Rav Lichtenstein, Ralph Branca, and Alan Dershowitz

(Indeed, baseball is on my mind, as one of my childhood heroes, Cal Ripken, is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. A few posts on the topic may follow, but you can start with this one)

This is one of those stories that can only take place with people from a certain generation, when the world of American Orthodoxy was much smaller and centered in very few locations. It begins on the afternoon of October 3, 1951, when the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit his famous “Shot Heard Round the World” off Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca. It is considered one of the greatest moments in baseball history, if not the greatest.

A few years ago, though I don’t know exactly when, a Jewish publication erroneously noted that the game was played on Erev Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre night. Rabbi T (name withheld upon request) of Yeshivat Har Etzion (a.k.a., Gush) remembered that a friend of his, and an observant Jew, claimed to be at that game, which would have been close to impossible if the game indeed coincided with the eve of the fast. Rav T went and asked Rav Lichtenstein, who is a bit older and would have a better memory of the day, whether this was indeed the case. Rav Lichtenstein responded that he remembers distinctly that the game was, in fact, played on Tzom Gedalyah, the fast day which falls a week before Yom Kippur (this calculation can be confirmed here). Rav T then commented to R’ Aharon how amazing it is that Thomson hit the home run even though he was fasting. R’ Lichtenstein responded that, to the contrary, Branca was the one fasting. According to Rav T (who is here in Camp Moshava this month, which has given me the opportunity to clarify some of the details of the anecdote), Rav Lichtenstein was extremely proud of his retort, and asked Rav T to repeat it to others.

I first heard this story from my chavruta when I was in the kollel at Gush. Several years later, I was back in the U.S., teaching in a Jewish high school in the south. The local federation had brought Alan Dershowitz to speak, and the event sponsors offered tickets to the speech and subsequent reception to all Judaic Studies teachers in the school (and I alone took up the offer). During his speech, it somehow came up that he remembered Bobby Thomson’s homer, and that it took place on Yom Kippur. At the reception, I called him on it. I waited in line, and when all of the old Jewish ladies finished kvelling and telling him how much they loved his speech and how they wish their grandkids would read his books, I approached his and said “I enjoyed the speech, but one thing you said was absolutely wrong.” This got his attention. He looked at me, ready for a fight, and said, “Oh, really? And what’s that?” I said (in this fashion, that only one who speaks the language of traditional Judaism speaks), “I have a mesorah from my Rebbeim that the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ was on Tzom Gedalyah.” He put his hand over his chin in a brooding manner, and after a few seconds conceded: “You’re right. All I remember is that as soon as the game ended, we ran to shul and got there during layning. I assumed it was Yom Kippur, but now that you mention it, I must have been Tzom Gedalyah.”

I wonder how many other people Alan Dershowitz has conceded to. I know of one other, sort of – Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz. In a sense, that story is the continuation of this one (from my perspective, anyway), but it will have to wait for another post.

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