Is Playing Soccer on Shabbat a Crime? Israel Redefines the Term 'Political Football'

Israel's attorney general saves the day at the 90th minute as Saturday soccer matches were almost outlawed.

Sharon Bokov

In the Holy Land, sports can give religion a run for its money when it comes to devotion. And soccer is by far the national sport, inspiring the kind of fanatical team loyalty familiar to sports nuts the world over.

A Saturday soccer game isn’t merely another leisure activity in Israeli culture. Songs have been written about it, radio shows designed around it and some lives revolve around it. Typically, male Israeli Jews who refuse to categorize themselves as either secular or religious, define themselves as “traditional” because, they will explain to you, they want to attend synagogue on Saturday morning, eat a big meal with their family and then head off to cheer on their team.

It’s also a practical necessity in a country with a one-day weekend. Most young children attend school six days a week, many Israelis work for half the day Friday, while others spend that day running errands before the stores close early for the Sabbath. Saturday is the only full day of rest and leisure.

And so the country’s soccer fans were thrown into near-panic at the prospect that this could be the first Saturday without a scheduled soccer game in nearly a century.

For 24 hours, all talk of the Iran deal, Syrian refugees and the sandstorm plaguing the country halted. Soccer – or lack thereof – was all anybody wanted to talk about.

The crisis began in August, after a large group of religiously observant Jewish players in the country’s second division petitioned a labor court arguing that the fact that they were being forced to play on the Sabbath is in violation of the law. This second division, unlike other soccer leagues and most youth soccer leagues, had not previously played Saturday games.

When they did – when the one league that was accommodating to Sabbath-observant players began to schedule games on that day – the players took legal action.

The court ruled in their favor; Judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled that Shabbat games were a “criminal offense.” The law was, in fact, on the side of the players. What she did was throw out the traditional understanding between secular Israel and Orthodox Israel that put Shabbat soccer-playing into a special category of acceptability, an understanding dating from a time when belonging to a soccer team in Israel was not a full-time job or career, but more of an enhanced hobby.

The judge decided to view the teams as any other company employing workers and hold them to the same standards. Under Israeli law, this would require a special waiver from the Economy Ministry detailing and justifying their use of Jewish labor on Saturdays.  

Without that waiver, she said, requiring players to take the field on that day was a crime.

That’s when soccer fans began to freak out.

With the current economy minister being Arye Dery, an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose party was ideologically committed to promoting Shabbat observance, such a waiver wasn’t going to happen.

In addition to the furious fans, there were two main groups who began lobbying the government against implementing the decision. The first were secular activists fighting religious hegemony over the character of the state, as well as to uphold the secular majority's rights to spend their one day of leisure as they see fit, without having a religiously observant lifestyle foisted upon them by the state, Taliban style. The second were the many economic interests at stake. As in most places around the world, professional sports are a business, with many other businesses depending on them – from television stations that broadcast the games, to those who sell hot dogs and beer outside the stadium.

The soccer teams themselves launched a full-scale campaign when it became clear that without a waiver by Dery, there would be no Saturday matches.

An angry Israel Football Association chairman Ofer Eini immediately threatened that if this happened, all soccer matches in every league would be canceled unless Dery issued the Shabbat waiver. The National League issued a statement arguing that Saturday soccer “is a status quo in which thousands play, tens of thousands make money from it and hundreds of thousands of spectators watch it every Saturday. Though we respect every religion, we are convinced that religion or politics should not be mixed with sports, for such a mixture would pose serious dangers to the existence of sports."

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev found herself caught between two key components of her Likud constituency - Orthodox Jews and soccer fans, as well as an obligation to heed the law. As a result, she staked out a rather confusing position on the issue, saying: "Teams that don't want to play on Shabbat won't play on Shabbat. And those that want to play will play.”

The fans and the politicians were saved by a last-minute game-saving declaration on Wednesday by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein that the court decision did not mean Saturday soccer had to be suspended. This triggered a national sigh of relief and an announcement by the IFA that in view of Weinstein’s position all games would take place as scheduled.

The final whistle hasn’t been blown on the controversy, however. Regev’s plan is to put together a high-level government committee tasked with balancing the desire of Shabbat-observant players to play without being forced to violate their religious beliefs. Games will continue as scheduled in the meantime, but the push and pull on the issue – which continues to swirl around commerce, entertainment, and transportation on Shabbat – will surely go on.

For Americans and Europeans in Israel who desperately miss a two-day weekend, the Saturday soccer controversy might be an opportunity to push their case. The idea of falling in line with the rest of the world and making Sunday a weekend day could solve the problem. The concept enjoyed a surge of political popularity in 2013, with both Naftali Bennett and Silvan Shalom waving the banner – but little came of it.

If that should happen however, it may be pointed out that for Arab and foreign Christian players on the teams, scheduling games on Sunday tramples on their Holy Day – just as shifting games to Fridays isn’t particularly fair to the many Muslim players in Israeli leagues.

Despite the Weinstein's welcome decision, this match is clearly far from over. And, as any die-hard sports fan knows, there’s no chance that in the end, both sides can walk away happy.