The Shalva band and Shabbat in Israel

The Shalva Band (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Shalva Band
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Shalva Band, including young adults with special needs, has taken Israel by storm these past few months. Their performances, as they advanced through the Kochav Haba competition for the right to represent Israel in this year’s Eurovision, were both spectacular musically, and touching emotionally.
But their greatest victory did not take place on the stage. Rather, it was their decision to not participate in the finals of the competition.
The Eurovision schedule requires practices, including dress rehearsal, on Saturday afternoon. The religious members of the Shalva Band could not participate in those sessions because doing so would violate the Sabbath, which meant the band could not be Israel’s representative were they to win the Kochav Haba finals. They thus withdrew from the competition prior to appearing in the finals.
An appearance in the Eurovision, with its estimated 190 million viewers, would have catapulted the Shalva Band to international notoriety. Lead singers Dina and Annael, both blind, would have become worldwide celebrities. Drummer Yosef Ovadiah, who has Williams syndrome, would have been invited to drum with the best musicians in the world. The international media would no doubt have also covered the stories of Tal and Yair, percussionists with Down syndrome.
But Shabbat comes first.
The entire concept of the Jewish Sabbath is to remind us that there is something to life beyond our earning a living and pursuing the materialism offered by the physical world. Fame and fortune may be what the world around us preaches as signs of success, but Shabbat teaches otherwise. And the administration of the Shalva National Children’s Center in Jerusalem, under whose auspices the band performs, chose the Sabbath over material gain.
It should be noted that star Israeli singer Omer Adam turned down an offer to sing at the opening of the Eurovision competition, because of that requirement to perform a dress rehearsal on Shabbat. Omer does not observe the Shabbat, but he did not feel comfortable working on Shabbat and representing the Jewish state while desecrating Shabbat in such an open manner.
THIS ENTIRE saga should give us all pause to reflect and begin a serious discussion on the meaning of Shabbat and the Jewish state. I have been very open in my belief that no one should be forced to observe Shabbat in their private lives, and that part of being a Jewish AND democratic state dictates religious freedom and religious choice.
However, despite the very secular nature of the state and its leaders in 1948, things have changed over these past 71 years. The state, while still officially secular, is far more traditional now, and it is time for the state as a whole to consider taking a stand over desecrating Shabbat publicly when representing Israel in an official capacity. Yes, that would mean that perhaps Israel perhaps misses out on competing in sporting events and cultural competitions. But Israel is a proud, Jewish state. And Shabbat is critical to our identity as Jews.
An Israeli couple once related how after growing up in religious homes and leaving the faith, they returned to observing Shabbat. They lived in an area where the only school in the area was religious. Their daughter learned about Shabbat in school, and continuously asked her parents if they could keep some of the traditions about Shabbat.
The parents refused.
The daughter finally decided to take matters into her own hands. She went to a nearby Judaica store and asked to purchase two candles. The storekeeper knew that the girl’s family did not observe Shabbat, so he sold her two yahrzeit candles – lit to commemorate the passing of one’s parents. The girl snuck the candles into her room, and at sundown on Friday evening proudly lit what she saw as her Shabbat candles.
Her parents noticed that she was in her room for a while and went to check on her. They were stunned to see their daughter sitting in front of two yahrzeit candles.
“Who are these for?” her mother asked. The young girl replied with pride, “One is for Mommy and one is for Daddy.”
Her innocent words shocked the parents, and while not her intention, it penetrated their souls. They suddenly realized that if they do not observe Shabbat, they are creating a reality in which they will die Jewishly and spiritually. That got them started.
Lest anyone think this is a simple story and lacking meaning, I had dinner recently with members of the British parliament. We were discussing how Israel has survived these past 70 years. One of the more senior members of the delegation chimed in and said: “To me, it’s simple. It’s because of the Sabbath.”
He explained how families pausing once a week to spend time with one another, and a nation coming together to connect to tradition, gives strength to confront any challenge that comes our way. As Ahad Ha’am, a non-religious Jew, once remarked, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Let us congratulate the Shalva Band for their magical run in Kochav Haba. But I believe we should thank them as well for their stand regarding Shabbat. If this decision sparks a discussion, and a possible policy change with Israel choosing not to have official representatives publicly desecrating Shabbat, then this will be the band’s greatest victory.
The writer was a member of the 19th Knesset and is the co-founder and CEO of the Better Future for Israel Foundation.