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Israeli Soccer Star: I’m Leaving the Super League Because of Shabbat

Yair Azulai, 39, has been identified with soccer since the age of 18. He played for Hapoel Kfar Saba, Raanana, and Bnei Yehuda, and was hired two years ago to revolutionize Hapoel Ashkelon into a top league team. It meteorically achieved the Super League in just 2 years instead of the 5 which the team owners had predicted — an unbelievable achievement in soccer. At the peak of his success, Azulai made an announcement that stunned everyone. “I am leaving the Super League. I don’t want to transgress Shabbat.”

Azulai says he didn’t suddenly experience some sudden religious revival, but always had sparks of spirituality. “I grew up in a home where they respected tradition. When I was 5 1/ 2 years old, I went through the trauma of my father being killed in the Shalom Galil campaign, and my mother remaining alone at the age of 23 1/2 with three kids — me and my siblings who were 2 and 1.

“It had the effect of making me want to  go to the synagogue and take my brothers along with me, to make Kiddush while everyone is listening, and in general, to be a good person and influence others the same way. I began to love Shabbat already then, but over the years, I had no choice but to work on Shabbat, because soccer was my life and the source of my living. Particularly when I was in the Super League, because all its game are held on Shabbat afternoon.

“For two years I played on Shabbat regularly and felt bad about it, and lately it’s been making me miserable.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the last Shabbat that I played. It was between Ashkelon and Rishon Lezion and I had to get into my car and travel at 6 in the evening. In the end decided to sleep by my friend in Rishon Lezion so as not to transgress Shabbat. After that game, I decided — No more. I want to keep Shabbat. It’s not secret that recently I have become stronger in my Judaism. I want to go to pray Shabbat afternoon, eat the Third Shabbat Meal, attend a Torah class and pray the evening prayer. I want the time with my family, I want to be Shabbat in my home with my wife and my kids, not to travel around and be by friends. That was the real reason that led to my decision.

“It was hard to give up the Super League. Hapoel Ashkelon was succeeding beyond our wildest dreams, we played between 80 and 90 games during these two years, and in all of them we were 95% successful. This is something that only a player can dream about. The fans love you and applaud you, it’s hard to give that up.”

Despite the extensive pressure exerted on him to remain, he says, “I took the decision with a full heart and without wavering. I especially took advice from my rabbi Rabbi Avraham Maman of Yavneh, who told me that if I have another option, I have to leave. So I found another option — I’m switching to a national league that doesn’t play on Shabbat, so I can continue in my career without transgressing Shabbat.” After making the decision, he also received many positive and sympathetic responses from the public, which reinforced his decision even more.

Azulai attributes the team’s success to the tefillin the team put on before training sessions. Azulai brought his own tefillin, and made sure the other team players also put it on. Now that he is leaving, he plans to leave a set of tefillin as his gift to the team players. “I can’t think of any other reason for the astounding success we had,” he says.

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