Baseball Kabbalah – by Reuven Goldfarb
For Gerry, athlete and scholar, my first teacher in baseball
“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.” – Deuteronomy 28:3
“Baseball is good for ya, little reuben.” Cinquefoil, in Chapter 18 of Michael Chabon’s Summerland
My friend Shelley, a couples and family counselor, once told me about an experience he had had as a youngster in Hebrew School. The school he went to in the 1950s was orthodox and strict, with attendance in class and at Shabbat services closely monitored. One Saturday he was playing ball with some friends at a distance from shul, thinking that he was safe. But someone had seen him.
When he returned to Hebrew School the following week, he was severely reprimanded for his malfeasance. In all innocence, he responded, “But I feel much closer to God when I’m playing ball than when I’m in Junior Congregation.” Uh oh. The scolding he had received before was mild compared to the outburst that followed this heretical utterance.
For the summer after my father’s Bar Mitzvah (this would be 1920), my grandfather – Pop – had arranged for him to study Talmud with a respected teacher in the neighborhood, whom he paid in advance for this privilege. My father spent the summer playing ball with his friends. When Pop met the teacher around the High Holy Days, he asked about his son’s progress. The teacher replied, “Your son? I haven’t seen him since the end of school!” I am sure that Judgment Day was heavier for my father that year than ever before.
I take it as a given that this experience is fairly common. In fact, it reminds me of some stories that are told about the Ba’al Shem Tov2 and Reb Nachman3, both of whom at times preferred being in nature to learning in the beit midrash (House of Study) and often prayed outdoors. I suggest that there are some similar principles at work in both baseball and Jewish teachings. There is certainly a deep affinity between baseball and Jewish Americans that equals or exceeds the attraction that the national pastime has for members of other ethnic groups. While seriously underrepresented at the competitive level (even with such exceptions as Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, Sandy Koufax, Ken Holtzman, and the more recent sensation, Shawn Green, duly noted), we have been disproportionately represented among the sport’s scribes, chroniclers, statisticians, agents, and owners. At an evening program I attended some years ago at Cody’s Books, entitled “On Writing Baseball,” noted critic and San Francisco State Professor Eric Solomon announced his plans for a book focusing on Jewish involvement with the sport, and his venture is far from the only one.
Numerous such books have appeared in the last half century. However, distancing myself from this particular ethnocentric focus, my purpose in this article is not to dwell on the relative talent and frequency of Jewish ballplayers (a deservedly and thoroughly researched obsession), but to examine the resemblances between certain Jewish mystical and moral teachings and the folkways, rules, and logic of baseball, beginning with the remarkable congruity between the kabbalistic Tree of Life and the positions of a eam in the field when an opposing player is at bat. I will ask you to imagine the layout of a team – three outfielders, four infielders, and the “battery” (pitcher and catcher). That’s a total of nine players. Add the batter, and you’ve got ten players on the field at the time the ball is put into play, the same number of sefirot (Divine Emanations) that constitute the Tree of Life, a schematic drawing of the universe used by mystics to contemplate and comprehend the workings of God, the energy patterns set in motion by the Divine Will.
According to this analogy, or metaphor, God might have said, “Play ball!” instead of “Let there be light!” And you’ve heard of the seventh inning stretch? Does that sound like Shabbat to you? Well, in any case, along with a diagram of team positions, you will also need an image of the Tree of Life. Miriam Stampfer, with the help of MacPaint, has obliged me by creating a suitable baseball graphic, and Rabbi Ayla Grafstein gave me a basic chart of the sefirot and their connecting paths, a schematic model of the Tree according to the system of the earlier kabbalists, which I have placed above it. The dotted circle, known as Da’at, or Knowledge, appears in its present location in versions of the chart that omit Keter. In my analogue, it represents shallow center field and reminds us of the range and mobility the center field position requires. In his translation of Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says that Da’at “is not a Sefirah, but merely the point of confluence between Wisdom and Understanding.” He goes on to explain that “in many ways, however, it behaves as a Sefirah, and it is thus often included among them.”4 In some versions of softball, as if following this very template, one fielder is assigned to short center and another to deep center. Baseball, however, retains its allegiance to the earlier model and expects one fielder to patrol both zones.
