Around Hanukkah every year, the Jewish people commemorate the self-sacrifice of Jews who despite enormous pressure to do the opposite, chose to keep G-d’s laws and stay true to the Jewish faith, like Hannah and her seven sons and Matityahu the Maccabee. While eighteen-year-old Akiva Finkelstein did not have to risk his life in order to keep the Jewish faith, he did have to give up on eight years of hard-work and a childhood dream in order to keep Shabbat, the very same day of rest that Antiochus IV sought to take away from the Jewish people some twenty-two centuries ago.
The story begins when Akiva was ten years old and began to train to be a boxer, which he combined with his Torah and secular studies. Akiva worked very hard in this endeavor, frequently jogging around the streets surrounding his home in Beit El or hitting the punching bag in his room. His hard work and effort paid off, for Akiva became Israel’s champion in his weight class. According to Akiva, “Yes, it was a nice achievement, but it doesn’t really mean that much. The main goal in Israeli boxing is to go on to the world competitions.” So he continued to train. The demands of high school prevented Akiva from participating in the world championships earlier. However this year, with high school behind him, Akiva was ready to participate.
Yet as a religious Jewish boxer, Akiva had faced many difficulties related to Jewish law. Kosher food was always a problem at many boxing tournaments. Other boxers frequently ate nice meals, while Akiva and his family sufficed with fresh vegetables and canned kosher foods. Yet, at the recent International Amateur Boxing Association Youth World Boxing Championships in Armenia, Akiva faced a new problem. He was asked to desecrate Shabbat by weighing himself on an electric scale on Saturday morning or face disqualification.
Akiva’s father Baruch then attempted to intervene to solve this problem. Akiva’s father, Baruch Finkelstein, after trying to negotiate with the boxing authorities, informed his son that if someone picks him up and places him on the scale while Akiva remains completely passive, then he would not violate Jewish law by weighing himself on a Saturday morning. Initially, the boxing authorities had agreed to this arrangement, as strange as it sounded.
Yet unfortunately, when Saturday morning came around, the boss of the high official that had wanted to accommodate Akiva overrode the boxing associations’ previous religious accommodation, asserting, “This is utterly and completely absurd. I’ve never heard of anything like this in all my boxing years. And besides, what if this sets a precedent, and then maybe there will be a heavy guy who we can’t pick up. Forget this whole thing. Your son either gets on the scale, or we disqualify him from his match tonight. He’ll be out of the championship.”
Despite the fact that it was Akiva’s dream to participate in this competition, that his Israeli coach pressured him to get on the scale, and that his father left the decision up to him, Akiva decided to forfeit his participation in the boxing competition and to keep Shabbat. As one family member of Akiva stated, “Akiva was put to the test and showed that his core values are more important than a life’s goal in sports. The Greeks passed decrees against our religion to extinguish it, and the Maccabees put their lives on the line to protect and defend our ideals. Akiva reinforced that very same victory.”
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