Thinking Shabbat

Commercial interests have trampled the Jewish day of rest; Two lawmakers hope to use the law to encourage cultural activities and discourage commercial activities.

An Orthodox family in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An Orthodox family in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park
Once again we are witness to an attempt to change the religious status quo through legislation.
MKs Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) and Elazar Stern (Hatnua) say they will present a bill at the beginning of the Knesset winter session designed to change the way the Jewish state enforces Shabbat as a day of rest.
The two lawmakers hope to use the law to encourage cultural activities and discourage commercial activities.
The goals are praiseworthy. Capitalism and globalization have in recent decades brought to Israel huge multi-national chain stores and malls that employ many people in shifts.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Israelis are enticed to shop and consume. Commercial interests have trampled the Jewish day of rest. Smaller neighborhood businesses have either been forced to close or have needed to keep up with the non-stop, around the clock consumer imperative.
Meanwhile, laws that use coercion to enforce the Sabbath remain on the books. The Hours of Work and Rest Law (5711-1951) is the most significant legal restriction on operating businesses on Shabbat. Economy Ministry inspectors can fine businesses that employ Jews on Shabbat. But inspectors are few, fines are small (compared to the profits to be made) and evasion is easy (workers easily hide their Jewishness from inspectors).
Municipal bylaws against commerce on Shabbat, which the courts have repeatedly upheld, have limited effect. Large malls located outside city centers escape enforcement. And many mayors choose not to enforce the bylaws even downtown.
Inevitably, Shabbat laws hit the poor hardest. Public transportation is banned, making it difficult and expensive for those who do not own cars to travel on what is for many their only day off from work. Large chain stores that remain open on Shabbat are willing to pay the minuscule fines municipalities sporadically level against them, while smaller businesses are unable to compete.
Many attempts have been made over the years to legislate changes that would protect the spirit of Shabbat. But like previous bills, Calderon and Stern’s has little chance of becoming law.
The religiously observant oppose these initiatives because they aspire to change the status quo. The secular are weakened by infighting. Many secular Israelis favor Shabbat legislation as a means of protecting workers’ rights, or identity with positions held by secular founding fathers such as the poet Nachman Bialik, who called Shabbat “the keystone in building the revitalized Hebrew culture” or Mapai intellectual leader Berl Katznelson, who said, “For me, the Shabbat is one of the pillars of Hebrew culture.” Others oppose any form of religious coercion.
Market forces, not legislation or ideological battles, have been the main force driving change. Sale of pork and other non-kosher foods, civil marriages in Cyprus and elsewhere, alternative burial arrangements – including cremation, have all developed rapidly. The influx of about a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a third of them non-Jews according to Halacha, was the catalyst.
But should we allow market forces to determine the character of our Jewish state? Admittedly, there are many advantages to this approach. Political battles are avoided. Businesses and consumers are permitted to pursue their interests freely. And answering the big and sticky questions of what it means when we say Israel is a Jewish state is postponed indefinitely.
Nevertheless, we pay a price when laws are not enforced or are constantly circumvented. When civil marriage is prohibited in Israel but is readily accessible in nearby Cyprus; when loopholes are used to get around the prohibition against raising pigs; when the prohibition against employing Jews in non-essential industries on Shabbat is ignored, the entire legal system is undermined and delegitimized.
Legislators together with spiritual and cultural leaders need to formulate a coherent vision for a Jewish state in the 21st century. Shabbat is one component of what makes Israel Jewish. But more thought needs to be given to other aspects of Israel’s Jewish character and how best to balance it with democratic values.