You can also think of Da’at as the zone where an infielder, usually the shortstop, runs to relay a throw from the outfield, as well as the place where three fielders – typically the second baseman, shortstop, and center fielder – converge to strive to snare a Texas Leaguer (a short pop fly). Kabbalistically, this is a place of transition, where the energies of the Upper Worlds are transformed or stepped down, in electrical terms – to enter the world of duality, a situation, of course, that is fraught with all kinds of peril, a juncture at which collisions and breakages are liable to occur. Excellent coordination is required to avoid disaster, and agility and alertness are needed to capture the spheroid and convey it to its intended target. Here caution is married to daring.
Thus, the Tree, with its ten sefirot, may be superimposed upon the players in the field, poised to begin their game. And this is the correspondence, at least the way I read it:
Keter /Crown (Fontanel) Center Field
Chokhmah /Wisdom (Right Brain) Right Field
Binah /Understanding (Left Brain) Left Field
Chesed /Lovingkindness/Overflow(Right Arm) Second Base
Gevurah /Strength/Discipline/Limit Setting (Left Arm) Shortstop
Tiferet /Beauty/Harmony (Heart) Pitcher
Netzakh /Victory/Endurance (Right Thigh) First Base
Hod /Splendor/Grace (Left Thigh) Third Base
Yesod /Foundation/Communication (Sign of the Covenant) Batter
Malkhut /Sovereignty/Groundedness (Feet) Catcher
Of course, what makes the game or the Tree interesting and relevant is the motion that develops when the system is activated. It is a dynamic system, responding to circumstances but guided by several underlying principles or rules. In the case of the game, the elaborate rules of baseball govern. In the Tree (or game) of Life, it is the complex laws revealed in the Torah. In both systems, actions take place along particular paths. In the sefirotic system, the paths between the sefirot are as important as the sefirot themselves. In baseball, the runners must proceed along certain predetermined base paths, until they either make an out or advance on a hit, force, error, sacrifice, fielder’s choice, stolen base, passed ball, wild pitch, or balk. In Kabbalah, there are 32 Paths of Wisdom, the ten sefirot and the 22 lines that connect them. In baseball, too, there are ten players on the field and complex interconnecting lines that manifest when the ball is put into play and the spheroid is hit, caught, or thrown from player to player. However, the paths between the bases are the most crucial ones.
Whatever the runners and fielders do, a scorekeeper records the results, an action analogous to Cheshbon HaNefesh (accounting of the soul) by which an ethical Jew periodically assesses his behavior. If someone scores a run, he comes home (Olam HaBah – the world to come) and receives a reward – a positive mark in the score book – and a warm welcome from his teammates and fans. If he is a great player, he may be admitted to the Hall of Fame, like a pious Jew or anyone replete with good deeds entering Gan Eden (Paradise). There, in the gallery of exalted heroes, his deeds are acclaimed by successive generations and compared with those of other standouts. There is similar hagiographic praise for the accomplishments of great prophets, sages, scholars, and rabbis in our sacred literature.5 In both disciplines the concept of teamwork is paramount. A player who sacrifices himself for his team (Mesirat HaNefesh – selfless service, even martyrdom) or who leads his team (Admor – the leader of his generation) is equally praised. In Jewish terms this quality is alluded to in Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, in the words of Hillel, who said: “Do not distance yourself from the community” (II:5).
Now let’s take a look at some of these positions and see how they match up with the sefirot. In center field (Keter or Crown) you have some of the greatest players ever to play the game: Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider. Great outfielders are not only great hitters; they are also known for their great arms (and golden gloves), which they need for strong throws to the infield to catch runners or prevent them from advancing. Babe Ruth, Carl Furillo, Rocky Colavito, and Roberto Clemente, among right fielders, and Barry Bonds (in his prime) among left fielders, are but a few of the many outfielders known for this ability.
