The Tel Aviv Municipality has approved an amendment to a municipal bylaw that, if ratified, would allow hundreds of neighborhood markets and kiosks and perhaps other types of businesses to operate on Shabbat on designated streets throughout the city.

In addition, all types of businesses would be able to open on Shabbat in three locations: Tel Aviv Port, Jaffa Port and Hatahana D – the New Station compound.

The motion awaits the endorsement of the city council, all but assured since Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who supports the amendment, has a strong majority on it.

The final step will be approval from Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Back in June 2013, the High Court of Justice severely criticized the municipality for failing to enforce the municipal ordinance that prohibits commercial activity on Shabbat.

Huldai has since presented his initiative as an attempt to bring municipal bylaws up to date with the reality on the streets of Tel Aviv while balancing the city’s secular, freedom-loving character with the need to conserve the Jewish ideal of Shabbat as a day of rest.

Huldai said he sees Shabbat as not solely or even primarily a day imbued with religious meaning, but rather as a means of protecting workers from a rapacious capitalism that would, if left unchecked, keep stores open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The mayor even alluded to Haim Nahman Bialik’s Oneg Shabbat campaign. Back in the late 1920s and the 1930s, Bialik, who broke with his Orthodox upbringing but kept strong ties to Jewish culture and tradition, was concerned that the Jewish people would split into two groups – one secular and one religious – completely alienated from one another. He began organizing public lectures in Tel Aviv given by leading Bible, history and Talmud scholars for the wider public in an attempt to retain, in an updated manner, the ambiance of Shabbat as a day of rest and intellectual pursuit.

Unfortunately, the amendment being proposed is hardly a sincere attempt to strike an equitable balance between the holy and the profane. Comparing it to Bialik’s Oneg Shabbat initiative is an affront to Bialik.

What is more, if Huldai has his way, the individual worker or small shop owner will be under even more pressure to work on Shabbat. As Prof. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha’arei Mishpat Academic College in Hod Hasharon and an expert in religion-state jurisprudence, said, “If the amendment to the bylaw is passed, hundreds of workers, most of whom are from the lower socioeconomic strata, will be forced to leave their families and work on the Jewish day or rest… dozens of small shop owners will be discriminated against and will be unable to compete with the large chain stores.” The motion empties the Hours of Work and Rest Law of content, Hacohen also.

The High Court has ruled on numerous occasions that the State of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character justifies prohibiting work on Shabbat. Consistently, our judges have referred to Shabbat as the “essence of Israel’s character,” a “national asset” and a means of safeguarding the humanity of the worker, his quality of life, honor and relationship with family and friends.

Unfortunately, over the years rampant consumerism accommodated by globalization in the form of large international chain stores has resulted in the gradual but steady trampling of Shabbat.

The time has come for an initiative such as the Gavison- Medan Covenant, which calls on secular and religious Israelis to reach a compromise through mutual consent. Cultural venues such as movie theaters, museums and concert halls would be allowed to remain open and limited public transportation would operate to enable mobility for poorer segments of society. Meanwhile, strict enforcement would prevent commercial centers from operating on Shabbat.

If a petition is lodged with the High Court on the issue, it is unclear whether the justices would shoot down Tel Aviv’s proposed amendment. We believe, however, that the obligation to protect the unique character of Shabbat lies with Israeli society as a whole, not the courts. The guidelines should be hammered out through open discourse and mutual compromise, not coercive, unilateral measures.

Shabbat is a reflection of the Jewish people’s unique culture. It should be protected and nourished and given substance.

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