The return of Shabbat cops

Times may be speedily changing in ways many voters hardly expected.

ovadia yosef, eli yishai 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ovadia yosef, eli yishai 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the new government barely installed, times may be speedily changing in ways many voters hardly expected. The defunct Shinui has been replaced in the present coalition by its nemesis Shas, whose leader Eli Yishai has been entrusted with none other than Ehud Olmert's old Industry and Trade portfolio. His first order of business was to announce that from now on he will "strictly enforce Saturday-closure regulations at malls and roadside shopping centers," where for the past few years weekend commerce has been booming. Three years ago, when Olmert held that job, he suspended the activities of Druse inspectors charged with fining businesses open on Shabbat in contravention of the law. At the time, Olmert was cheered by Shinui, which set out to alter the anyway rickety status quo on religious affairs. Yishai has announced that he will employ more Druse inspectors (Olmert's crew had dwindled to a mere three) to report on commercial enterprises operating delinquently during Shabbat. Such businesses will be fined. Yishai declared his intention "to put an end to Saturday shopping sprees." By one ministry estimate, the phenomenon of Saturday labor has grown so rampant that an estimated 230,000 Israelis - mostly Jewish - work on the Jewish Sabbath. Brisk Saturday business means that some stores gross well over double their intake on any given weekday. Yishai is right to note that not only religious traditions are involved but also very social-oriented legislation, which seeks to ascertain that employed personnel get Saturday off, as they are currently guaranteed. The pro-Saturday-business lobby maintains that a midweek day off is available as compensation for Saturday employment, but this isn't as simple as it sounds. In a milestone decision last year, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that "existing Shabbat legislation protects workers' rights and that only a universal day of rest, shared by all family members, can afford them one free day that all can spend together. Alternative time off will not achieve the same social aim." The court unequivocally determined that "a uniform day of rest is in the socio-national interest" and that "mobile days of rest serve employers, not employees." Armed with this ruling, Yishai will be difficult to oppose. Olmert may be loath to do so, and not only due to coalition expediency. He himself was severely taken to task by the attorney-general in 2003 when dropping his mini-bombshell to proclaim that he wouldn't stop Saturday business, thereby clearly violating the 1951 law that prohibits the employment of Jews on Saturdays. While Yishai's planned crackdown will doubtless be portrayed as autocratic, reactionary, coercive and restrictive, the fact that cash registers keep ringing on Saturdays has not necessarily rung in freedom, certainly not for employees who find it harder to get jobs or keep them if they prefer not to work on Shabbat. Those not powerful enough to stand up to big businesses are easily victimized. Thus far the main beneficiaries of lax enforcement of the law were kibbutz-owned out-of-town shopping centers and large chain outlets in some malls. Small urban stores that must stay shut are losing clientele to patently unfair competition. Shopkeepers who cannot afford hired help face a choice between working a seven-day week or going under. Existing compromises that allow entertainment and dining out on Shabbat keep the law from being oppressive. We hope Yishai will uphold it without excesses that smack of a culture war. The flipside of Shinui provocations isn't what this nation needs, especially not at this juncture. Ideally, what we need isn't a Shabbat indistinguishable from ordinary weekdays but a five-day workweek and a two-day weekend to offer Israelis the weekend shopping they crave. Until then, we need sensible governance that respects the diversity of our society and the status quo it has yielded on Shabbat observance.