The real ‘Shabbat crisis’

We now have a chance to rethink what Shabbat means for Israel.

Haredi members of the Knesset are upset over railway maintenance work being performed on Shabbat (photo credit: ISRAEL RAILWAYS)
Haredi members of the Knesset are upset over railway maintenance work being performed on Shabbat
(photo credit: ISRAEL RAILWAYS)
Last week, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman resigned to protest the state-owned Israel Railways continuing work on Shabbat. As a leader of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ ) party, Litzman said that he could not accept the “collective responsibility” as a cabinet member for any work done on Shabbat.
This “Shabbat crisis” triggered some speculation over whether UTJ would pull out of the coalition and possibly cause the government to collapse. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has confirmed UTJ will remain in. Business as usual has promptly resumed; Netanyahu has said he will hold on to the health portfolio. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid urged Netanyahu to choose a new health minister as soon as possible.
Litzman’s resignation surely could have had serious political ramifications, but it was also – and I think even more importantly – a reminder that we Israelis still have not had a real discussion about what Shabbat means in the Jewish state. Indeed, we have tacitly chosen to shelf the issue since 1947, when David Ben-Gurion and Agudat Israel agreed on the “status quo,” which assured that the future Jewish state would not infringe on Orthodox rules regarding Shabbat, kashrut, marriage/ divorce and education.
Today, 70 years later, perhaps we can finally have that discussion. With his resignation, Litzman has made his view clear. After living in Israel for a few years, I believe Israel has “kept” Shabbat in a truly special way and that it adds to its culture, character and charm.
But that is really all I can say because I have not given much serious thought to what I want Shabbat to mean in Israel. And when I look to Israel’s leaders for inspiration, I am disappointed to find that I am not the only one. All Netanyahu had to say was, “I am sure we will find a wise solution to the problem,” while Lapid and many others have remained completely silent. It is ironic that we complain about ultra-Orthodox political monopoly over several aspects of Israeli life, yet we cannot or refuse to offer our own alternatives. This is the real Shabbat crisis.
I commend Litzman for standing up for his principles. It is now time for us to have a real discussion about what we want Shabbat in Israel to mean. I encourage Israel’s leaders to go beyond political quibbling and give us their views on the matter, as episodes like this have been happening for decades and will continue happening. To my fellow citizens I say, think hard about what you want Shabbat to mean in the Jewish state; I know I will.
The author is a 21-year-old Jewish Israeli-American from New York City, currently studying for a BA in Israel at IDC Herzliya. He can be reached through email at