When the Nobel meets the Sabbath
by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt The Jerusalem Post / December 8, 2005 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 nobelprize.org, 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. Robert Aumann is an Orthodox Jew and will be served a strictly kosher dinner, on kosher dishes with kosher wine. 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. Shai Agnon State of Israel ~ National Photo collection
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 sirenwailing motorcycle escort. 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. Israel Aumann ~ photo: Moshe Milner State of Israel ~ National Photo collection 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." 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. 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.