The Israeli shabbath

By Nadav Eliash, Aviad Hominer, Eyal Berger, Ariel Finkelstain

The Israeli Sabbath – a proposal for normalizing the status of the Sabbath in Israel in keeping with the Gavison-Medan Covenant.

The debate over the status of the Sabbath has been raging in Israel since the advent of Zionism. The first Zionist settlements in Israel debated the nature of public observance of the Sabbath. Central to the debate was a vision of the public space in the renewed Jewish community and the Sabbath served as an important and concrete symbol. The battle over the Sabbath atmosphere has continued until today, and no proposed formula for respecting the Sabbath in the public domain has gained general acceptance.

In recent years many attempts have been made to reach such an agreement and to word a law which will structure and formulate the status of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Such a formulation would benefit the public and would protect the unique character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. The attempt which achieved the widest acceptance was that of Prof. Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, whose Gavison-Medan Covenant was published in 2003.

This position paper will provide an overview of the status of the Sabbath in Israel, 2014.With this status in focus, we will propose a law to normalize the public character of the Sabbath consistent with the terms of the Gavison-Medan Covenant.

The first section of the position paper surveys the history of the Sabbath in Israel, concentrating on the erosion in its status over time. Since the 80s the status of the Sabbath has slowly been reduced within the cities, and in the 90s many urban shopping centers and malls started opening their doors on the Sabbath despite active protests by observant circles. Similarly, in violation of the status-quo, traffic through religious neighborhoods on the Sabbath was ruled by the Supreme Court (in a decision on the Bar Ilan Street controversy) to be a necessary condition for the secular minority’s freedom of movement.

This section also shows the legal and judicial status of the Sabbath and the trend towards weakening and narrowing the Sabbath’s sphere of influence, as reflected in legal rulings. The various laws about the status of the Sabbath are divided into those with a social aspect (such as the law regulating work and rest hours) and those focusing on the religious aspect (municipal laws). An analysis of the various rulings on the matter of the Sabbath shows that the courts tend to favor the social aspect of the Sabbath and work to suppress the religious aspects which have found expression in existing laws. In general, one can point to a trend toward reducing the influence of the Sabbath and strengthening individual rights at the Sabbath’s expense.

This section explains the need for a clear and uniform law which will regulate the status of the Sabbath in Israel.

The second section deals with the issue of work on the Sabbath and shows that Israelis are employed to work on the Sabbath in major shopping centers outside urban areas (such as Shefayim-Ga’ash), both in industry, and in commerce.

This situation leads to a host of social problems: 15% of all workers in Israel are employed on the Sabbath and most of them are Jewish. Most of those who work on the Sabbath do not get an alternate day off, and at least two-thirds of them would prefer not to work on the Sabbath. Most of the workers have families and come from the weaker socio-economic groups.

The solution proposed in this section would establish in law that industry and commerce, including factories, banking, stores, distributors, and malls, should not open on the Sabbath. However, we recommend allowing entertainment, leisure, and cultural venues such as restaurants, theaters, museums and the like, to open in neighborhoods and towns without a significant majority of Sabbath observers so long as they follow existing rules of location and noise limitation.

We find that there are a number of justifications for the division between commerce and entertainment. First, by its nature the entertainment and leisure industry employs a great number of young people in temporary jobs. In contrast, industry and commerce tend to employ older people who have spouses and children and who stay at their places of employment for many years. Second, entertainment is meant to fill free time and so is of limited appeal during the workweek and of greater appeal on the Sabbath, when people have free time. Commerce, on the other hand, was not meant to fill free time but to allow for the purchase and acquisition of goods. These functions can be filled during family time over the course of the week and need not take place on the Sabbath. Third, opening places of business on the Sabbath creates a different atmosphere of competition and balance of incentives than does opening places of entertainment and leisure. The opposing considerations in commerce are different than those in the realm of entertainment. In commerce the forces are more competitive and market forces will wreck havoc on anyone who wishes to remain Sabbath-observant.

In any case, the conceptual distinction between entertainment and commerce does not have to be absolute. The proposal seeks appropriate compromise which allows a sufficient “normal” lifestyle without mortally injuring either freedom of employment or the special nature of the Sabbath.

The third section deals with the operation of public transportation on the Sabbath and the implications of the status-quo for those wholly dependent on public transit, those people who cannot move about without public transportation. This group is mainly composed of people from the weaker socio-economic groups, including young people and students. A complete cessation of public transit on the Sabbath would severely impair their ability to travel on the Sabbath and would create inequity of access to places of entertainment, dividing those with licenses and cars from those without licenses or cars.

Therefore this section proposes a limited form of public transportation on the Sabbath based on shared taxis run by interested municipalities. It would run on a Sabbath schedule and would strive to preserve the Sabbath character to the greatest degree possible. Suggesting that transit take the form of shared taxi services and not buses is based on two attempts to lessen the impact on the character of the Sabbath:

First, the use of shared taxis causes less harm to the character of the Sabbath in the public sphere than does the use of buses, for they are smaller and less conspicuous vehicles. Second, unlike buses, shared taxis are regulated by the Ministry of Transportation but not subsidized by the state. Keeping the state from subsidizing public transportation on the Sabbath has great symbolic and halachic value and allows those so interested to draw a parallel between shared taxis and private cabs, which have never been seen as a form of public transportation to be prohibited on the Sabbath.

Similarly, it is suggested that there be no affirmative provision for operation of public transiton the Sabbath; rather, the law should state what transportation is prohibited, thus, in effect, allowing that which is not expressly forbidden. It is suggested that the same sort of wording apply to entertainment, leisure, and cultural activities as well. Wording any law in the affirmative (“Public transportation will operate on the Sabbath”) will make it unnecessarily difficult for many of the religious elements to support the proposal, for it would entail direct approval of an act expressly forbidden by halacha. We therefore recommend that any law be worded only in the negative. This distinction was first made by Rabbi Yisrael Rozen of the Zomet Institute and was used in a law proposed by former MK Zvulum Orlev (Mafdal), endorsed by a number of prominent Religious Zionist rabbis.

The fourth and final section presents the general proposal we seek together with explanations and support based on the findings in the previous three sections.

to the full position paper (in Hebrew)

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