It is also interesting to note that right field and left field are so called because they are seen from the position of someone who is facing the field – whether as home plate umpire, catcher, or batter. The Tree is analogous to the back of an androgyne, so that its right and the left sides correspond to right and left field, an example of bilateral symmetry, although ballpark dimensions vary widely and are often far from symmetrical – unlike the infield dimensions, which are scrupulously identical, although the quality of the various surfaces (true also of the outfield) differs widely. Thus, although these structures complement one another, they are not mirror images, and the outfielders are “out there” in a free-ranging world of their own, essential and alert but patient, waiting for the time when they will be needed, yet all the while exerting an influence by their very presence and availability – like the Partzufim, or Divine Personalities, described in esoteric kabbalistic texts and hymns.
But as we noted above, most of the action takes place in the infield, the world of the seven lower sefirot. There is constant interaction between the second baseman, or Chesed (Lovingkindness), and the shortstop, or Gevurah (Strength and Discipline – which includes setting limits), popularly known as the keystone combination. To see a pair of accomplished middle fielders turn a double play is a thing of rare beauty, like seeing a pair of skilled dancers execute a pas de deux with apparent ease and grace. The shortstop is often captain of the team (Pee Wee Reese comes to mind) or is the infield leader, calling out who should catch pop flies, and might also be the holler guy, the assertive one, maybe even the rally killer.
The pitcher, Tiferet (Beauty or Symmetry) is the heart of the team. It is he (or she) who initiates the motion by hurling the spheroid to the catcher, Malkhut (Groundedness/Responsibility) with whom he has an intimate relationship – indeed, they are called “battery-mates” – past the batter,Yesod (Foundation/Connection), who is standing there with a phallic club in his hands, whether he is a right-handed, left-handed, or switch-hitting player. Without making the analogy too pat, Yesod is related, among other functions, to the sexual or generative. Thus, the batter is trying to generate runs (offspring) to the orgasmic delight of his teammates (family) and fans (friends, clan, tribe).
An iron man – Lou Gehrig, Ted Kluszewski, or Gil Hodges – often fields first base (Netzakh or Endurance). Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games at the position, a record that has only recently been broken – after 60 years – by Cal Ripken. Gehrig epitomized the quality of Netzakh (Endurance), with which Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our Teacher) is identified in the Jewish heroes’ hall of fame. Moshe also is known for his profound humility, a quality that came easily (and out of necessity) to Gehrig, who played on the same team as the flamboyant Ruth.
Spectacular fielding third basemen, responsible for Hod (Splendor or Grace), such as Brooks Robinson, are famous for the tremendous agility they demonstrate in their extremely difficult role, which in kabbalistic terms corresponds to the priestly role of Aharon. The position is aptly named “the hot corner,” for the blazing line drives and hard grounders that are frequently hit there. Pie Traynor, Graig Nettles, and Mike Schmidt are still appreciated for the seemingly impossible plays they made. To see any one of them extend his body, while airborne, across the bag, to spear a liner, or to stretch and snare a ball deep in the hole and make the long throw to first from his knees, challenges the limits of what we had thought possible. It verges on the miraculous. For the fire pan and the fielder’s glove have both often prevented catastrophic losses. One of the most moving passages in the Torah is the description of Aharon HaKohen, the High Priest and the brother of Moses, rushing into the midst of his perishing people, his fire pan extended, on which the smoking incense burned. The Torah says, “He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked” (Numbers 17:13).
Of course, to compare physical agility and moral strength is also quite a stretch, but in both examples I think you will find a willingness to take personal risks and assume personal responsibility for the outcome of a crisis on behalf of the kehillah – the collective, the nation, or the team, the group to which one is loyally committed. Such an example is inspiring, no matter what is ultimately at stake.
I hope I have by now sufficiently established the underlying similarities between these two models for life, one considered a game, “the national pastime,” and the other an all-embracing lifestyle, if followed to its full extent. I’m sure you can think of numerous additional applications. Some that have come up in discussions so far have been in response to questions: What about the umpires? Easy. They’re Dayanim (rabbinical judges). That’s why they wear dark colors. Managers? Rebbes (spiritual guides). Coaches? Gabbais (assistants). Batboys and equipment managers? Shammeses (maintenance men). Substitutes? Batlanim (benchwarmers). The opposing team? The Sitra Achra (the Other Side).
