The Day Hank Greenberg Played for God

September 21, 2023

Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish superstar in American baseball and in American sports in general.  Now, as you might imagine, when he first came up to the Big Leagues to play for the Detroit Tigers in the early 1930s, antisemitism was a fact of life.

But in 1934, Hammering Hank broke out as a superstar, and the anti-Semite Tigers fans had to come to terms with their Jewish hero.  A journalist of the day wrote a poem describing the change:

The Irish didn’t like it when they heard of Greenberg’s fame
For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;
And the Murphys and Mulrooneys said they never dreamed they’d see
A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat
Or prayed to see a “double” when Hank Greenberg came to bat.
In July the Irish wondered where he’d ever learned to play.
“He makes me think of Casey!” Old Man Murphy dared to say;
And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made
The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.

That September, late in the season, the Tigers were fighting to win the pennant.  And though he initially said he wouldn’t play on Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), Greenberg caved to pressure, and agreed to play on the Jewish New Year:

But upon the Jewish New Year

When Hank Greenberg came to bat
And made two home runs off Pitcher Rhodes—
They cheered like mad for that!

Nine days later, Greenberg once again had a decision to make.  Would he play on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in a must-win game against the hated Yankees?  Or would he go to the Shaarei Tzedek synagogue in Detroit and pray with his fellow Jews?

Came Yom Kippur – holy day worldwide over to the Jew –
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield, and shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion—and I honor him for that!”

The awe and power of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), even for a “secular” Jew like Hank Greenberg, is palpable.  Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, it can’t be missed.

But what’s fascinating is that Yom Kippur didn’t always have the same appeal. In fact, we find no mention at all of Yom Kippur in the books of the Prophets, the books describing the period of the First Temple.

The historians tell us that in those days, Yom Kippur was not like the other holidays when Jews would come to Jerusalem with their sacrifices.  Instead, the High Priest would perform the service by himself in the Temple while everybody else stayed home and observed a fast day, the same way Jews observe minor fast days today.  There weren’t any special prayers, and people didn’t crowd into the Temple to watch.

But everything changed in the Second Temple era.  All of a sudden, Yom Kippur became “popular” and it has remained so to this day.  In the Second Temple era, thousands upon thousands of Jews would come to the Temple on Yom Kippur just to catch a glimpse of the face of the High Priest on this awesome day.  Throngs of Jews would pray together for the success of the High Priest in his mission; getting God to forgive His people.  And they would wait with bated breath, straining to see if the High Priest would emerge safely from the Holy of Holies, a sign that forgiveness had indeed been granted.

The question is, what changed?  Why were the Jewish people drawn to Yom Kippur all of a sudden?  Why did the Day of Atonement begin to capture the hearts of the Jewish people in a way that continues to move them to this day?

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that in terms of years, the distance between the two Temples was not so great. Construction on the Second Temple began only seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple, and there were Jews who saw the First Temple as children and lived long enough to see the Second Temple as old men and women. But in the most important ways, everything had changed.  With the destruction of the First Temple, the era of prophecy, God’s direct communication to the Jewish people, came to an end.  As did the open miracles that were commonplace in the First Temple.

In the Second Temple era, God’s presence in this world was no longer obvious or tangible, and the people felt a profound spiritual emptiness.  They were, in the words of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, “thirsty for the word of God” that they could no longer hear.

But one day a year, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, there was a moment, a brief opportunity, when God would reveal Himself to His people.  For just an instant they again felt that closeness with their Father in Heaven that they had so foolishly taken for granted in earlier generations.

And so, explains Rabbi Meir Simcha, throughout the Second Temple era, thousands of Jews would come to Jerusalem to be with the High Priests on Yom Kippur to momentarily feel the presence of God.

Even after the Second Temple was destroyed and the High Priest could no longer perform the Yom Kippur service, the magnetic hold of Yom Kippur on the hearts of the Jewish people has not diminished. In fact, as the generations decline and we feel more broken and distant from God, our need for Yom Kippur only grows.

As our culture pulls farther and farther away from holiness and truth, our yearning for God’s closeness and our need for His presence in our lives only intensifies.  The superficiality of our society and the endless distractions from what is really important, all divert us from the things that really matter in life and the eternal truths that determine our destiny. Now more than ever we need Yom Kippur.

And that is why even the most secular Jews find meaning in Yom Kippur. It is our chance to feel the presence of God, to briefly connect with our Creator and to focus on the things which have real meaning in our lives. It reminds us that sometimes we need to rise above our usual selves and think about what is really important, to set spiritual goals and to make space for our Father in Heaven.

May we merit to take advantage of this awesome opportunity that God has given us. And may we be granted a year of peace and health for the entire world.

Rabbi Elie Mischel

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Director of Education at Israel365. Before making Aliyah in 2021, he served as the Rabbi of Congregation Suburban Torah in Livingston, NJ. He also worked for several years as a corporate attorney at Day Pitney, LLP. Rabbi Mischel received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Rabbi Mischel also holds a J.D. from the Cardozo School of Law and an M.A. in Modern Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He is also the editor of HaMizrachi Magazine.

Rabbi Elie Mischel

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Director of Education at Israel365. Before making Aliyah in 2021, he served as the Rabbi of Congregation Suburban Torah in Livingston, NJ. He also worked for several years as a corporate attorney at Day Pitney, LLP. Rabbi Mischel received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Rabbi Mischel also holds a J.D. from the Cardozo School of Law and an M.A. in Modern Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He is also the editor of HaMizrachi Magazine.

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