TA grocers plan appeal against Shabbat opening

Decision comes after District Court turned down petition to force supermarket chains to close on Saturdays.

Tel Aviv Farmers' Market 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv Farmers' Market 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Secular Zionist poet Haim Nachman Bialik once called Shabbat “the most brilliant creation of the Hebrew spirit,” adding that “anyone who violates it, violates the nation’s most precious possession.” A group of Tel Aviv shop owners would surely agree: On Thursday, they said they planned to take their fight to stop large supermarket chains opening on Saturdays all the way to the Supreme Court.
The group of 23 shop owners petitioned the District Court for Administrative Affairs back in 2007, arguing that supermarket chains AM:PM, Tiv Ta’am and City Market – all of which operate central Tel Aviv stores – are taking customers away from their small businesses by opening on Saturdays.
The petitioners argue that by opening on Saturdays, the supermarkets are violating the provisions of the Business Licensing Law (1968) and its associated regulations, specifically the Hours of Work and Rest Law (1951) and a 1980 bylaw of the Tel Aviv Municipality regarding business opening and closing times, and that the Tel Aviv Municipality should be ordered to enforce the law.
However, on Wednesday, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Esther Covo threw out the petition, saying that the issue of opening on Saturday was a matter “at the heart of political and public controversy” over which the court “must act with great legal restraint.”
The judge added that the issue of opening on Saturday was “a controversy that has accompanied up from the early days of the state, and at its heart is a question of balance between the state’s Jewish character and the fundamental values that enshrine individual rights.”
“In fact, the petitioners ask the court to intervene on a very difficult dispute in the Israeli public arena, [the question of] what is the appropriate measure, if any, to limit civil liberties such as freedom from religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of occupation, in order to realize religious values,” Covo said.
However, attorney David Shub, who is representing the 23 grocery store owners, said that the shop owners’ court battle was unconnected with any religious imperative to observe the Shabbat.
“Whenever you hear the word ‘Shabbat’ in this context, you think of haredi Jews, but that’s just not the case here.
The petitioners are ordinary, hardworking secular Jews who just want to close their stores and rest on Saturdays,” Shub told The Jerusalem Post, noting with a wry laugh that he deliberately refrained from mentioning religion in the petition.
“I took care not to write the words Shabbat Hakodesh [“Holy Shabbat”], and I didn’t quote anything from the Torah,” Shub added.
Shub said that by opening on Saturdays, large chains like AM:PM were taking customers away from the smaller stores, who were in turn forced to stay open seven days a week or lose money.
Small business owners should be protected, so they can enjoy a day of rest, he added.
“Shabbat is a social thing. It’s a day of rest, when people can do as they please – they can go to the beach, spend time with their families. Religion was never the point of the petition,” Shub said. “All we asked was for the court to compel the Tel Aviv Municipality to comply with the law.”
Shub also slammed the court’s decision that the petitioners must pay the respondents NIS 75,000 in court costs, saying that it was a “punishment.”
“We really believe that the Supreme Court will overturn the ruling,” he said.
During the district court hearing, lawyers for the Tel Aviv Municipality had argued that it enforced Shabbat observance according to the law and administrative discretion, and was not empowered to use sanctions to prevent business competition or for religious Shabbat observance.
The bylaw regulating working on the day of rest allowed financial sanctions against businesses, which had been imposed on the businesses named in the petition, the municipality said.
The attorney-general’s office also filed a response, although it was not a party to the proceedings, saying that regulating business activity on the day of rest is at the discretion of each local authority.
Petitioner and campaign leader Kobi Brenner, whose small Sheinkin Street grocery store is closed on Saturdays so that he can enjoy a day of rest, also slammed the district court’s decision to throw out the petition and order the petitioners to pay costs.
“We feel that we haven’t found any justice in the court, which is forcing us to pay an enormous sum to the municipality, an amount of money that we will find it hard to find,” Brenner said, adding that the petitioners will have to ask for donations to meet the amount required.
“This astronomical sum only serves to highlight the minuscule fines of NIS 600 that city hall imposes on businesses that break the law [by opening on Shabbat],” Brenner added.
“We feel that we’re being milked for money and they are given a reward.”
Yair Corah, the chairman of the General Association of Independent Traders, which was also part of the petition, said that the Tel Aviv Municipality was “behaving irresponsibly” by not enforcing the law and allowing businesses to operate on Saturdays.
Corah said the Tel Aviv District Court had made a “huge mistake” by throwing out the petition.
“I believe the Supreme Court will correct that mistake,” he told the Post, saying he was concerned Saturday trading was on the increase, and that it would have a detrimental effect on Israeli small-business owners and on society as a whole.
“It’s not just big supermarket chains that are open on Shabbat – now other types of stores are opening too, like fashion chains,” Corah said, adding that this puts pressure on other small businesses to remain open or lose customers.
“Now the municipality wants to allow buses to operate on Saturdays,” Corah added, referring to a recent vote by the Tel Aviv City Council to ask the Transportation Ministry’s permission to allow buses to operate on Shabbat.
“We need to observe Shabbat not for religious reasons, but for practical ones,” Corah added. “Western countries, Christian countries, they all have a day of rest. Israel needs a day of rest too.”