But it is well-known that with no Yetzer HaRa (“Evil Urge” – libido or E¥lan Vital), life would be static. In Genesis Rabbah (IX:9), a midrashic commentary on the Torah, Rav Nahman says in the name of Rav Samuel that “were it not for the will to evil, men would not build homes, or take wives, or propagate, or engage in business.” He goes on to quote from Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), whose authorship is traditionally assigned to King Solomon: “I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet IV:4)6 Thus, even within a team, according to Clem Labine, the great Dodger reliever, “harmony was not always a good thing: a little tension, a little edge was useful, if only to show that things matter. Labine liked the idea of a team that sustained a manageable degree of anger – ‘It shows you’re not lethargic about what you’re doing’ – so long as it did not flare [up].”7 Without this intensity, this drive, the mainspring of activity would be paralyzed.
And this game, while at times slow moving, is fraught with anticipation and filled with continual mental references to precedent. Thus the master strategists – managers, pitchers, catchers, and hitters – are always weighing the consequences of a particular deed, like the mitzvah mavens (those who perform righteous acts) of old, the sages of the Talmud. Yet temptation and risk-taking are intrinsic to the game. The overweening urge to prevail over one’s opponent, to win, might sometimes obscure one’s better judgment. Yet often, playing the percentages, maintaining a steady, conservative approach, does not result in the desired breakthrough to victory, either. Likewise, in true Gnostic fashion, the home team becomes the “other side” for the visitors, or to their opponents when they go on the road. This is quite in accord with the nature of “Ivri,” the original name for Hebrew, which means “from beyond” or “the other side,” referring to Abraham and his clan, those Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking associates who came from the other side of the Euphrates River with him. In due course, we have allies and enemies, who have transmogrified into philosemites and antisemites. The word “fan,” of course, comes from “fanatic,” which is derived from fanum or temple. Thus, the first frenzied fans were religious fanatics. Richard Grossinger aptly named his 1985 anthology The Temple of Baseball.8 He borrowed the title from a column by my friend Lowell Cohn, in which he recounts an interview with former Los Angeles Dodger second baseman Jim Lefebvre who, to his own surprise, uses the term to describe Yankee Stadium.
Evil changes shape and turns into its opposite. The game itself is a paradox, charged with ambiguity, uncertainty, and perennial, unanswerable questions, such as, “Would old-timers be able to compete with today’s players?” This kind of question parallels the suspicion voiced by numerous commentators that Noah, a Tzaddik tamim (a pure and saintly person) “in his generations” (Genesis 6:9), would not have been so special in Abraham’s time. There are also the “What ifs?”: the dangling sense that if a certain course of action had not been followed, then everything would have turned out differently. There are often excruciating post-game analyses as detailed (though not as weighty) as the debates about blind curves in Jewish history. Baseball is a game that offers life- like analogies while Judaism is a religious civilization that strives to close the gap between metaphor and reality, so that Malkhut Shamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven) may exist here, in our earthly life.
I would like to conclude with a conversation I had with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the 1989 P’nai Or Kallah, a week-long gathering of representatives from dozens of Jewish renewal communities that took place at Bryn Mawr College in early July. Reb Zalman, who was then turning sixty-five, had his two young sons, Barya and Yotam, with him. Lately he had begun playing ball with them and, apropos of this, remarked to me, “You know, I used to think baseball was a silly game – ” “Oh no,” I broke in, “it’s the American Kabbalah!” “But now,” he went on, “I’m beginning to like it.”
First addendum: At a 1999 Oakland A’s game, a 6-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox, my youngest son, Elishama, noticed a painted jersey on the outfield wall in right, with Joe DiMaggio’s name and number (5), clearly visible. He asked whether major league baseball had retired the Yankee Clipper’s number, and I replied that I had heard no such thing. Jackie Robinson’s #42 jersey appeared at its left, and Elishama suggested that this was probably a commemorative gesture in honor of the 50th year since Robinson joined the Dodgers and integrated the game; Robinson, however, broke in with the Dodgers in 1947, although his best year, when he batted .342 and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, had indeed occurred 50 years before, in 1949. Other jerseys, on the left field wall, honored Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter, two A’s players from the 1970s championship teams who had won election to the Hall of Fame. We observed that no Philadelphia A’s were so honored here, although many of them were also in Cooperstown. Then it hit me. Joe had died this year; therefore, for the rest of the year, perhaps until his Yahrtzeit (the anniversary of someone’s death), his painted jersey would remain in place. In synagogue, that very morning, I had noticed the plaque affixed to the chapel wall, to the right of the ark, on which were visible the names of congregants who had died within the year, a reminder of past distinction, and a focal point for those saying Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, in their honor. Another cultural parallel, another spiritual motif.
