Honoring Shabbat

Honoring Shabbat as a national day of rest is important. Political leaders of the State of Israel should do their best to make it remain that way.

Shabbat candles (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Shabbat candles
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
The government decision to work on Shabbat as part of the construction of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highspeed train line is not only reasonable, but it also saves taxpayers’ money. However, it has metamorphosed into a potential coalition crisis after haredi politicians caved in to pressure from their constituency to issue unreasonable demands.
Last Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled that the construction work on a train station in Tel Aviv would go ahead on Shabbat, albeit on a reduced basis. It seems that initially the haredi members of the coalition from United Torah Judaism and Shas approved the work.
The reasoning behind the decision, which was carried out by Transportation Minister Israel Katz was simple.
Shabbat is the only day of the week that it is feasible to close down a section of the Ayalon Highway, one of the nation’s most congested roads. Any other day, the Ayalon is traveled by tens of thousands of vehicles. Quoting a police opinion, Katz noted that construction on a weekday would result in major disruptions to traffic flow that could endanger lives by preventing emergency vehicles from traveling quickly and safely to their destinations. Halacha, Jewish law, permits the desecration of the Shabbat in situations in which lives are endangered. And experts in emergency care such as the police are normally relied upon to determine whether a given scenario – such as blocking the Ayalon during the week – constitutes a danger to human life.
Preventing construction work on Shabbat would also result in further delays in the NIS 6 billion project – which began in 2001. Instead of being completed by late 2017 or early 2018, the project would drag on until 2020.
The haredi community – led by the haredi press – attacked their representatives in the government for seemingly acquiescing to the construction. As in the case of the cabinet decision that granted non-Orthodox streams of Judaism a special prayer area near the Western Wall, the haredi legislators were forced to backtrack from their initial lenient position under pressure from their more zealous constituency.
Honoring the Shabbat as a national day of rest is an important principle in Israel. The political leaders of the world’s only Jewish state should make every reasonable effort to maintain this principle. But while the concept of a day of rest is undoubtedly imbued with religious meaning, the state should not be beholden to the haredi public and their strict interpretation of what constitutes Shabbat desecration. It is impossible to run a modern Jewish state in accordance with religious strictures that developed in medieval times when the Jewish people lived as a minority among a non-Jewish majority. Either Halacha must be revamped and updated to make it compatible with contemporary times and the new circumstances that have developed as a result of the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel or it must be ignored on occasions when its application is simply impractical.
The haredi parties’ calls to fire Transportation Minister Israel Katz and to create a coalition crisis over the matter are disingenuous. The UTJ and Shas are serving in one of the most pro-haredi coalitions in recent history.
Much of the legislation passed by the previous government that so angered the haredi population – such as a law that forces increasingly larger numbers of haredi young men to enlist in the IDF – was reversed by the present government.
As a result, the haredi threat that they will topple the government over the Shabbat imbroglio is probably empty, as the The Jerusalem Post’s political correspondent Gil Hoffman pointed out. After all, why topple a government that has been so forthcoming with regard to haredi demands when the option is unknown and potentially detrimental to haredi interests.
The attack on Katz is also out of place. Katz has a record of protecting the status quo with regard to Shabbat desecration.
He has avoided initiating public transportation on Shabbat despite pressure to do so. He has no secular agenda. Calls to have him fired seem to be motivated by knowledge that there is tension between Netanyahu and Katz over internal Likud matters, not a real concern over the desecration of Shabbat.
Honoring Shabbat as a national day of rest is important.
Political leaders of the State of Israel should do their best to make it remain that way. But there is a divide between the haredi definition of what constitutes Shabbat desecration and what is reasonable to expect of an advanced state in the 21st century.