The Tel Aviv Municipality on Wednesday began handing out warning notices to supermarkets, grocery stores and snack shops instructing them not to open on Shabbat, three days after Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar refused to authorize a municipal bylaw that would have allowed hundreds of businesses to work.
Until now, the municipality had issued small fines for businesses opening on Shabbat, allowing those who could afford such fines to remain open in contravention of the city’s bylaws.
The issue was brought to the High Court of Justice in 2013, which instructed the municipality to enforce its own bylaws, but also suggested that city hall change the ordinance.
The municipality voted to change the bylaw earlier this year, but Sa’ar, who as interior minister has the ultimate authority over municipal authorities, refused to approve the amendment this Sunday.
The Tel Aviv Municipality explained on Wednesday the reason behind the warning notices it has issued, saying that it was a legal result of Sa’ar’s decision.
“Due to legal preceding taken against the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s enforcement policies in regard to the prohibition of opening businesses on Shabbat, the municipality was required by the High Court of Justice to enact additional enforcement measures in issuing fines, including presenting requests to the [district] court for issuing opening-ban orders against businesses that open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays,” the municipality said on Wednesday.
“In light of this, the municipality was forced to take immediate enforcement measures and therefore issued requests for opening bans for Shabbat and Jewish holidays against businesses which continue to operate in contravention of the bylaw.”
Sa’ar’s decision earlier this week evoked consternation from secularist groups that accused the minister of harming the character of the city.
The issue was brought up for discussion in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday, with lawmakers on opposing sides of the debate exchanging strong words.
“Shabbat is not a holy day for me, it is a day of freedom,” Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz said. “I don’t force anyone to do anything against their beliefs, but I oppose those who force me to do things against my lifestyle.”
The MK, who mounted a strong but unsuccessful run for mayor of Tel Aviv last year, said he was “in favor of Shabbat being a day of rest, but there are things which secular people do on Shabbat...
You think that being secular is just shopping and nothingness, but being free is a value.”
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni defended Sa’ar’s position and said that allowing businesses to open on Shabbat would hurt smallgrocery- store owners as they are unable to employ staff on Saturday’s due to the cost, unlike large supermarket and grocery chains.
Gafni said that if businesses were allowed to open on Shabbat it would harm middle class grocery store owners, and took a swipe at Yesh Atid and its chairman Finance Minister Yair Lapid for opposing Sa’ar’s decision in light of its oft-stated policy of defending the middle class.
Taking to the Knesset lectern, Sa’ar said the issue had significant societal significance and would reflect whether or not the different sectors of society wish to preserve a common denominator with one another.
“In the name of the values of freedom and tolerance in which we believe, we are likely to get to a slippery slope in which we destroy the weekly day of rest,” Sa’ar said.
“The day of rest is an idea which the Jewish people gave to the whole world,” he continued and said that there would be workers who would be forced to work instead of spending time with their families on Shabbat if businesses were allowed to open.
“Is the heritage of the Jewish people to occupy a greater market share? If the determining factor [of such issues] is the desire to make money and consumerism, which I can understand, where will the limit be? It will not stop here,” Sa’ar said.
Mickey Gitzin, a member of the Tel Aviv Municipal Council for Meretz and the director of the Be Free Israel secularist movement, said the municipal authority would not allow the issue to rest and that it was “opposed to a situation in which Tel Aviv is shut down on Shabbat.”
The municipality was weighing several options, including an appeal to the High Court, Gitzin said.
Earlier in the week, Yesh Atid MK and Orthodox rabbi Dov Lipman said that although he observed Shabbat, he was against imposing restrictions on largely secular communities.
“I believe that a day of rest is important for everyone, especially in modern times when no one has a free moment,” said Lipman.
“Having said that, I am in favor of free choice and am against religious coercion. If in a specific area, as in neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, there is an overwhelming secular majority, the city council which represents the local residents chooses to have supermarkets open in a limited fashion, I don’t think it is proper for the interior minister to intervene,” he continued, saying that religious coercion distances people from Judaism.