RIO, Brazil — Last week at Friday night services, Rabbi Israel Kaczala of Beit Lubavitch Rio made a brief announcement. “Tomorrow after Shaharit prayers we have something planned here at 1 o’clock. We know everyone is eagerly awaiting that time and we didn’t forget about you. Tomorrow, at 1 o’clock,” he paused for dramatic effect, “We will have a big festive Shabbat lunch!”
The congregation chuckled, as everyone in the room knew that Saturday, June 28 at 1 o’clock Rio time, Brazil was set to take on Chile in the first game of the 2014 World Cup knockout stage.
Brazil won that Round of 16 game in a nail biter that ended in a penalty shootout, advancing the host country to a quarterfinal match Friday July 4 against Colombia. With a 5 o’clock kickoff, Brazilian Jews are once again stuck in the unfortunate position of respecting Shabbat while the rest of the country likewise comes to a screeching halt with a different purpose – to crowd around TVs, and for the lucky few, settle into stadium seats — to watch history in the making as the national team pursues its record sixth World Cup title.
(According to Beit Lubavitch, candle lighting this evening is at 4:58 pm in Rio, as July falls squarely in the Southern Hemisphere winter.)
While on the field, the intersection of religion and sports has focused on how the World Cup’s Muslim players are handling the arrival of Ramadan, off the field, Brazil’s Jewish community of roughly 110,000 has been contending with several Shabbat games, normally a non-issue as league games are traditionally on Wednesday and Sunday nights.
The overlap is an agony that prompted Rabbi Pessach Kauffman, who presides at Ahavat Reim Synagogue, an Orthodox shul in São Paulo, home to the country’s largest Jewish population, to vent his frustration on Facebook. In an allusion to the punishment meted out to Uruguyan player Luis Soarez for his infamous bite, he posted, “We should give FIFA the boot – a three-month ban from playing or going anywhere near football stadiums. 2nd game on Shabbat! Shameful!”
In response, a congregant cheekily wrote, “Leave the TV on during all of Shabbat!!!” to which Rabbi Kauffman dutifully responded, “You can’t do that! We have faith that Shabbat is more important.”
That sentiment has led many Orthodox Jews to resign themselves to learning about the game secondhand, if at all. Of course, in football-crazy Brazil during a national team game, it can be hard to block out news of the secular world.
“We had a Shabbat lunch during the Brazil vs. Chile game, which by the end of the meal only had about 10 people when we usually have 50 to 60. Either way, the security guard rushed into the room to tell us what happened,” Kauffmann told The Times of Israel.
Indeed, the security guards, doormen, cooks, servers, and other staff that serve the Jewish community have become football Shabbos goyim, understandably unable to contain their excitement when Brazil scores a goal or wins the game, both occasions that cause whole neighborhoods to erupt into excitement.
“Even if they can’t turn on their TVs, some people watch in the lobby with their doormen,” admitted Rabbi Eliezer Stauber of some of his congregants at Kehilat Yaacov Synagogue in Copacabana. “Although the more observant certainly did what they usually do on Shabbat.”
‘Even if they can’t turn on their TVs, some people watch in the lobby with their doormen’
Daniel Costa, an Orthodox dermatologist and football fan who lives in Rio and considers himself shomer Shabbos, spent last Saturday afternoon with an observant friend who doesn’t own a television. But when they heard shouting in the street, they rushed to the balcony to catch a whiff of the news.
“When I got to mincha [afternoon prayers] later on, everyone was already talking about the game. Directly or indirectly, they knew,” he said.
“Every Brazilian, even Jews, can’t disconnect and want to know if they’re winning or not,” Stauber explained. When asked if it would be keeping the spirit of Shabbat to ask the score, he demurred. “You can ask,” he said, “But you end up finding out whether you want to or not.”
When Brazil’s goalie made the game winning save, he says the noise from the street likewise drew him to his balcony where, with a chuckle, he confesses to having learned that Brazil had won.
“Like any Brazilian we’re fans and the country’s joy is good for everyone,” he said.
‘Like any Brazilian we’re fans and the country’s joy is good for everyone’
Although the Brazil vs. Chile game started after services, the situation could be more complicated tonight. While the average football game is over within two hours, which would have Brazil vs. Colombia finished by the time most shuls are scheduled to begin services, a tie at the end of regulation could push the game as much as an extra hour if it leads to another penalty shootout.
To that end, the Congregação Judaica do Brasil, a Masorti synagogue in Rio, has pushed back Kabbalat Shabbat to 8 pm, both to allow for the game and travel time, as the World Cup has challenged the city’s already chaotic rush hour traffic.
“We leave it to the individual to make a personal decision about whether or not to watch the games,” wrote CJB’s Rabbi Nilton Bonder, also a well-known author.
Rabbi Kaczala, who himself occasionally plays football, was less compromising, as Beit Lubavitch will not change its service times.
“There’s no big secret, I don’t have any special advice for people,” he said. “I have lots of observant friends who are crazy about football and they’re in a difficult situation what with not watching TV. But the sanctity of Shabbat is incomparably more important.”
Nevertheless, it is possible that observant Jews, already not watching the game from the outset, will be walking to synagogue while anxious fans crowd the sidewalk as they cluster around TVs on every corner in big cities like Rio and São Paulo watching a possible Brazil vs. Colombia overtime.
‘There are people who can’t handle not knowing’
“There are people who can’t handle not knowing,” Kaczala said, “and if they were to ask me what would be adequate, I would say on Shabbat you have to concentrate on Shabbat, you shouldn’t mix the two.”
Costa, the dermatologist, will be staying with family outside of Rio, where he most certainly will not be the one to turn on the TV. But he also won’t ignore his family – Jewish, though not as observant as him – that will most definitely have it on.
“I’m not going to do as a I normally do and sit down in front of the TV with a beer,” he said, “But I’m not going to cover my ears and leave the house either, I came to spend time with family.”
For Rabbi Dario Bialer, who presides at the Associação Religiosa Israelita, a Reform synagogue in Rio that will start services tonight slightly later because of the game, his major concern is tomorrow. As an ardent fan of his native Argentina, home to the largest Jewish community in South America, he is focused on another quarterfinal matchup: Argentina vs. Belgium at 1 o’clock local time in Belo Horizonte, for which friends offered him a ticket.
“I was up until 3 am last night,” he said in an interview on Wednesday, “trying to sort this out, but I know it my heart it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, I can’t abandon my congregation.”
He will be at the pulpit as scheduled on Saturday, hoping for an Argentine victory so that he can instead go to their semi-final game next week.
After the dust settles from this weekend’s quarterfinal games and the havdalah candle has been lit, attention can once again focus on the quadrennial sporting event that has captured the world’s attention. While the runner-up game on Saturday, July 12 would pose a Shabbos conflict, for the passionate Jewish fans of Brazil and Argentina, especially for those eager for a possible duel between these two historic rivals, only the chance to win it all really counts at the 2014 World Cup.
Lucky for them, the first kick of the grand finale will come at the blessedly more Jewish-friendly hour of 4 o’clock local time on Sunday, July 13.