Shabbat in the public sphere in the State of Israel

MKs Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) would agree upon many things in relation to Shabbat in the public sphere.

January 18, 2018 21:37
3 minute read.
Shabbat in the public sphere in the State of Israel

This minimarket in Tel Aviv could be affected if a Knesset bill aimed at shutting down small businesses on Shabbat becomes law. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Over the last few months, Shabbat has evolved from being the Day of Rest to being the focal point of a fiery verbal boxing match.

The concept of Shabbat in the Israeli public sphere has remained in the headlines, beginning with the railway work being done on Shabbat and including the recent struggle over the passage of the “minimarket law” (enabling the interior minister to override municipal bylaws which permitted stores to operate on Shabbat). The discourse has been marked by sectoral power struggles of one kind or another, with each party certain that the other ones are talking about a Shabbat vastly different than their own.

The secular camp is convinced that the religious see Shabbat solely from the perspective of what is permitted and forbidden, while the religious population is positive that secular Israelis view Shabbat as a time for shopping, partying, and freedom from any commitment, philosophical or ethical, to the day.

But both sides are wrong; Shabbat is meaningful to everyone. It is meaningful to traditional families who live deeply significant lives and zealously guard and the quality of their weekly family gathering; to secular families whose Shabbat has a vastly different character and flavor from other days of the week, and who have for years been investigating the essence of Shabbat, shaping it in myriad forms through conversation, communal Kabbalat Shabbat and the like; and to the religious population, whose celebration of Shabbat is not limited to what is forbidden and permitted from a halachic point of view, but includes ideological reflection that brings to the fore the uniqueness of Shabbat through study, family meals and more.

Yet it seems to me that a conversation which could unite everyone doesn’t exist, and that the entire debate over the minimarket law did not even touch on a desire to find a common ground.

For example, MKs Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) would agree upon many things in relation to Shabbat in the public sphere, but each would arrive at that point from a different perspective; she from a socialist point of view and he from a halachic one.

But meanwhile, all we are left with is a Knesset discussion conducted via power struggles that quickly erodes to the bottom line. In this kind of environment, we will never arrive at a public Shabbat that speaks to us all, no matter how many laws are legislated. Arriving at a mutual consensus requires time, not a rushed decision voted upon in haste to meet the prime minister’s travel schedule and before a vote on the state budget. At this rate, we will never reach suitable results or have any sort of meaningful conversation.

The 19th-century Italian-Jewish scholar and poet Samuel David Luzatto wrote, “Why is there a need to command free men to rest? After all, they may rest whenever they want.... It is so everyone may rest together on one special day, and they can thereby gather together, to eat and drink and speak this one with that one, and the love between them will increase.”

Sadly, Shabbat has become a lightning rod for the opposite; it has become a day over which there is animosity and battle instead of love, togetherness, discourse and respect.

At the end of the day, we must reach solutions that we cannot yet even imagine, but which are attainable through careful listening, by ensuring each person a safe place in which to speak his or her mind, and with an understanding that only in this manner will we be able live together. People change, there are new generations and new perspectives; therefore, there will always be renewed discussion and debate. But we have a responsibility to instill within Israeli society a culture of dialogue and to train leaders who encourage such dialogue. Only this will enable us to overcome the obstacles that stand in our path.

The author is a rabbanit and the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership which trains and certifies women spiritual leaders and halachic advisers.

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