Wrestling With The Angels

Dayton Pitzer

I subscribe now to a Facebook feed titled “Jewish Sports Stars”, and the photo above surfaced today along with the caption: “The Heller brothers, Holden at 165 lbs. and Reece at 184 lbs. helped #17 Pitt beat #13 Lehigh.”

It’s amazing how 50 years removed from the last time I wrestled, as Team Co-Captain at Yeshiva University, I can still feel the move captured above. It’s the end stage of a “sit-out”, with the Pitt wrestler about to spin around with his left arm as leverage and take top over his Lehigh counterpart. It is one of the most basic moves in all of wrestling, and standard fare for high school and collegiate wrestling at any program in the country.

To have any success at wrestling in my days at Yeshiva University was improbable, to say the least. We had no scholarship athletes, and in my particular case I didn’t even know the sport existed because we had no high school wrestling in Philadelphia. But a dormitory student on my floor was on the team, and he convinced me to take wrestling as a gym course to fulfill the physical education requirement necessary of all students for a degree. It was certainly more taxing that signing in to shoot a few baskets and go back to the room to study.

As this old clipping shows, within two years I had become quite good at it. I loved the sport at the collegiate level, and likened it to a physical chess match. The fact is that my Judaic and secular studies occupied a significant number of hours, often including late evening science labs. Although I put alot of hours into conditioning and practice, Coach Ellman always felt that I could have been “fantastic” rather than merely very good if I had put even more time into it.


It was always a matter of pride to represent the University well in athletic competition with other schools. There is a biblical basis for this. Though I’m a week early, the upcoming Torah reading being parhsas Vayetze, the following week’s portion is parshas Vayishlach which features the famous wrestling match between Jacob and Esau’s guardian angel. The text states:

וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר – “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”. Here is the commentary on that key passage from Rashi:

ויאבק איש. מְנַחֵם פֵּי’ וַיִּתְעַפֵּר אִישׁ, לְשׁוֹן אָבָק, שֶׁהָיוּ מַעֲלִים עָפָר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶם עַ”י נִעְנוּעָם. וְלִי נִרְאֶה שֶׁהוּא לְשׁוֹן וַיִּתְקַשֵּׁר, וְלָשׁוֹן אֲרַמִּי הוּא, בָּתַר דַּאֲבִיקוּ בֵיהּ, וַאֲבֵיק לֵיהּ מֵיבַק – לְשׁוֹן עֲנִיבָה, שֶׁכֵּן דֶּרֶךְ שְׁנַיִם שֶׁמִּתְעַצְּמִים לְהַפִּיל אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ, שֶׁחוֹבְקוֹ וְאוֹבְקוֹ בִּזְרוֹעוֹתָיו. וּפֵרְשׁוּ רַזִ”לִ שֶׁהוּא שָׂרוֹ שֶׁל עֵשָׂו (בראשית רבה)

As translated by Sefaria:

Menachem (ben Seruk) explains: “a man covered himself with dust”, taking the verb as connected in sense with אבק “dust”. It would mean that they were raising the dust with their feet through their movements. I, however, am of opinion that is means “he fastened himself on”, and that it is an Aramaic word, as (Sanhedrin 63b) “after they have joined (אביקו) it”, and (Menachot 42a) “and he twined (the “Fringes”) with loops”. It denotes “intertwining”, for such is the manner of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other — one clasps the other and twines himself round him with his arms. Our Rabbis of blessed memory explained that he was Esau’s guardian angel (Genesis Rabbah 77:3).

The quintessential wrestling match had a phenomenal outcome:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל – Despite the angel dislocating Jacob’s hip, Jacob is tenacious and refuses to give in. As dawn approaches, Jacob says he will not let him go until he receives a blessing. And that blessing proved to be a monumental one: the angel says that Jacob will now be known as Israel, because he has grappled with both Divine and human forces and prevailed. Future generations would be known as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל and the Jewish Homeland ultimately as אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל because of the outcome of this classic wrestling match and its sequelae.

Henry Wittenberg won a gold medal for the United States Olympic Team in wrestling in 1948 in London, and a silver medal in Helsinki in 1952, and rightfully belongs on anyone’s list of the Top 25 Jewish Athletes in history. Henry established Yeshiva University’s wrestling program in the 1960s, and his star protégé was Neil Ellman by whom I was privileged to be mentored early in his coaching career. Neil was so intimately identified with the program for decades that his team was known as “The Ell-Men” around campus.

In a move verging on the unconscionable, Yeshiva University stunningly decided to terminate its wrestling program in June, 2015. News of the termination filtered through the Team USA network in an article written by the Yeshiva Wrestling Association. An article in the University’s newspaper, the Commentator, in September of that year quoted Athletic Director Joe Bednarsh as defending the move but apologizing for the poor way in which it was handled and communicated.

Wittenberg 2016-1520.jpg

Neil Ellman established the Wittenberg Invitational Wrestling Tournament in 2011, featuring high school Yeshiva wrestlers from the metro New York area. The Yeshiva Wrestling Association carries on the legacy of Wittenberg and Ellman, though no longer under the auspices of Yeshiva University. Their website’s Wrestling 101 is a phenomenal primer on a sport that traces its origin to Jacob’s angelic encounter so many millenia ago.

About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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