Second addendum: In the course of attending a couple of post-season games this past year, I noticed more parallels.
1. The Rules of Major League Baseball – the authoritative guide for determining how an umpire should rule on every conceivable play – is matched by the Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”), the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, which serves as a guide to the conduct of observant Jews. Depending on circumstances, both codes permit considerable latitude in many areas where the law – or rules – are applied. The rabbi must exercise his own discretion in interpreting the law. The umpire, too, is often called upon to make a “judgment call.” Simply calling a runner safe or out and calling a pitch a ball or strike is in many cases exceedingly difficult. Likewise, deciding whether a chicken is kosher (fit for consumption) or not is but one of many areas where the decision of the rabbi can be influenced by numerous factors inherent in the situation. In both cases the ruling is binding, and appeals are rarely successful.
2. Superstition. A baseball player will often wear the same socks or the same shirt, use the same bat, wear the same hat or medal, hitch his pants the same way, chew the same brand of gum, or practice any of a hundred variables so long as doing so seems to bring good fortune to his game. Likewise, there are many well-known folk customs, perhaps derived from centuries of countering bad luck in foreign lands, such as spitting three times (or simulating spitting by saying “poo-poo-poo”), saying kayn ayin ha-rah (“against the evil eye”) or “God forbid!” and numerous other practices that have even become enshrined in Halakhah (law), though perhaps beginning as minhagim (customs), such as Tashlikh (the symbolic casting of sins into a body of water on Rosh HaShanah), covering mirrors after a death, and so on. Timely spitting seems to be one custom to which both traditions adhere. And both practices might have similar folk origins.
3. An intense interest in numbers. The compilation, analysis, and general obsession with statistics is a well-known and often remarked upon aspect of baseball culture. This interest, originally developed to evaluate skills as measured by an objective standard, has evolved into using the information thereby obtained for strategic purposes, known as “playing the percentages,” the most prominent example of which is assuming that the percentages favor a right- handed batter when the opposing pitcher is left-handed and favor the pitcher who is right-handed in a match-up with a right-handed batter. The statistics supporting this conclusion encourage managers to carry out a pattern of substitution, most notably in the use of pinch-hitters and relief pitchers.
In Judaic lore, each Hebrew letter is assigned a number, and words therefore have a numerical value. Words and names and phrases with identical numerical values are assumed to have cognate meanings. This form of seeking out similarities or equivalents in apparently dissimilar or unrelated places is known as the science of Gematria.
It is important to note one significant difference, however. The assigning of relative degrees of excellence to players based on their statistics, such as batting average, fielding percentage, earned run average, and won-lost record does not have an exact counterpart in Jewish life. Although a somewhat mechanistic scale of values has evolved, whereby the performance of mitzvot (commandments) is contrasted with the commission of avayrot (misdeeds), the true calculation of excellence is understood to lie beyond human understanding. The True Judge, alone, is deemed qualified to determine a person’s worth, which is based not only on actual deeds but also upon the opportunities to serve with which one has been blessed, one’s inner intention, one’s love for God and God’s creation, and one’s dedication to the purposes for which he or she has been given life. In baseball, too, it must be said, outstanding numbers are frequently outweighed by the possession of certain “intangibles,” which often determine the value of a player to his team and the reputation he thereby garners in the annals of the game.
For biblical corroboration, see Psalm 147:10-11 – “Not in the strength of the horse does He desire, and not in the thighs of man does He favor. HaShem favors those who fear [stand in awe of] Him, those who yearn for His kindness.” This passage reminds us that victory is not always achieved through the obvious and outwardly impressive attributes of strength and power. Many a team seems superior on paper but stumbles as Goliath did when he was faced by the redoubtable and resourceful David. (For the full story, see I Samuel, chapter 17.)
