years. The blackout from using phones, browsing the internet, and watching TV is a blessing, not a curse. And Yom Kippur – the Shabbat of Shabbats – is an escape from physicality to experience a cleansing we so desperately need. It is a day of precious quality time for our souls – the culmination of the forty day period that started with Rosh Chodesh Elul, then Rosh Hashana, and the Ten Days of Repentance. The anticipation has been building for weeks.

I will get over missing a grand final, but will not disrupt the grand final.

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