Baseball Kabbalah

Reuven Goldfarb

My purpose in this article is to examine the resemblances between certain Jewish mystical and moral teachings and the folkways of baseball, beginning with the remarkable congruity I have noticed between the sefirotic Tree of Life and the positions of a team in the field when an opposing player is at bat.

I will ask you to imagine the layout of a team--three outfielders, four infielders, and the "battery" (pitcher and catcher). That's a total of nine players. Add the batter, and you've got ten players on the field at the time the ball is put into play, the same number of Sefirot (spheres or Divine Emanations) that constitutes the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, a schematic drawing of the universe used by mystics to contemplate and comprehend the workings of God, the energy patterns set in motion by the Divine Will.

According to this analogy, or metaphor, God might have said, "Play ball!" instead of "Let there be light!" And you've heard of the seventh inning stretch? Does that sound like Shabbat to you? Well, in any case, the tree, with its ten S'firot, may be superimposed upon the players in the field, poised to begin their game. And this is the correspondence, at least the way I read it:

Keter /Crown (Fontenelle) Center Field
Chokhmah /Wisdom (Right Brain) Right Field
Binah /Understanding (Left Brain) Left Field
Chesed /Lovingkindness/Overflow (Right Arm) Second Base
Gevurah /Strength/Discipline/Limit Setting (Left Arm). Shortstop
Tiferet /Beauty/Harmony (Heart). Pitcher
Netzakh /Victory/Endurance (Right Thigh). First Base
Hod /Splendor/Grace (Left Thigh). Third Base
Yesod /Foundation/Communication (Sign of the Covenant). Batter
Malkhut /Sovereignty/Groundedness (Feet). Catcher

Of course, what makes the game or the tree interesting and relevant is the motion that develops when the system is activated. It is a dynamic system, responding to circumstances but guided by several underlying principles or rules. In the case of the game, the elaborate rules of baseball govern. In the Tree (or game) of Life, it is the complex laws revealed in the Torah. In both systems, actions take place along particular paths. In the sefirotic system, the paths between the S'firot are as important as the S'firot themselves. In baseball, the runners must proceed along certain predetermined base paths, until they either make an out or advance on a hit, force, error, sacrifice, fielder's choice, stolen base, passed ball, wild pitch, or balk. In Kabbalah, there are 32 Paths of Wisdom; in baseball, as near as I can tell, there are no more than eight (arrived at by counting the basic four twice, to account for forward and backward movement), though there are many more than eight ways to run them.

Whatever the runners and fielders do, a scorekeeper records the results, an action analogous to Cheshbon HaNefesh (accounting of the soul) by which an ethical Jew periodically assesses his behavior. If someone scores a run, he comes home (Olam HaBa--the world to come), and receives a reward--a positive mark in the scorebook--and a warm welcome from his teammates and the fans. If he is a great player, he may be admitted to the Hall of Fame, like a pious Jew or anyone replete with good deeds entering Gan Eden (Paradise). There, in the gallery of heroes, his deeds are acclaimed by successive generations and compared with those of other standouts. There is similar hagiographic praise for the accomplishments of great prophets, sages, scholars, and rabbis in our sacred literature.

In both disciplines the concept of teamwork is paramount. A player who sacrifices himself for his team (Mesirat HaNefesh--selfless service, even martyrdom) or who leads his team (Admor--the leader of his generation) is equally praised. In Jewish terms this quality is described (in Pirke Avot) as "not distancing oneself from the community."

Now let's take a look at some of these positions and see how they match up with the S'firot. In center field (Keter or Crown) you have some of the greatest players ever to play the game: Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford and Mickey Mantle.

Great outfielders are not only great hitters; they are also known for their great arms (and golden gloves), which they need for strong throws to the infield to catch runners or prevent them from advancing. Ruth, Furillo, Colavito, and Clemente, among rightfielders, and the celebrated contemporary, Barry Bonds, among leftfielders, are but a few of the many outfielders known for this ability.