The attempt to assign value to a player based on salaries, bonuses, and incentives also has a counterpart in Jewish lore. Reb Nachman’s allegorical fairy tale, “The Master of Prayer,” mocks – yet has compassion for – the community whose members assign rank and status to individuals based on the amount of money each possesses. Their distorted sense of values is attributed to a great storm (in kabbalistic terms, Shivirat haKaylim, “the shattering of the vessels”) that scattered the once unified human family across the world, an uprooting which in turn led to confusion and a diminution of standards. As the story progresses, however, the Master of Prayer gradually joins forces with the similarly exiled Warrior and other dispersed members of the King’s court and restores proper perception of the truth to all of erring mankind.
I have come to regard this essay as my attempt to reconcile these contrasting paradigmatic figures, demonstrate their essential unity, and point to their common source. If, along the way, you have enjoyed a few smiles and flashes of recognition, I will consider our exchange another step toward Tikkun Olam – repair of the world.
And finally, inescapably, I must make mention of the uncanny correspondences between the Hebrew calendar and its Holy Days cycle with the baseball season. Spring training begins in March, and the final exhibition games are played in early April, followed by Opening Day. Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year, also begins sometime in March, and Passover, the first major festival, usually occurs in April, although occasionally it begins at the end of March. It is typically preceded by a thorough house cleaning, the main point of which is to get rid of bloat – chumatz – identified as any of the five species of grain that rise, like bread, upon contact with water: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt – and the primary leavening agent itself, yeast (and baking powder). Likewise, major league rosters, swelling at 45 players, must be trimmed down to 25 by Opening Day. The superfluous grains and their byproducts are sent elsewhere, such chumatz being either burned or sold to a non-Jew (that is, someone who is not obligated to observe these ritual stringencies). Players who do not make the final cut are either sent to a team’s farm club, traded, sold, or released outright. Like chumatz, they can also be bought back.
The fifty day interval between Passover and Shavuot (the next major Holy Day) is a time of self-scrutiny, as the psalmist says, “teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom” (90:12). We count the omer – in ancient times, by waving an omer (a sheaf’s worth) of barley meal in the six basic directions: south, north, east, up, down, and west – and today by counting with a blessing. This is a way of keeping track of the shifting permutations of days and weeks and the specific qualities, based on the sefirot, that are associated with them. The driving purpose of this daily counting ritual is to refine our midot – personal attributes that can be elevated into virtues or diminished into vices – in order to merit receiving the Torah, the gift with which Shavuot (the Festival of Weeks) is today chiefly associated.
The first two months of the baseball season are also a time for close examination, during which the manager and his coaching staff and the owners and their front office personnel wonder whether the team has the right combination of players and the right chemistry to go all the way. If not, adjustments can still be made, that is, until the trading deadline (July 31st).
By mid-summer the season has begun to take its toll. There might be injuries to key players and other unexpected setbacks, even the firing of managers or the release of players who can no longer contribute or who do not perform as well as expected. Such deleterious trends and patterns of weakness in the lineup are noted by fans and scribes, who protest some decisions, recommend or applaud others, and watch with increasing concern as the clubs jockey for position.
In Jewish lore, the midsummer crisis centers around the three weeks that encompass the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which generally occur starting anywhere from late June to mid-July and conclude by mid-July to mid-August. It is a time when previous national disasters are recalled and collective responsibility assumed for the internal dissension that allowed these calamities to occur. There is a special focus on avoiding backbiting, rumor- mongering, and gossip, all of which tend to embarrass individuals and fracture group esprit.
In the home stretch, September and October, the pennant races heat up. Every play counts, and every player becomes even more aware of the possible consequences of a misplay, error, or temper tantrum leading to an expulsion, suspension, or benching. Fracases between teams and teammates are more likely to break out, and umpires’ decisions on close plays are more hotly disputed. Yet some teams jell, and the early claims of good chemistry are proven true – or, in some cases, disproven, if, for example, some prima donna cares more about his own records than the team’s success.
