It’s impossible to know the religious affiliation of all those who caused the Facebook post about Henri’s café to go viral last week, leading the Tel Aviv food market where the café is located to revoke the NIS 3,500 fine it had slapped on its owner for refusing to open on Shabbat. But the “tremendous public support” the outraged poster received suggests that the principle of Sabbath observance may have value even for Israelis who don’t necessarily practice it.
And that, to me, is perfectly understandable.
The real-estate company that operates the upscale Sarona food market – where most stores are open on Shabbat except for a few whose contracts stipulate otherwise – stressed that it was fining Henri’s franchisee, Ofer Leiferman, for breach of contract and nothing else, claiming he had undertaken to remain open on Shabbat. Leiferman, who describes himself as religiously “traditional,” claimed there existed an informal understanding that the Shabbat clause would not be enforced. No one could force him to work on the day of rest, he declared stoutly.
From what has been reported, then, Leiferman emerges as the hero of the story, even if that status is slightly undermined by his apparent exercise of the very Israeli trait of going ahead with a plan regardless of fine detail and trusting that things will work out (“hakol yihye beseder”). Be that as it may, the Sarona market’s management, clearly dismayed by the outpouring of sentiment against it, decided to cancel the fine “from a place of public responsibility” (more probably public censure).
In a week where Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat declared himself ready to ban the Shabbat opening of eight downtown mini-markets – some say to placate the city’s sizable haredi community incensed over the Shabbat operation of the newly opened Yes Planet cinema complex in Abu Tor – my husband admitted he was bemused. “Only in Israel,” he commented wryly, “can a business in Jerusalem be forced to shut down for being open on Shabbat, while another business in Tel Aviv gets penalized for not opening on Shabbat.”
I’ve lived too long in the Holy Land to be overly surprised by anything that happens here, but had to concede the irony.
The backdrop to these events is a complex one, with two powerful forces rubbing up against each other: the drive, fueled by the spirit of modern times, to shape Israel as a vibrant Western country offering residents and visitors everything you can find in any European location, 24/7; this against the determination that Israel remain a demonstratively Jewish country with uniquely Jewish, time-hallowed traditions – central to which is the Sabbath day of rest.
WESTERN SOCIETIES are above all consumer societies.
They have come (or regressed, depending on your viewpoint) far from the days – in my youth in Britain, for example – when Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, saw no commercial activity beyond neighborhood newsagents selling newspapers and confectionery, and some pharmacies opening for a few hours. Today in Britain and elsewhere, Sunday is a shopping day hard to differentiate from any other day of the week in terms of the crowds in stores and malls.
In Israel, hundreds of stores violate Sabbath closing laws, with authorities turning a blind eye where the commercial activity takes place in neighborhoods with negligible religious populations. Outside the main population centers – in kibbutzim, for example – thousands of shoppers from across the country flock to stores and malls open there on Shabbat. For many, Shabbat is their main shopping day. Within the cities, many grocery stores have been open on Shabbat for years despite the ban, paying the small fines levied on them by the municipality.
According to the status quo in Jerusalem and the city bylaws, places of entertainment and restaurants can remain open in the city on Shabbat, but regular commercial businesses cannot. That said, legal authorities have decided that businesses can remain open in some secular neighborhoods. In Tel Aviv, the city’s municipal council has just approved a bylaw that will enable approximately 15 percent of grocery stores citywide to remain open on Shabbat.
LIVE AND let live as far as possible is the ideal in a democratic society. But from the earliest years of the state, philosophers, politicians and academics have been debating just what kind of society Israel should be.
Today, more than ever, thoughtful people are asking: Do we want Israel to be a knock-off of other Western societies, which have effectively eliminated their day of rest in favor of consumerism? Many Israelis, worshiping at the altar of Western culture, would say they do.
Yet one doesn’t have to be religiously observant to realize that turning Shabbat into a day like any other – just with more shopping – would be to lose something of great value, if only because it gives respite from the cares and concerns of the rest of the week.
Indeed, influential American Orthodox rabbi and author Shmuley Boteach has long promoted the notion of a “universal” Friday night family dinner to help keep family values alive in an ailing Western world.
The notion of “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews” was first expressed by the writer and early Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am, and prominent secular Israeli intellectuals are expressing the same thought, writes Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World – Glimpses of a Different Order in Time.
“These non-haredi Sabbatarians want to protect the Sabbath from consumerism and save it for not only rest, but also for unifying the Israeli public. For... the Sabbath is a profoundly political institution, in that it makes time for people to gather and partake in the discussions that lead to collective activity.”
‘UNIFYING THE Israeli public” via Shabbat is no simple thing given that we are talking about a one-day weekend on which secular Israelis without cars cannot, on a day without public transport, visit family far away or engage in many other recreational activities.
In a recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece, rabbi and bold thinker Nathan Lopes Cardozo cites a renowned 19th-century Sephardi halachic authority who calls into question the objections by most rabbinic authorities to riding a bicycle on Shabbat when there is an eruv (a symbolic wall around a city or part of a city). Cardozo floats the notion of “special Shabbat bikes,” and even a colorful, slower-than-usual “Shabbat tram,” free of charge and servicing the major hospitals. And what about “restaurants... in the less religious neighborhoods...
fully Shabbat observant, where people could get a drink and a piece of cake free of charge and have the opportunity to meet their friends”? The viability of these specific ideas aside – a report this week was headlined “Jerusalem bike sharing scheme faces Shabbat opposition” – what they demonstrate is the need for, as Cardozo says, considerable technical, innovative and halachic thinking to ensure that Shabbat is not violated publicly while allowing secular Israelis to enter into the spirit of the day.
The good news is that more and more secular Israelis are coming together to give meaning to their Shabbat. Friday night prayer groups are popping up in unlikely locales in secular areas of Tel Aviv, attracting those who might otherwise drift to bars and pubs. Jerusalem’s First Station hosts a pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat each Friday with live music, singing and dancing until sunset. There is a palpable sense of Shabbat unfolding its wings and gently ushering in those of every affiliation and none.
JUDAISM HAS traditionally been a dynamic religion, far from the stultifying edifice some ultra-zealous practitioners would present to outsiders, including secular Jews. Surely a major challenge today is for Israel to continue proudly on its path as the sole Western, democratic country in a violent and barbaric region, but as a country with a difference: one that also recognizes Shabbat as an integral part of its Jewish heritage and works to make it beautiful and relevant in the 21st century.