The Big Ten And The Amidah
12/19/2012 - 15:59
Steve Lipman
Like many teams, the North Carolina Tarheels play in a conference whose name is a misnomer. Getty Images
Like many teams, the North Carolina Tarheels play in a conference whose name is a misnomer. Getty Images

The leaders of the Big Ten athletic conference apparently aren’t math majors.

The Big Ten, which was founded in1949 to facilitate competition among collegiate teams in football, basketball and other sports, expanded to 11 teams in 1993, and 12 in 2011, but continues to call itself the Big Ten.

And the conference added two more teams recently, when Rutgers and the University of Maryland announced that they will become the newest members of the conference in 2014, bringing the count to 14. The conference will continue to call itself the Big Ten.

Why?

Remember Tevye? Tradition.

Rutgers made the jump to enhance “collaboration at every level,” Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti said. "It’s the perfect place for Rutgers.”

Collegiate teams change conferences for reasons of prestige, finances and a step-up in competition. But fans who follow their favorite team now need a scorecard to remember which conference their team is in.

Apparently it’s easier to change the number of teams in the Big Ten than it is to change its logo and letterhead.

Some sports fans have an emotional attachment to – in addition to teams – athletic conferences. Ask anyone who follows the basketball exploits of the North Carolina Tar Heels or the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Big Ten isn’t the only arithmetically – and geographically challenged – conference. The Big 12 now has ten members.

The Atlantic 10 has 17, not all on the Atlantic coast. Not all West Coast Conference schools are on that coast.

Once a name is in place, it sticks.

Judaism has a similar tradition.

The Amidah, or standing prayer, which constitutes the heart of the three-times-a-day worship service that observant Jews pray, is also known as the Shmoneh Esrei. That’s Hebrew for 18.  The Shmoneh Esrei was composed by Jewish sages in the time of the Mishnah, about 2,000 years ago. In traditional circles, any Amidah service, even on Shabbat or holidays when the count of blessings is less than 18, is known as the Shmoneh Esrei.

One more detail: the Shmoneh Esrei, strictly speaking, isn’t the Shmoneh Esrei. Another blessing, against “heretics,” was added later, in the time of Rabban Gamliel. But no one calls the Shmoneh Esrei the Teisha Esrei.

Some habits are hard to break.

There is a strong tradition among many observant Jews to maintain practices whose original reason has long passed or are no longer relevant.

How many yeshivas continue to bear the name of their original city or neighborhood although the institution moved many years ago?

I can think of three reasons for our adherence to tradition.

We are loyal to the memory of individuals in earlier generations who founded institutions that live on.

We don’t wish to upset members of earlier generations who find comfort and familiarity with established names.

Actually, that’s two reasons.

But I wasn’t a math major.

steve@jewishweek.org

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