Jews are entering the last month before the great accounting that takes place on Rosh HaShanah (Head of the Year) – also known as Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgment), Yom Teruah (the Day of Sounding the Shofar), and Yom HaKesah (the Day of Concealment) – referring both to the barely visible New Moon and to the Judgment itself). In Elul, the month that precedes our New Year, we seek to mend our frayed relationships, straighten out past misunderstandings, and heal interpersonal wounds. To do so requires a considerable measure of humility, expressed as a willingness to acknowledge one’s own failures, faults, and flaws. Likewise, our relationship with the Sovereign of the Universe is often in need of renewal. Fortunately, this time of year is considered ideal for a sincere approach. Many beautiful interactions occur as people meet one another with open hearts and approach God in a spirit of repentance or t’shuva, meaning “return” to the path of righteousness. There is even a well-known saying, “The King is in the field,” to describe God’s closeness and easy access to the true penitent.
On Rosh HaShanah, we are taught, God inscribes our names in the Book of Life, if we merit it, or in the other book, if we do not, for the coming year. During the Ten Days of Teshuvah or Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which fall between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is still time for the inscription to be emended. On Yom Kippur, however, the written Judgment is sealed – made permanent – although some say the sealing is not final until Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot (which I’ll get to in a minute).
And what is happening on the diamond? Final determinations are also being made in the standings. Some teams are out of contention, others are still in the throes of the race or barely hanging on, and a lucky few may have already clinched their division title or a wild card position. The playoffs generally happen around this time, and by Sukkot, the fall harvest festival that follows Yom Kippur by four days, the World Series combatants have emerged from the scuffle. Here’s a stretch: the distinguishing features of Sukkot are 1) the construction of a Sukkah, a temporary shelter with a permeable roof, and 2) “bentching lulav,” the holding together of the “four species” (arba minim) and, after saying a blessing, shaking them in the six directions referred to earlier. These species consist of a palm branch (lulav), a citron or etrog, three branches of myrtle (hadas), and two of willow (aravah). To my conceptual vision, the lulav resembles a bat, the etrog a ball, and the five combined branches of the other two species the figure of a glove. Okay, it’s a stretch. But do you really think it’s only a coincidence that the World Series is often played at precisely this time of year? And sometimes in a stadium with a retractable roof?
What is a coincidence? C.G. Jung used the term “synchronicity” to refer to otherwise apparently unrelated events that occur simultaneously, and energy healers and holistic thinkers alike often remark, “There are no accidents.” Their point? There is a link, there is a connection. And while I agree that these circumstances may only demonstrate parallel evolution, with no demonstrable causative influence, that is exactly my point – there is an underlying pattern of which these instances are examples.
Baseball today is likewise usually played in an enclosure that is exposed to the elements. Like the sukkah, it has certain minimum required dimensions but no fixed shape. Thus, unless cookie cutter models are used, no two are alike and each has its charms and its peculiarities. And like the 360∞ lulav shaking, which, ideally, takes place in the sukkah, the ball can travel in all directions – in the air, on the ground, in fair or foul territory, that is, in front, behind, up, down, and to either side. And, of course, a ball hit into foul territory can still count for something. It can be caught for an out and even result in a double play if a runner is caught off base. It can count for a strike, and even if there are already two strikes on the batter (who cannot strike out on a foul ball – unless it’s a third strike bunt), the foul ball at least adds to the pitch count and could therefore lead to a pitcher being replaced sooner. Every action counts.
Before and after each time the lulav bundle is extended, it is held close to the heart. The team that plays with heart and determination is more likely to win and better able to bear loss. “Ya Gotta Have Heart,” the signature song of the Washington Senators in Damn Yankees, the Broadway musical and movie based on Douglass Wallop’s novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, bears this out.
Want more? Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, occurs in December, a couple of months after the baseball season has ended. But memories of the season just past are still fresh. They fire the embers of discussion in the Hot Stove League. It’s also the time of the Winter Meetings, where baseball executives talk business and prepare for the next season. During Chanukah, according to some, the sealed judgment can still be opened and revised. In January or February, as the sap rises, Tu b’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, is celebrated, and players and their teams buy new equipment, among these items being the bats that are made of carefully chosen and aged billets of ash.
