Hannah and her seven sons; Judith and the Greek commander she beheaded; the outnumbered but fearless Maccabees; the Jews who refused to give in to the decrees of the wicked Antiochus – Chanukah is a time for recounting historic deeds of self-sacrifice in the name of the God of Israel. The most recent one occurred in Israel on Dec. 1, a Shabbat.
Eighteen-year-old year-old Akiva Finkelstein of Beit El did not have to put his life on the line, but his test required heroism just the same. He was challenged to safeguard the sanctity of the Sabbath – the same Sabbath that King Antiochus attempted to take from the Jewish people some twenty-two centuries ago – and he did it even though it cost him eight years and a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.
“Our Sages say there are people who acquire their World to Come b’sha’ah achat, in one fell swoop,” said his father, Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein, “and that’s what Akiva did that Shabbos.”
It happened before a panel of judges at the AIBA (International Amateur Boxing Association) Youth World Boxing Championships in Armenia who demanded that Akiva desecrate the Sabbath in order to participate.
The story began when Akiva was ten years old. Following in his older siblings’ footsteps, he began combining intense sports training and competition with his Torah and general studies. His sister had chosen swimming and won first place in an Israeli national competition. Akiva, like his older brother, who also had no problem keeping Shabbat while competing, chose boxing.
“Is that a sport for a nice Jewish boy?” his father was asked. Apparently not interested in the narrow scope of the question, Rabbi Finkelstein preferred to explain the advantages of engaging in competitive sports in general: “People who watch from the outside think that sports is just a way of being pointlessly wild, or of wasting time. They don’t realize that sport is just the framework; it’s really about doing your best, about proving to yourself that you can reach the goals you set for yourself.”
“Being in sports is actually a very humbling experience in two ways,” Rabbi Finkelstein added.
“For one thing, you can lose so easily, even after working so hard. Secondly, the fact is that you have to work very, very hard. It does not come easy to anyone.”
Akiva trained long and hard, frequently jogging the quiet streets of Beit El or jabbing at a punching bag in his room. The work paid off, and within a relatively short time he was Israel’s champion in his weight class.
“Yes, it was a nice achievement,” Akiva said, “but it doesn’t really mean that much. The main goal in Israeli boxing is to go on to the world competitions.”
And so he continued to train. Meanwhile, he also attended the yeshiva/science high school in Maaleh Adumim, where he received top grades in both Torah studies and science. He even began studying for the International Bible Quiz, but that proved to be too much and so he concentrated on his Torah/science/boxing aspirations.
He didn’t take part in last year’s world championships because of the many hours he had to invest in studying for his high school matriculation exams. This year, however, with high school behind him – he is now learning in the prestigious Shavei Hevron yeshiva – he was ready.
“The competition in which Akiva was to box was scheduled for Saturday night, well after Shabbat,” Rabbi Finkelstein recounted, “and we were also told that the daily weigh-in would not be held on Shabbat.Everything looked to be working out fine.”
But looks were deceiving. Shabbat morning arrived and Akiva was summarily informed, “Get on the scales for your daily weighing.” Alarm bells went off for both father and son – for it is a clearly articulated rabbinic law: “One may not weigh himself on the Sabbath, unless for the purpose of a mitzvah.” Not only that, but the scales were electronic, adding an extra element of forbidden Sabbath activity.
A very nervous Akiva then began doing some tense “weighing” of his own. On one dramatic side of the scales: Eight years of training, the chance at a world championship, and the fulfillment of his dream. On the other side: The holy Shabbos, the precious gift given by God to Israel even before Mt. Sinai. Which one would have to give way?
A coach of Akiva’s, who had arrived with him from Israel, pressured the young man: “Just get on the scales already! Do you want to lose everything?” The judges were also pressing him. Young athletes from around the world were staring at him, trying to figure out how there could be something more important to one of their number than boxing and winning.
At the same time, a mini-drama of another sort was playing out at the judges’ table. Rabbi Finkelstein had figured out a halachically acceptable way of indirectly enabling the weighing, one that would not require his son to violate the Shabbos prohibitions: having a non-Jew pick him up and place him on the scale.
“If we had known that they required a weighing on Shabbat,” Rabbi Finkelstein later said, “we simply wouldn’t have gone, because my solution is not l’chatchila – not a priori. But once we were there, given the circumstances, including the amount of time and money that had been invested, it was acceptable.”
Some of the judges were amenable to the idea. But the head judge, from Wales, took a different tone. “What type of religious issue is this?” he asked. “How can weighing be forbidden work? And what will I do the next time someone wants to get away with this? We cannot allow it. He has to get on the scale like everyone else, or he won’t compete.”
And thus the judge placed the stark choice before Akiva.
His father would intervene no more. “I told him it was up to him,” said Rabbi Finkelstein.
Akiva did not hesitate. Quietly but firmly he declared, “I’m not going on the scale.”
For the judges, it was a passing oddity. They shook their heads, crossed him off the list of world championship contestants, and told the next boxer to get on the scales. But for Akiva, it was a crucial milestone. The sanctity of Shabbat had been publicly upheld, at no small cost to the steadfast teenager.
“I’m still a bit in shock,” Akiva said upon returning to Israel. “Maybe it’s just a dream, and I’ll soon wake up. It’s hard to believe that it’s all over, all that hard work, just because of one stubborn judge. It still hurts – but I have no regrets. I did what I had to do.”
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