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Super Bowl Sunday: The Forgotten Jewish Holiday

It’s like Rosh Hashanah for football fans. Or is it like Passover? Whatever it is, it’s something familiar for Jews.

Jonathan Zalman
February 04, 2016
Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Denver Broncos fans with face paint and orange wigs watch during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Denver Broncos fans with face paint and orange wigs watch during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

I never miss the Super Bowl.

One year, when the big game rolled around, I found myself in Bangkok, where kickoff comes half a day later. At 6:00 on Monday morning, I rolled out of my hostel bed, slid into my flip-flops, and walked downstairs to the lobby, where a TV with antennas caught reception good enough to watch Super Bowl XLII—a matchup between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. I ordered juice.

The Patriots, my team, were appearing in their fourth Super Bowl in seven years and had become a powerhouse in a league that continually trumpeted parity. Any given Sunday, as they say—words that proved true once again as the heavily favored Patriots lost by virtue of the miraculous “Helmet Catch,” which set the Giants up for a game-winning touchdown.

Had I slept, I would’ve missed the drama. And who wants to sleep through history?

As a product of central Massachusetts—where Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a deity whose importance on this planet is as vital as that morning coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts—I’ve got football in my blood. Over the last 15 years, the Pats made it to 10 Conference Championships, including this year (they lost)—and in that time, they made it to six Super Bowls, including last year, when they won their fourth title. During that time, my obligation to watch football pushed beyond mere fandom and into religious territory, where it remains.

What I didn’t realize as a youth is that my participation in the ritual of football is tied to more than just my identity as an American male bro from New England. In fact, I’d been training to watch football, for my entire life—as a Jew. Because what is Super Bowl Sunday if not a High Holiday for sports fans?


There are plenty of parallels between football—the game itself, and the act of watching it—and Jewish holidays and rituals.

Like the Sabbath, NFL games come every weekend. But there are also professional games on Monday and Thursday nights—the other two days each week when Jews read from the Torah. So, the ritual of watching football, like the ritual of reading from the Torah, follows a strict but predictable weekly routine. Some die-hard football fans—let’s call them Orthodox fans—watch every game; they may buy season tickets, chant their chants complete with choreography (stand now, sit now, do the wave), and devote themselves to a particularly charismatic coach. Others participate more casually, or only pay attention to the big games (sound familiar?). Some inherit their passion for football from their parents, while others are converts to football—either because they’ve married into a football-obsessed family, or they’ve discovered a passion for football after becoming disillusioned with a different sport, like Major League Baseball.

At the stadium or at home, football fans may guzzle beer, down chicken wings, and guzzle more beer. After shul, Jews may guzzle grape juice, down some kugel—oh, and maybe a little of that pareve cake over there, just a thin slice—and guzzle more grape juice.

At temple, we don uniforms that abide by a sacred dress code. Men often carry tallit bags, in which we might keep a kippah, a tallit, and tefillin (and maybe a piece of lemon candy). These bags sometimes have our names, or the names of our ancestors, sewn onto them in gold, like a jersey. This was my grandfather’s kippah, we say. The tefillin, his father’s. And the tallit, well, that’s mine, and I’ll give it to my son when he’s ready. A kippah is our helmet; tefillin is our sports tape, a symbol of readiness wrapped around us before game time.

As with religious beliefs—and sometimes, membership in a particular synagogue or admiration for a particular rabbi—devotion to sports teams is often a familial legacy. It’s a source of pride, a conduit for togetherness, and a blatant demarcation of identity. We are Jews. And we are Jets fans. We show up to show our team spirit every week.

Depending on the holiday, a temple’s main sanctuary might contain elements you’d also see at a football game. On Purim, for example, we wear costumes and paint our faces, wielding groggers and booing when Haman’s name is spoken. Football fans, too, paint their faces—and sometimes their hairy bodies—and wear colorful jerseys and other team gear to get into the spirit, booing their opponents. Football players themselves are walking costumes and we, their cheerleaders, are their loyal disciples. We wear their names on our backs.

