At the Nobel Awards

When the Nobel meets the Sabbath

by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, THE JERUSALEM POST Dec. 8, 2005
(with some supplements from Arutz Sheva)


Turtle soup is no longer the first course at the Nobel Prize grand banquet. Today the menus are more Scandinavian: salmon mousse with crayfish sauce, cured fillets of reindeer, juniper-berry cured salmon and pate of smoked eel, ice-cream parfait and Dom Perignon vintage 1995.

The menus for the past century appear on the Internet Web site of, except for this year's menu which, as always, is kept secret until the day of the banquet that serves 1,300 guests in Stockholm city hall's lavish Blue Room.

But it is no secret that at least one Nobel Laureate and his guests will eat a somewhat different menu, for Prof. Yisrael (Robert) Aumann is an Orthodox Jew and will be served a strictly kosher dinner, on kosher dishes with kosher wine.

Prof. Aumann, of Jerusalem, will receive the honor shortly after the end of the Sabbath, together with American Prof. Thomas Schelling, for their work on understanding conflict through game theory. The Israeli scholar, the eighth Israeli to win a Nobel prize, moved to Israel in 1956 and is chairman of Hebrew University's Center for Rationality. He decided to bring his entire extended family to the ceremony, where Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the prize.

Providing food all week long for Aumann and his 35 children and grandchildren is the least of the difficulties, for this year the ceremony, held on the December 10 anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, falls on Shabbat. The same conundrum occurred in 1966 when another Orthodox Jew, S.Y. Agnon, informed His Majesty the King of Sweden that he would not be able to attend the ceremony to receive his prize for literature until the Sabbath ended.

What are some of the challenges that arise when religiously observant Jews win the Nobel Prize? Agnon requested a room on the lowest floor of the hotel because he could not use the elevator on Shabbat. Aumann, an experienced, athletic mountain climber, may not have that problem. But the hotel will have to find an alternative for electronic doors and room keys that did not exist in Agnon's day, because religious Jews abstain from using electric devices on Shabbat.

Agnon refused to attend the Saturday morning dress rehearsal for the ceremony; he walked to synagogue instead. He said that since the literature prize is awarded toward the end, he would watch how those who preceded him behaved, and do likewise.

Back in 1966, a stretch limousine, motor running, awaited Agnon as soon as three stars appeared in the sky, signaling the Sabbath's end. Although the ceremony had started, Agnon took his time and prayed the evening ma'ariv service, made havdala marking the Sabbath's end, and lit four candles, since that year December 10th fell in mid-Hanukka.

The holiness of the Sabbath suspends time - that voracious monster incinerating every moment of our lives - and we abstain from making preparations for post-Sabbath activities. Thus Agnon would not even get dressed in his "tails" before havdala. Finally, his limousine rushed him across Stockholm with a siren-wailing motorcycle escor. Protocol was waived and he was allowed to sit next to the chauffeur so he could plug his electric shaver into the cigarette lighter and eliminate the Sabbath growth of beard.

Two of these problems will not bother Aumann. This year the ceremony does not fall during Hanukka, and with his long white beard Aumann will not worry about shaving.

It will be a very short Friday in Sweden, with candlelighting at 2:30 p.m. This has the advantage that Shabbat will end with Swedish nightfall at 3:52 Saturday. Since the ceremony begins at 4:30, Aumann should be on time at least for his own award.

In Israel we will be able to watch most of the live Webcast on the Nobel site since Shabbat ends here around 5:30, just when the Webcast begins. Afterwards, it will be available on demand on the Internet.

BACK TO Agnon's mad dash to the ceremony. In his acceptance speech Agnon pronounced a blessing that few, if any, of the previous 130 Jewish Nobel prize winners uttered. Upon seeing a king of a non-Jewish nation, a Jew blesses God, saying, "Blessed is He Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood." (There are different opinions about the exact wording, depending on what type of monarch you meet.)

Agnon pronounced another blessing, incumbent upon Jews when they see secular scholars: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has given of His knowledge to flesh and blood."

Agnon was probably the only laureate to begin his acceptance speech with a lesson in Jewish law. "I recited in full the blessing that is enjoined upon one who hears good tidings for himself and others," Agnon said, recalling the moment when he was told he won the prize. "Blessed be He, Who is good and does good. 'Good' in that the good God put it into the hearts of the sages of the illustrious Academy to bestow that great and esteemed Prize upon an author who writes in the sacred Hebrew tongue."

Prof. Moshe Aumann, brother of the Nobel Prize Winner, was one of 35 family members who accompanied the Nobel laureate to the ceremony in Stockholm. "The ceremony was so moving and exciting," he said in an interview afterward, "that even though we talked with each other beforehand about reciting the Rabbinic blessing over seeing a King, I simply forgot to do so; everything was so impressive and overwhelming..."

The Nobel laureate's brother emotionally described the excitement of having his brother receive the Prize from the King. Asked why so many family members came for the ceremony, he said, "This is something special with my brother. He loves to have the whole family participate in various occasions; for him, family is something very special."

The banquet has a stringent men's dress code: black tailcoat with silk facings, sharply cut away at the front, black trousers with two rows of braid down each leg, a white stiff wing collar attached to the shirt with collar studs, white bow tie, and a white low-cut waistcoat.
An unexpected problem wasted much of Aumann's precious time this week. A Swedish rabbi brought the mandatory tails to Israel to test it for sha'atnez, the biblically forbidden fabric combination of wool and linen, since there is no sha'atnez lab in Sweden. Aumann discovered the tails indeed contained sha'atnez, which had to be removed by someone with expertise in the laws of kosher cloth.

The Aumann women will be required to wear long gowns at the banquet - no problem for religious women. But they may be among the few ladies without the de rigueur bare shoulders depicted as appropriate evening dress on the Web site.

For Jews, the most significant sight at the Nobel ceremony will be the three dozen observant Aumann family members who symbolize, more than his economics and mathematics, the highest probability that the Jewish people will numerically hold its own.

He is one of the few Jewish Nobel Prize winners with five children (one, a soldier, was killed in Operation Peace for Galilee). Most of his 19 grandchildren and their children will be with him in Stockholm. At a time when secular Jews in Israel and outside are having fewer and fewer children, large traditional families like the Aumanns represent the future of Jewry.

And this December 10, for the second time in its history, the awesome sanctity of this Swedish royal event will accommodate a steadfast observant Jew and his King's sacred law.

The writer, a translator in Netanya, is affiliated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem.

Copyright 2005 The Jerusalem Post -

The extended Aumann family did much walking over the course in Stockholm of the Sabbath. Prof. Moshe Aumann, brother of the Nobel Prize Winner, related in an interview with Arutz Sheva:
"There is a Jewish community here - not a large one, but vibrant, and in order not to disappoint any of them, we made sure that we would pray in a different place for each of the services. So on Friday night we all took a nice cold walk, and then the next morning somewhere else, etc. We certainly walked a lot." He said that they were treated to a warm reception with the local youth, "with whom we spoke in English, which they know well."

(The quotes above from Moshe Aumann were inserted from that same interview, as was the photo of the prizewinner.)



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