Shortly after the initial, meteoric success of Shas in the Knesset elections of the ‘80s, a senior adviser to the party was asked: “When would you be satisfied that Israel is truly a Jewish state?” He responded, “When the police will treat Sabbath offenders [in the public domain] in the same way they treat criminal offenders, I’ll know that this is a Jewish state.”
I was reminded of his response when Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar used his authority to strike out much of the new Tel Aviv municipal ordinance regarding operation of convenience stores on Shabbat.
The municipality complied with the recent Supreme Court ruling, and enacted a new ordinance setting criteria for opening a limited number of convenience stores on the city’s main roads and in a number of larger shopping/ entertainment compounds on the city’s outskirts, away from residential areas.
Like the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, I object to turning the Shabbat into a regular weekday and want to safeguard its unique character. We oppose, too, religious coercion and enforcing “blue laws” only to appease the religious political establishment.
There is a fascinating parallel to the alternative approaches to Shabbat within our biblical tradition. In one version of the Ten Commandments we find the “religious” reason for cessation of work on the Sabbath: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” In Exodus we find a “social” reason: “So that your male and female servants may rest, as you do,” basing the commandment on our people’s formative experience as an enslaved nation. This is, after all, the great innovation of Judaism: incorporating faith with a commitment to social justice, or – as Mordecai Kaplan aptly labeled it, promoting a religion of ethical nationhood.
I can only hope that this unique character of Judaism will guide Israel’s challenge of remaining a modern “Jewish and democratic state.” Alas, neither Sa’ar nor his fellow cabinet members give any indication that this is the source of their inspiration as they develop their public policy. While few Israelis would feel compelled to observe Shabbat because of its cosmological and creationism basis, most of them resonate with the ethical message.
THE KEY for future legislation must be serious and responsible consideration of Shabbat’s social implications, guided by a broader, contemporary understanding of “oneg shabbat,” enjoyment of the Sabbath.
Besides a policy on store-opening, there should also be a new policy regarding public transportation on Shabbat.
Closing down public transportation hurts the most vulnerable and needy groups in society: the elderly, the young, the low-income. Surveys of public opinion have repeatedly shown that the public supports responsible compromises such as limited public transportation along the main routes, rather than turning Shabbat into a regular weekday. But politicians, afraid that the next coalition will need support from the haredi parties, refuse to budge.
We must realize that Israel has changed over the years. We cannot continue to assume the “status quo,” which mostly served politicians by helping them to avoid launching necessary changes and to disregard the wishes of their voters.
The Tel Aviv Municipality took a welcome step as it liberalized its store-opening policies. The reaction of Minister Sa’ar is an unwelcome intrusion. The authority he used, an outdated remnant of the British Mandate, must be rescinded so localities can make decisions that reflect their communities. Clearly, Shabbat in Bnei Brak will be very different than Shabbat in Tel Aviv. In cities like Jerusalem, policy should change by neighborhood; Shabbat in Mea She’arim or Kiryat Moshe should be very different than in the Talpiot industrial zone. City government is a far more appropriate venue for making such decisions than the central government in Jerusalem.
Had Sa’ar pointed to the weaknesses in the new ordinance, and challenged the municipality to come up with satisfying responses, I would have welcomed it. But that is not what he did. While he anchors his decision in part in social justice concerns, it is far from convincing.
Not only are these concerns missing from other areas of this cabinet’s policies, they lack internal logic and integrity. He writes that he is concerned about unfair competition, but nevertheless approves the opening of commercial compounds which present much greater competition.
Similarly, he writes that he is concerned about employees who would find themselves pressured to work on Shabbat – but just as he outlaws small convenience stores which employ one or two workers, he approves the four commercial compounds which employ many more! He allows convenience stores in gas stations to remain open, but as everyone knows – gas stations within Tel Aviv are a rarity.
On the other hand, he is influenced too much by what he calls “the Jewish component” and the function of Shabbat as a “national symbol.” Shabbat is indeed both, but assuming that entails the elimination of small convenience stores is unwarranted.
I too acknowledge the weaknesses of the new municipal ordinance, which basically intends to legalize the existing scope of stores operating on Shabbat. It hardly attempts to weigh the conflicting considerations and legitimate social and commercial concerns. On the whole, I still view Sa’ar’s decision as inappropriate, unbalanced and lacking in the very principles he designates as the basis for his decision. It is no coincidence in my view that both haredi circles and fellow Likud activists saw Sa’ar’s decision as motivated by his political aspirations, wishing to appease haredi elements.
We need to go back to the drawing board, expand the scope of discussion in Tel Aviv and elsewhere and involve both workers’ unions and business owners’ unions in this discussion. Shabbat should not be a launching point for unfair business competition, nor threaten the livelihood and quality of life of small business owners. It should not conflict with the importance of a weekly day of rest for most workers and safeguarding the right to employment of Shabbat observers. These and other considerations call for a new model, different from both the “status quo” and the current “facts on the ground”. It should provide access to convenience stores which offer basic food staples in relevant neighborhoods, without giving undue advantage to the large chains over small family owned and operated stores.
There are solutions to these concerns that would alleviate many of the deficiencies of the new ordinance. And no less importantly – while addressing the Shabbat prohibitions and limitations – let’s not forget the need to invest in alternative, contemporary ways to enhance the positive spirit of Shabbat.
The author heads Hiddush, an Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.