In the latest bout in the fight over how people spend their time, and their money, on Shabbat in Tel Aviv, the city’s municipal council approved a by-law on Sunday that will enable approximately 15 percent of grocery stores citywide to remain open on Shabbat.
The issue has been subject to strident debate, several attempts at municipal legislation, court wrangling and ministerial intervention over the last 18 months, and Sunday’s development is the next chapter in the city’s struggle to legalize the opening of grocery stores on Saturdays.
At the end of June, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar rejected a by-law that had been approved by the Tel Aviv Municipal Council that would have allowed many grocery stores to remain open, saying that it “harmed the values of Shabbat.”
He also said at the time that the parameters in the by-law for allowing grocery stores to remain open had not been defined or explained, such as how it was decided which major streets and thoroughfares could have grocery stores open and which could not; how many stores could be open on a particular street, and other similar issues.
Many cities, including Tel Aviv, have in their statute books by-laws enacted many years ago that prohibit businesses from opening on Shabbat.
In Tel Aviv, grocery stores have been open for many years despite the ban and have simply paid the small fines levied on them by the municipality for the violation, since the low fines made it financially worthwhile for larger stores to remain open.
Some 300 grocery stores continue to open on Shabbat in contravention of the law.
The issue was brought to the High Court of Justice in 2013, following a petition from small business owners that asked the municipality to enforce its own by-laws, but also suggested that city hall change the ordinance.
It was the resulting by-law that Sa’ar refused to approve.
According to proponents of the by-law, it has been rewritten and devised in a way that provides answers to Sa’ar’s substantive questions regarding defining which grocery stores can open on Shabbat.
In the terms of the new ordinance, opening permits will be granted to 165 grocery shops, estimated at about 15% of the city’s total. They will be distributed throughout nine districts in the city according to the character of the neighborhood, so that if an area is more traditional or religious, it will receive a lower number of permits than the more secular quarters.
In addition, the by-law states that only grocery stores of 500 square meters and less will be able to apply for a Shabbat-opening permit. A quarter of permits will be allocated to stores of more than 200 square meters which provide a greater range of products.
Sa’ar has 60 days to approve or reject the by-law.
The director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, said that the ball had now returned to Sa’ar’s court, as the Tel Aviv Municipal Council had taken into account the minister’s previous objections when drafting the new ordinance.
“It is important that the Interior Minister remembers that [Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai and the city council are the ones who reflect the will of the city’s residents, and the majority of Israel’s population, and it must be hoped that he will not act in opposition to the will of the electorate in order to appease haredi political interests or old perspectives of Shabbat,” said Regev.
He added that should Sa’ar reject the by-law, the Tel Aviv Municipality should appeal to the High Court of Justice and that the power of the central government to intervene in municipal legislation also be removed.