Rabbi Aryeh Stern and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis of Jerusalem, have called on the Jerusalem Municipal Council to close leisure and recreation venues such as the Yes Planet cinema complex on Shabbat, and for residents to shop only at Shabbat observant businesses.
Their statement, made following a conference on Shabbat observance last week organized by the Liba Center, a conservative National Religious organization, called in general terms for Shabbat desecration in Jerusalem to be reduced, and made several suggestions to city residents for how to help others observe the day of rest.
Along with calling for the closure of Yes Planet, the rabbis somewhat oddly specified that the Khan Theater and the Cafe Alma eatery should also be closed on Shabbat, despite the fact that Cafe Alma closed down in November and the Khan Theater does not stage performances on Shabbat.
The rabbis also rather curiously failed to mention the First Train Station, where cultural events and open restaurants have generated anger and significant opposition from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and conservative national religious leadership.
A spokesman for Liba said he could not go into detail about the statement, and said simply that it was intended as a general call to strengthen Shabbat observance in Jerusalem.
In addition, the general status quo regarding Shabbat around the country is that while commercial activity such as shopping should be halted on Shabbat, places of leisure and recreation – such as cinemas, theaters, other cultural activities and restaurants – are allowed to operate.
Despite this, the Jerusalem chief rabbis adopted a strong stance against all activity in the capital that contravenes the laws of Shabbat.
“Do not lend a hand to the desecration of Shabbat in the Holy City of Jerusalem,” the rabbis declared in their statement.
“Strengthen the status of Shabbat in the courtyards of Jerusalem and raise it up in Israel, because it is beloved to us,” the statement continued, imploring municipal councilors, among others, “not to allow political considerations to determine the nature of Shabbat in the Holy City.”
Among the recommendations made in the statement, which was signed by other state-paid neighborhood rabbis in the capital, was a call to residents finish their shopping on Friday at least two hours before Shabbat, so as to allow business owners the opportunity to get home before Shabbat commences.
They also recommended not traveling in a taxi close to Shabbat in order to allow drivers to get home in time, and said that residents should do their shopping in Shabbat-observant shops.
THE RABBIS also called on shop owners to declare that they are Shabbat-observant and to sign a “certificate of dedication to Shabbat in public.”
In addition, they said that Jerusalem Municipal Authority should stipulate in all municipal tenders that the entity which wins the tender commits to not working on Shabbat.
Finally, they said that a public address system should be established to broadcast to the public the time that Shabbat begins.
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, a former member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council for the Yerushalmim Party and currently the party’s chairman of the board, expressed disappointment with Stern in particular, writing on Facebook, “I did not fight for the election of a Zionist chief rabbi just so he can try and give it over to the exclusive hands of the haredim.”
Said Leibowitz, “As a believing Jew and a communal rabbi, I am pained to see Shabbat desecration, but as a person and a neighbor I am angered by the attempt to push the secular community out of Jerusalem.”
A spokesman for Stern responded by saying that during the election campaign for the municipal chief rabbis, the rabbi had said specifically to Leibowitz and others that he would not endorse Sabbath desecration.
Leibowitz replied by telling The Jerusalem Post
that he had not expected Stern to fight against the existing status quo.
Stern’s spokesman insisted that the Jerusalem chief rabbi was not “giving the city over to haredim, but rather was being faithful to God, to Jewish law as he sees it and rules, and to his conscience.” The spokesman also criticized Leibowitz for failing to speak directly with the rabbi, accusing him of politicizing Jewish law.
Dov Kalmanovitz, a municipal council member for Bayit Yehudi, said the religious-Zionist movement had always championed the connection between religion and state and that Shabbat was one of the central symbols of Judaism.
“Opening shops, cinemas and so on harms this Jewish symbol in public,” argued Kalmanovitz, who supports closing the First Train Station, Yes Planet and other businesses on Shabbat.
He argued that the status quo does not allow for recreational activity and institutions to open on Shabbat, since there had only ever been one cinema open in the city on Shabbat in the past. He insisted that the status quo should reflect a “frozen situation” from when the state was established, meaning that only those institutions that were open then should be open now.
He also insisted that secular people are not leaving Jerusalem because of shops, businesses and cultural activities being closed on Shabbat, saying there are more such places open today than in the past, and that secular people are still leaving.
Instead, he said it is lack of employment opportunities and affordable housing that are driving secular people out of the city.