Shabbat bill lacks religious support

UTJ MK Meir Porush says bill 'distorts both the content and the soul of the Jewish day of rest'.

A coalition for the public's right to rest and relaxation emerged Wednesday, as MKs from across the political spectrum announced their intention to pass a bill making Shabbat a legal day of leisure. The legislative initiative presented to the Knesset, however, lacks the support of religious parties. The bill, called the Culture and Recreation Day Law, would crack down on commercial activity on Shabbat while permitting more cultural and recreational activities and a limited schedule of public transportation. The bill was proposed by MKs Natan Sharansky (Likud), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), Michael Eitan (Likud), Michael Melchior (Labor), Arye Eldad (NU-NRP), and Dov Kheinin (Hadash). "More and more people are forced to work seven days a week, 365 days a year," said Sharansky. "We want to strike a unifying compromise between secular and religious that would allow Shabbat to retain its special character as a day of rest. At the same time, we want to allow the non-religious limited access to transportation and places of entertainment." A Shas spokesman said his party was likely to oppose the initiative, as it would encourage more desecration of Shabbat. United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush also attacked the initiative. "Shabbat is a holy day with obligations and commandments," he said, "not just a day with cultural, socioeconomic and national-historical meaning... Shabbat is God's everlasting covenant with the Jewish people. The bill distorts both the content and the soul of the Jewish day of rest." In response to Porush's attack, Melchior said that "because [of] people like him the State of Israel will completely lose Shabbat as a national day of rest." Despite the haredi opposition to the bill, however, the MKs that proposed it acknowledged there would be difficulty convincing secular Israelis to support it. Although Yacimovich stressed that she considered herself "entirely secular," she said she considered the law a service for all of Israeli society. "There are people in this country that are forced to work seven days a week," she said. "If, in another country, a Jew was not hired because he could not work on Shabbat we would cry anti-Semitism. But in Israel we find it acceptable that there are people who are forced to work Saturday." "People say they want the right to shop," said Sharansky. "[But] the moment you decide you need the right to buy a dress there is pressure among hundreds to open their stores so that there is business for you to buy that dress." Eitan said he was worried the law was not practical, but added he would support it because he felt it was a just cause. MK Zevulun Orlev (NUNRP), said that it was too early to push the initiative. "The basic idea is positive," said Orlev. "But politicians need the wide support of rabbis if they want the initiative to be more than just some media spin that gets their names in the paper." According to data released in 2002 by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, 18 percent of the workforce, or 324,000 Israelis, work on Shabbat. The data did not indicate how many of these workers were Jewish or if these numbers included those who work in essential services such as security or hospitals, which even Halacha acknowledges as permissable to do on Shabbat. Some 16% of those working on Shabbat, or 60,000, work seven days a week. The average work week for the Shabbat worker is 50 hours, compared to 39 for those who do not work on Shabbat. According Labor Ministry data, total sales on Shabbat reached an estimated NIS 5.2 billion in 2002, twice the amount in 2001. The MKs said that they might propose adding a second rest day, Sunday, to the weekly calendar. While most businesses would be encouraged to give employees Saturday off, commerce would likely stay open on Sunday so that people could "get their shopping done." The MKs acknowledged that the system would basically move Israel's weekly schedule closer to that of most Western countries, whose weekends consist of Saturday and Sunday. For most businesses, Israel's weekend consists of a half day on Friday and the whole of Saturday.