The Old Lady and the Triathlon

“I had to give up competing in Triathlons in America. I thought when I come to Israel I will now be able to resume. I was crestfallen to learn the triathlons are on Shabbat, with government funding,” complained the elderly triathlete. She had become observant, made Aliya, and had hoped to compete in the swimming-cycling-running contests in Israel.

This was the response of a grey-haired matron in one of the Young Israel shuls in Netanya last Shabbat when another member, Chaim Yankel, quoted a candidate who is hoping to become Prime Minister. Benny Gantz, in his maiden speech waved the flag of more chilul Shabbat as something his party would promote. In this general election there are four former generals on the Blue & White party list, among them Gantz. Chaim Yankel expressed shock that a person running for Prime Minister of the Jewish state would declare,

“It’s not just a question of deeds – it’s a question of identity. Israel is the State of the Jewish people, all of whose citizens are equal. The government under whose leadership I stand will respect the traditions of Israel and allow people to live according to their beliefs and values. We will promote the covenant of couplehood [marriage outside the Rabbinate, SLS] and the agreement regarding prayers at the Western Wall. We will allow public transportation on Shabbat in those communities that will choose this – but with meticulous observance of the holy character of this holy day.”

How does allowing public transportation jive with “meticulous observance of the holy character of this holy day”? It is an oxymoronic sentence. Gantz embodies inconsistencies (as we all do).
Soon after that speech he flew on Shabbat from Ben-Gurion airport (not on ELAL) to a meeting in Munich dealing with security issues. Still, he is reported as maintaining, “I am a secular traditional Jew. We make Kiddush on Friday night. I sit in my father’s seat in synagogue. I love tradition. It’s important to me. Emunah is something intimate.”

I shrugged and responded to Chaim Yankel that these statements of a candidate are just so much boiler plate rhetoric. “You should not take clichés about more chilul Shabbat seriously.” But my interlocutor replied that we should be shocked. “You have become so insensitive to the honor of Shabbat” Chaim Yankel rebuked me.

Chastised, I ruminated on the issue. Maybe living in Israel I had become too inured to Shabbat desecration. Then I recalled the response of the Klausenberger Rebbe, ztz”l when his Sanz Chassidim started shouting “Shabbos” at cars passing by the haredi enclave of Kiryat Sanz where I live. The Rebbe unequivocally forbid shouting “Shabbos.” “No one became observant because you yelled at him. Go home, open your windows, sing zmirot. That might have an effect on people.”

The Rebbe had an additional suggestion. He himself took on extra meticulousness in shmirat Shabbat when he saw chilul Shabbat in others. When he encountered disregard for mitzvot, he looked inward to see where he himself could improve.

Meanwhile, I have happy news for my elderly triathlete friend. I checked with the Israel Triathlon Association, and found at least one competition scheduled for a Friday morning. I will swim, bike, and run to tell her.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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11 Responses

  1. Charlie Hall says:

    Here in New York there are many triathlons that are NOT on Shabbat.

    • In the USA says:

      Yes, unfortunately Israel is on a 6 day work week, (well 5 1/2 day).
      Do uf someone wants to partipate in an organized sport or even go shopping, Shabbos is the only day available.
      I think Israel needs to go to a 5 day work week with Sunday off too. That way when the religious scream “shabbos” at least give the chilonim an alternate day. Even hear in the USA, I know many people find it hard when yom tov falls out shabbos and sunday.
      Leaving no secular day off to catch up on things around the house or to even go out somewhere.

      • David Ohsie says:

        I work with people in Israel in software. Their work week is Sunday-Thursday. From halacha/Judaism PoV, it makes much more sense to have Friday off than Sunday off.

      • mycroft says:

        David Ohsie
        February 28, 2019 at 3:34 pm
        I work with people in Israel in software. Their work week is Sunday-Thursday. From halacha/Judaism PoV, it makes much more sense to have Friday off than Sunday off.

        Agreed-there are many jobs in Israel Sun-Thur. HS attend Sunday-Thursday.
        There are sporting events on Friday see eg Jerusalem Marathon

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Shira, I’m curious about what factors led you and your husband to choose Kiryat Sanz / Netanya as a home.

    • Shira Schmidt says:

      You aren’t the only one to ask how we got here.The director of the film “Hidden Face” about the Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe z”l, was also puzzled and included us in his film (my husband & I will be showing and discussing the film in the US after Pesach). My late husband Dr Elhanan Leibowitz passed away. I was a widow with six children. I met a wonderful widower, Dr Baruch Schmidt,a surgeon from Texas who had been brought to Landiado Hospital to build a Dept.of Surgery. After getting to know the Sanz chassidim, he decided to live in their Kiriya. We aren’t card carying Sanzers; more like fellow travelers. If your community is interested in renting the film “Hidden Face” for screening and having a Q & A afterwards, contact me [email protected]

  3. David Fachler says:

    Israel does have a 5 day work week.
    Very few work on Fridays and soccer matches on Friday afternoon have become very popular as have Marathons.
    Taking off Sunday would diminish the unique status of the Jewish State and would leave Israel with a 4 day work week that it could Ill afford

    • mycroft says:

      In general agree. Even institutions that run on a six day week, such as Israeli elementary schools have each employee working five days, different ones have different days off. Of colurse, teachers have plenty of vacations eg before Pesach, summer, near Yom Tov etc.

  4. David Ohsie says:

    Most Jews with some affiliation to Judaism do not see the Shabbos strictures as we (the Orthodox do). Judaism and Shabbos *can* be important to them even if they take the bus on Shabbos. The question is whether or not it makes sense to use coercion to enforce the Orthodox point of view. Your story at the end indicates that you think that coercion is not the right path. If so, Benny Gantz’s position may actually be sensible even though it would allow for things that you don’t prefer.

  5. Raymond says:

    Triathlons and other similar marathons are a waste of time and energy anyway. It is better to save all that energy for far more constructive pursuits, such as earning a living, taking care of one’s family, watching one’s health in a more moderate manner, and doing all things Jewish. And as for Benny Gantz, the fact that he is threatening to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, tells me all I need to know about his (Mr Gantz’s) bad character.

  6. bo says:

    The Klausenberger and (sincere) zealots share an aspiration, that Shabbos be observed and safeguarded. They strongly disagree how to get there. How many an Orthodox Jew is in a situation where he should and does smile warmly to an irreligious Jew in the act of desecrating the Shabbos, all the while his heart is bleeding inside? The flippant words of Gantz are the polar opposite of this.

    There are also people with a caricature of Shabbos that they respect. How should they be dealt with? Perhaps kindness, but alas, their status quo is ultimately non-kosher.

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