Sometimes the catcher flashes signs not only to the pitcher, but also to the center fielder, who then passes them on to the right and left fielders. These opposite fields and hemispheres are not mirror images, although they complement one another; rather, they are "out there" in a free-ranging world of their own, essential but patient, waiting for the time when they will be needed, yet all the while exerting an influence by their very presence and availability (like our higher powers). Knowing what kind of pitch will be thrown helps them play their positions better. This is one instance of how energy from Malkhut recycles to Keter. The center fielder--Keter--and the catcher--Malkhut--have the best perspectives on events on the field.

But most of the action takes place in the infield, the world of the seven lower S'firot. There is a constant interaction between the second baseman, or Chesed (Lovingkindness), and the shortstop, or Gevurah (Strength and Discipline--which includes setting limits), popularly known as the keystone combination. The shortstop is often captain of the team or is the infield leader, calling out who should catch pop flies, and might also be the holler guy, the assertive one, maybe the rally killer.

The pitcher (Tiferet) is the heart of the team. It is he who initiates the motion by hurling the spheroid to the catcher (Malkhut--Groundedness) with whom he has an intimate relationship--indeed, they are called "battery-mates"--past the batter (Yesod) who is standing there with a phallic club in his hands. Without making the analogy too pat, Yesod is related, among other functions, to the sexual or generative. Thus, the batter is trying to generate runs (offspring?) to the orgasmic delight of his teammates (family) and fans (friends, clan, tribe).

First base (Netzakh or Endurance) is often fielded by an iron man--Lou Gehrig, Ted Kluszewski, or Gil Hodges. Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games at the position, a record that has only recently been broken--after 60 years--by Cal Ripken. He epitomizes the quality of Netzakh, a position that Moshe Rabbenu holds in the Jewish heroes' hall of fame. Moshe also is known for his profound humility, a quality that came easily (and out of necessity) to Gehrig, who played on the same team as the flamboyant Babe Ruth.

Great third basemen (Hod--Splendor or Grace) such as Ripken, but more spectacular than he in the field, are famous for their tremendous agility in their extremely difficult role (in Jewish terms, the priestly role of Aaron). The position is aptly named "the hot corner," for the blazing line drives and hard grounders that are frequently hit there. For me, it evokes the archetypal resonance of the sanctuary, where Aaron and his descendants prepared burnt offerings. The fire pan and the fielder's glove have both often prevented catastrophic losses. Pie Traynor, Brooks Robinson, and Graig Nettles are still appreciated for the seemingly impossible plays they made.

I hope I have by now sufficiently established the underlying similarities between these two approaches to life, one considered a game, "the national pastime," and the other an all-embracing lifestyle, if followed to its full extent. I'm sure you can think of numerous additional applications. Some that have come up in discussions so far have been in response to questions: What about the umpires? Easy. They're Dayanim (rabbinical judges). That's why they wear dark colors. Managers? Rebbes. Coaches? Gabbais. Batboys and equipment managers? Shammeses. Substitutes? Batlanim (benchwarmers). The opposing team? The Sitra Achra (the Other Side).

Evil changes shape and turns into its opposite. The game itself is a paradox, fraught with ambiguity, uncertainty, and perennial, unanswerable questions, such as, "Would old-timers be able to compete with today's players?" This kind of question parallels the midrashic suspicion that Noah, a Tzaddik in his generation, would not have been so special in Abraham's time. There are also the "What ifs?": the dangling sense that if a certain course of action had not been followed, then everything would have turned out differently. There are often excruciating post-game analyses as detailed (though not as weighty) as the debates about blind curves in Jewish history. Baseball is a game that offers life-like analogies while Judaism is a religious civilization that strives to close the gap between metaphor and reality, so that Malkhut Shamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven) may exist here, in our earthly life.

This article first appeared, in a somewhat different form, in The Aquarian Minyan of Berkeley California newsletter of Summer 1990, edited by Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, of blessed memory. It has since been revised several times. Final changes in the latest recension were completed in Arad, Israel, on 29 Nisan, 5760/ May 4, 2000, the 14th day of the Omer, corresponding to Malkhut sheba Gevurah. R.G.
[This website edition is somewhat shorted from the above-mentioned version, but it also contains some previously unpublished material.]

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