Here’s a memory. One of the most exciting World Series games ever played occurred on Simchat Torah, 5746 (October 25, 1986), between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. Simchat Torah, in the diaspora, is the ninth day, as it were, of Sukkot, but actually it is an extension of Shemini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly), for in Israel, the two days and their ritual observances are combined. It is an extra day devoted to rejoicing in the Torah with a series of seven hakafot, circle dances that culminate in the reading of passages from the concluding section of the Torah. In traditional congregations, the complete conclusion and the beginning are only read the next morning. However, in some communities, the end and the beginning are both read at night.
On that memorable evening, my community, the Berkeley, California- based Aquarian Minyan, was holding a Simchat Torah retreat at Camp Lodestar in the Sierra foothills. The Red Sox and the Mets were playing their sixth game, with the Red Sox leading three games to two. Someone at the retreat had a radio, and between hakafot, he checked the score. Our group would dance ecstatically for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes and then pause. During these brief intervals, our friend would report on the progress of the game. I think we were all rooting for the Mets, as most of us had closer ties to New York than to Boston.9
As the tense, close game proceeded, we began to speculate that when the Mets fans in their countless synagogues concluded their services – which they were likely to do well before we would, as it was three hours later on the east coast, their focus on the game might shift the balance and push the Mets to victory. The Mets did win, in a completely unexpected way, on Mookie Wilson’s ground ball, the culmination of a ten pitch at-bat, which rolled under first baseman Bill Buckner’s glove and through his legs, in the bottom of the tenth inning. But whether this outcome was due to a sudden surge of fan attention, or for some other reason, I cannot say. The next day’s game was rained out, and the Mets won the seventh game, 8-5, taking the Series, four games to three. The date was 24 Tishrei/October 27.
This year, 19 years later, through a computer from my home in Israel, I watched the Chicago White Sox beat the Houston Astros in four straight games. I watched the final innings in the early morning hours of 24 Tishrei, which once again fell on October 27th, as the civil and religious calendars coincide every 19 years.10
When I started to write about these correspondences, I was elaborating on a flash, a sudden insight. I hadn’t yet realized how far-reaching and intricate the parallels between these analogical realms were. Therefore, I approached the subject light-heartedly, as much interested in creating a humorous effect as in the substance of my comparisons. The frisson of humor that accompanied my investigations leavened the search and increased its appeal to those who heard it. I even wrote a disclaimer to the essay, advising its readers not to take it all too seriously. In “A Caveat to ‘Baseball Kabbalah,'” I explained:
“I wrote this extended comparison and analysis a bit tongue-in-cheek. I don’t mean to imply that every analogue is filled with deep significance, nor do I mean to claim to have proven that these correspondences necessarily possess some overarching cosmic meaning. Nevertheless, I feel that the preponderance of apparent linkages – in schematic layout, in numbers, and in assumed and expressed values – is no mere accident. Rather, these seem to emerge from some vast and perennial underlying pattern. I hope, therefore, that through example and humor, I have established some connection, some relation, between these worlds.”
This belated display of caution is evidence of my concern that taking this comparison too literally could eclipse the charm of the original idea and possibly lead someone to regard it as flippant or even heretical. So let me clarify my point, one more time: it’s all a metaphor; it’s poetry; it’s a game, but one with high stakes. You can learn from one to live the other. Baseball models something that Judaism manifests, and Judaism models something that baseball manifests. Both reflect seasonal patterns in strikingly similar ways and exemplify fond hopes, great dreams, and joi de vivre, even though the kavanah – the intentionality – that each brings to its practice and discipline reflects its particular contrasting reasons for existing: victory on the field for one, redemption of the world for the other. Yet those who immerse themselves in either of these paths – players, fanatics, and worshippers alike – are blessed with moments of transcendence and vindication, a reward for their commitment and justification for all their toil and pain.
* * * This essay has the privilege of being included in a volume entitled, What is Jewish About America’s Favorite Pastime? edited by Marc Lee Raphael and Judith Z. Abrams. It was published by William and Mary Press in the summer of 2006. An order form for the book is included elsewhere on this web site.