Genesis and later on Deuteronomy in a more explicit way designate the seventh day as a day of rest, without work being done by anyone (including servants). Everything that comes after is man’s interpretation of these words, interpretation based on beliefs, convenience, or just the urge to control others.
For the Jewish people, the Sabbath has always had special importance (it is also mentioned in the Ten Commandments) and Jews have suffered just for wanting to observe the Sabbath. The start and end time of the Sabbath are meticulously calculated and adjusted each week according to the seasons. But since life is stronger than anything, also the Jews found solutions of convenience that affect the Sabbath. And depending on what you believe, or where you live, or which stream in Judaism you belong to, options exist to bypass the Sabbath, from the use of a “Shabbas Goy” to automatic switches for the lights in your house, your TV and your automatic hotplate.
Before the foundation of the State of Israel, the conflicts between Religious and Secular Jews were brought under control by an agreement between the Jewish Agency and Agudat Yisrael which became known as the “Status Quo”. In simple words, the Status Quo is the basis for regulating the relations between State and Religion in Israel, with one of the specific issues the preservation of the Sabbath.
Over the years, tensions between religious and secular forces have flared up every now and then and the Sabbath was more than once the focus of these tensions. But they have always been sharpened and brought to extremes, by forces within the political arena in Israel and are more and more used for political gain, by both religious political parties as well as the secular ones.
Maintenance work and repairs on Israel’s train network has always been conducted on Saturdays because the system has severe limitations and if maintenance would be carried out on weekdays, the trains would come to a halt with disastrous consequences for the already seriously congested traffic on Israel’s roads. Soccer matches in Israel have always been (partly) held on Saturdays, and convenience stores have been open in Tel Aviv (and elsewhere) always. But the religious political establishment brings up these “Infringements on the Sanctity of the Sabbath”, when it is politically expedient and the opportunity exists to make political gains by playing one or more of the “Sabbath Cards”. And secular politicians who are part of the coalition, suddenly remember how precious the Sabbath is for them and will fight to “Maintain the Holy Sabbath”, while in fact they are attempting to stave off a coalition crisis which may cost them their seat if it goes the wrong way.
The issue of the closure of the convenience stores in Tel Aviv in particular became raucous, and Culture Minister Regev loudly proclaimed that also in Europe stores are closed (on Sundays). She either was blatantly lying or her assistants are completely incompetent because a 5 minute scan of the Internet will reveal that in London, Paris, Amsterdam the big department stores are open all day Sunday (and every other day), simply because the population wants them to be open (In Berlin they are closed). Local by-laws, that may vary from place to place, control shopping hours according to wishes of the local population.
Just like it is in Israel. But now, with the new law, the Interior minister gets to have the last word. Or does he? Politically, the passage of this ridiculous law had become so important and crucial, that both the religious and the secular parties were forced to compromise so drastically, that the remains of the law, that was ultimately approved are not much more than a sad example of what Israel has become. True, the Interior minister has the authority to prevent the opening of new convenience stores (outside of the Tel Aviv area). But he does not have the authority to close the ones already open and his successor may approve bylaws that allow opening of stores on the Sabbath, where the current one prevented it.
So, after the government made every effort, together with Coalition whip Amsalem, to get the law through the Knesset, Binyamin Netanyahu already led it escape his lips that this law isn’t going to make a difference. And indeed it won’t. In most places where the population wants the stores to be closed, they already were closed on the Sabbath, without the need for this law. And in most places where the population wants the convenience of a store on Saturday, they already were open, legally, or illegally. And a few municipalities that didn’t want to be left without options, rapidly passed bylaws allowing stores to be open on Saturday, just in case there would be an interest. (And, there are some municipalities that make arrangements to enforce the bylaws that they have where the stores are to be closed. Of course this will be done using non-Jewish inspectors……)
But now, everybody is happy because everybody got what they wanted, or at least if you don’t check too thoroughly, that’s what it looks like. And the coalition has been preserved, even though two religious parties were caught quarreling about the enforcement of the law. Arye Deri, the Interior minister, claims he will not be able to check what is happening, while Moshe Gafni, from the rival Haredi party, stated that enforcement will be vigorous. (Even though neither of them has the authority to enforce the law, which is in the hands of the local authorities). But the fight for the public’s approval is not limited to religious-secular rivalry, now is it?
The only losers are the Israeli public, both the Religious and the Secular parts of the population.
The religious public has been once again forced to witness the abuse of their beliefs and convictions for small time political gain by their so-called leaders. All the talk of preserving the Sabbath and the importance of Jewish Law in the Land of Israel, does not fool most of them and the majority of them will be left with a bad taste in their mouths realizing that they are being used. I have no doubt that most religious people attach importance to preserving the Sabbath and having the possibility to celebrate their Sabbath the way they see fit. But stores in their neighborhoods are and will remain closed, according to their wishes, and whatever happens elsewhere most likely does not concern them much, or at least it shouldn’t.
The secular public has been clearly shown, once again, that politicians are after their own interests only and really couldn’t be bothered with trivialities like “freedom from Religion” or the wishes of the secular public. The cynicism that emanates from the Regevs, Barkats and Netanyahus should ring alarm bells all over. If Israeli politicians chose their interests over the interests of the Nation in such a sensitive issue as religion, where else will the public be left out in the cold?
And as far as Miri Regev is concerned, who put herself forward as a champion of the Sanctity of the Sabbath, here is a small item to put things in proportion. The GIRO, the famous Italian bicycle competition will start out this year from Jerusalem. The fact that the whole entourage will after three days be flown to Italy for the continuation of the race, confirms the idiocy of this endeavor and makes one wonder how this came to pass at all, but Ms. Regev, Israel’s Sports minister, proudly announced the event in a well-publicized show in Jerusalem. Interestingly, Israel and Ms. Regev found the need to protest the fact that in the official announcement by the GIRO organization, the first leg of the competition was described as taking place in “West-Jerusalem”, but the decision that the second leg, running from Haifa to Tel Aviv in a 167 Km route, will take place on May 5th. A quick look at the calendar will reveal that May 5th, is a Saturday. For the GIRO it is just another day, but in Israel this is Sabbath! And the event, which is huge, will bring desecration of the Sabbath on a momentous scale. Not mentioning the cyclists that take part in the competition, or the Organizers, but the Police, the locals being employed for a variety of tasks surrounding the event, the stores along the way selling their wares, the thousands of Israelis coming to watch, what about them? I can already hear Regev say, well it is outside of religious communities, which is mostly true, but aren’t the shops in Tel Aviv outside religious communities? And soccer matches aren’t played in Bnei Brak on Saturdays, or are they? But the fact that Ms. Regev will be able to claim she brought this big event to Israel is apparently sufficient to desecrate the Sabbath.