The Olympics has its origin in ancient Greece, where the human body and the prowess of athletes were celebrated as a national value. It was part and parcel of the same Greek culture that sought to impose its will on the Jewish people during the period of the Chashmona’im. The Jewish victory over the Greeks and their assimilationist allies was a victory over that same culture that produced the Olympics.
The Olympic Games themselves are an expression of the very opposite of Jewish values and it is inappropriate for a Jewish delegation to participate in such a competition at all.
On Sunday, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, announced that she would forgo participation in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro because it would entail chillul Shabbos.
“Shabbos is our national day of rest [and] is one of the most important gifts that Jewish people have given to the culture of humanity,” Regev said. “As the representative of the state of Israel … I unfortunately cannot take part in the opening ceremony of the Olympics because it would require me to break the holy Sabbath.”
Efforts to arrange accommodations close enough to the venue for her and her staff to walk there on Shabbos were unsuccessful. Security officials said that they could not guarantee her safety unless she stayed in housing where she would have to drive to and from the site on Shabbos.
The very fact that this has even been deemed worthy of coverage in the Israeli media is a sad indication of what we have come to. Shemiras Shabbos is not a praiseworthy stringency but the eternal bond between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. The keeping of Shabbos defines us as a people, and being shomrei Shabbos is a fundamental part of our very identity. Regev’s decision should not be reason for special commendation; it should be self-evident that this is what a Jew does.
However, in the current atmosphere in Israel where Shabbos is under constant assault by secular forces, with politicians urging the operation of buses on Shabbos in the major cities, and many stores and malls open, the instance of a minister refusing for the sake of Shabbos what is considered by secular Israelis to be a quadrennial thrill and a great honor, is something that deserves recognition. Perhaps it will help others to find the decency and courage to do likewise. If this will inspire even a single additional Yid to keep Shabbos, then all the publicity is well worth it.
It is not only Israeli officials who are bound to keep Shabbos. Shabbos is for every Jew. Unfortunately, Regev’s decision has no bearing on the Israeli team, who presumably will be participating in the Friday events and will be involved in chillul Shabbos.
Although the Israeli Olympic team members are not elected officials bound by the status quo and do not formally represent the Jewish state, they are competing for Israel. They wear the uniform of the Israeli team; they parade in the stadium with the Israeli flag and the state anthem will be played (a short excerpt) if they win an event. So, despite the numerous and deep reservations Torah Jewry has about many of the actions of the government of a secular State of Israel, in the eyes of the nations the conduct of these Israelis reflects on all of us. What does it say about the Jewish people when its members abroad, in front of tens of millions, participate in such an event?
Let us remember that Shabbos is the real “gold medal,” and those who keep Shabbos, especially those who are moser nefesh to do so, are the real winners, the true heroes. May the Ribbono shel Olam help that all of Am Yisrael should recognize the great gift of Shabbos and reclaim the lofty sign, the eternal bond between Hashem and His people.