(photo credit: INIMAGE)
When people refer to Israel as a uniquely “Jewish” state one of the things they have in mind is that the Shabbat and other Jewish holidays are national days of rest.
Just a few years after the establishment of the state this concept was anchored in legislation. Called the Hours of Work and Rest Law (1951), the legislation was passed by Israel’s first parliamentarians to ensure that no Jew could be forced to work on Shabbat against his or her will and that if an employer wished to remain open on Shabbat he or she had to receive special permission from the state.
At the same time, a religious “status quo” has developed over the years that has balanced strict adherence to Orthodox Jewish law, or Halacha, with a developing secular Israeli culture.
Traditionally, professional soccer games have taken place on Shabbat. This has been true since before the creation of the state. For many fans – both secular and traditional-minded – going to a soccer game on Shabbat afternoon is an integral part of their Israeliness.
President Reuven Rivlin, himself a big soccer fan, captured this sentiment in a recent interview with Army Radio, “On Shabbat morning you go to the synagogue and then you head to the soccer field.”
There are a number of reasons for this. Saturday is the only day of the week there is no school, soldiers are home on break and no one works.
Unlike other countries where both Saturday and Sunday are days off, in Israel only Shabbat, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends Saturday night, is a fullfledged day of rest.
Also, for many Israelis who respect tradition but who do not adhere to an Orthodox definition of what constitutes rest on Shabbat, going to a soccer game does not constitute a desecration of the holy day of rest. If anything, it is their way of enjoying this day, even though many actions that are prohibited according to Halacha must be carried out in order to hold soccer games on Shabbat.
In recent weeks, however, this “status quo” has been challenged, not by the haredi community that does not attend soccer games in any event, but by the soccer players themselves. A group of them from the second division, the National League, chose to challenge the decision to hold every weekend’s main match on Saturday afternoon.
They claim it violates their right not to play on Shabbat.
The Jerusalem Post’s Allon Sinai reported that 240 players have signed a petition asking not to play on Shabbat.
The Histadrut labor federation petitioned the Tel Aviv Labor Court on behalf of the observant soccer players, claiming that the athletes cannot be compelled to play on the Shabbat by law. Judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats issued an injunction banning such matches.
“The holding of soccer matches on Shabbat without approval from the economy minister is a criminal offense and I will not approve it,” she said.
Given that a group of soccer players is asking the Israel Football Association to respect their religious beliefs and not force them to desecrate the Shabbat, how could Economy Minister Arye Deri of the haredi Shas party possibly ignore their plea and issue a permit that would allow the IFA to continue to hold games on Shabbat? This is not a case of religious coercion. It is a case of balancing the right of less observant Israelis to attend soccer games on Shabbat with the right of a fairly large number of players to refrain from playing.
Since Israel is a Jewish state, the religious needs of the soccer players are taken seriously and legislation is in place to protect those needs.
There might, however, be a way of meeting the needs of all parties involved. We should reconsider instituting another day of rest – either on Friday or on Sunday.
That day could be set aside to allow the participation of religious people in producing a soccer event – from the players and the fans to the police, the ticket-sellers and the vendors. Saturday would then be reserved for more traditional pursuits or private events that do not require such large-scale organization.
The idea of a two-day weekend has been raised before.
But as Israeli society becomes increasingly religious – the call by soccer players to halt games on Shabbat is a sign of this growing religiosity – instituting a second day of rest as a means of protecting the rights of those from all walks of society has become more pressing.