Football parallels the High Holidays in particular: Many—if not a majority—of Jews go to temple just a few times a year, if at all, and these trips probably occur during the High Holidays, which, in a sense, are the playoffs of Judaism. It’s do-or-die time.

The High Holidays begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and end with Simchat Torah, when we complete the reading of the Torah and start the whole season/cycle again. Like the High Holidays—from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, through Sukkot and Simchat Torah—the NFL Playoffs consist of four main events: the Wild Card round, the Divisional round, the Conference Championship, and finally, the Super Bowl, when we close the final chapter to the season and crown a champion.

During the High Holidays, Jews flock to synagogue like lonely flies to a guiding light. Attendance swells, so synagogues sell tickets to their various services, where you can pray, doze, chat, complain, eat, fast, and be seen. A-a-men. Because of the demand, these tickets can cost hundreds of dollars depending on where you live and the size of your brood. (Tickets to the Super Bowl are nearly three grand a pop. And that’s for a seat in the nosebleeds.)

Sometimes, High Holiday seats are assigned. Sometimes a service sells out, like during a year with an abnormally high sin-rate, and you’re screwed. Sometimes you may get a ticket, but you get there late—this used to happen all the time to my family, with a flock of lazy teenagers—so you’re forced to sit in an adjunct room where the audio from the main sanctuary is piped in. That’s the upper-level bleachers of synagogue. The next step is standing room only.


On second thought, maybe the Super Bowl isn’t quite like the High Holidays: Most of can’t afford tickets to attend the Super Bowl in person—there’s no “overflow” section in the social hall—so we observe this ritual at home, surrounded by family and friends and members of the same tribe, gathered in comfy chairs surrounded by much too much food.

And what is that if not a Passover Seder?

Even though the Patriots aren’t playing in the Super Bowl (to the joy of many), I’ll be hosting a party. I’ve invited some friends over and they’ll come, whether they like or care about football or not. Some of them will be into the game—what should be a good match-up between the Carolina Panthers, who are led by their showboating quarterback Cam Newton, and the Denver Broncos, who are led by Peyton Manning, one of the all-time greats who may very well be playing in his final game. Others, however, come for the halftime show, featuring Coldplay. (What’s a Seder without songs?)

You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy the Super Bowl just as one does not have to be a devout Jew to appreciate the Jewish holidays—whether you’re in synagogue or at home. When you go to your Super Bowl party, employ your Jewish acumen. Picture yourself at a Passover meal and proceed thusly.

Find a good seat right away, preferably one that is positioned nearest to the food that you will consume until you can no longer move. And because you will soon become a sack of potatoes, you’ll want to have pillows nearby to support your back and neck. Get through all four quarters by downing four glasses of wine—or, more likely in this case, beer, one thing you won’t find at a Seder table.

And eat. All night you will be surrounded by crunchy (leavened) chips, which you will dip into deeps bowls of guacamole as though it were charoset. And there will be meat. Oh, will there be meat! If you’re lucky, the beef will be a brisket recipe from the Old World. And there will be chicken aplenty—breasts and wings soaked in all sorts of sauces—and you might be able to snag a pupik or helzel or shank bone buried deep in the chicken pile. Eat the skin. Chew the bones.

When you’re finished eating, you will sing. Oh, will you sing. You will sing songs from your pillowy perch as your gut aches. You will ask, “Who Knows One?” And someone will answer, “Nobody on the Denver Broncos is wearing that number, dummy!” And when a running back bowls over a would-be tackler you will chant, “He is mighty! He is mighty!” to which someone may reply, “I know, that was sick! What a beast!” And you will cheer about goats and dogs biting cats and zuzim and an ox and people will think you’re crazy and remind you that only puppies compete in the Puppy Bowl, can’t you see the damn TV? But by this time you’ll already be filled to the brim with joy that nothing can bring you down from this high—not even a gigantic body of water, for that you will split—so you decide to cry until you say, “Enough.” And your salty tears will drip down, down onto the last piece of celery around and it is then that you will know why Super Bowl Sunday is different from all other nights.


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to a game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XLII. It was a touchdown that won the game.

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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.