Tel Aviv — Just days after Israel declared its independence in 1948, politicians were already pushing to establish a Shabbat law to enshrine Saturday as a national day of rest.
The bill never got passed and similar proposals subsequently failed as well, reflecting Israeli leaders’ inability to reach a social consensus about how to regulate public activities on Shabbat. Thus was born Israel’s ongoing Sabbath wars — a turf battle between religious and secular activists to shape the nature of government and business activity on the country’s day of rest.
Last week, in the latest salvo, the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a 5-2 ruling supporting the Tel Aviv Municipality and its liberal mayor, Ron Huldai, against Interior Minister Arieh Deri, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. It also marked a defeat for an association of mom-and-pop grocery stores that had tried to force the city into closing supermarket chains that kept their doors open on Saturday.
Deri’s ministry, which oversees Israel’s municipal authorities, refused to endorse a Tel Aviv local ordinance passed in 2014 to allow about 160 business to remain open on Shabbat without having to pay a fine.
But, citing the principle of “live and let live,” outgoing Supreme Court President Miriam Naor ruled that the Interior Ministry must allow municipalities to pass local ordinances that are suited to the nature of their communities. “Each individual must be allowed to mold their own Sabbath according to their way and their faith, and extract meaning as they see fit,” the justice wrote.
It is common for cafés, restaurants and movie theaters to remain on open on Saturday throughout many cities in Israel. Groceries, however, close for the most part, including the country-wide supermarket chains that would risk having their kashrut certificates revoked if they opened on Saturday.
Some 20 years ago, the number of grocery stores serving customers on Shabbat were few and far between. Since then a handful of 24-hour chain stores have moved into the city, and built their brands around the spirit of Tel Aviv’s official “non-stop city” slogan.
Ron Hogeg, a partner in the grocery chain, Ha’Tzarchaniya, said he didn’t think twice before opening several of his branches on Saturday. Even though the business must pay overtime to workers and occasional 660-shekel ($165) fine to municipal inspectors, it’s worth it. Remaining open on Saturday is very profitable, he said.
“For this city, there’s a lot of activity on Shabbat. It’s an important day, but people don’t change the way they live their lives. … In the summer, when people go to the beach and buy a lot of food,” Hogeg said.
Moti Chaimovich, the owner of the Le Moulin bakery café, who closes on Saturday nonetheless, said that the government must allow businesses to open in Tel Aviv just as they allow ultra-Orthodox municipalities to insist that commerce must stop on Saturday.
“It would be a crime to close down Tel Aviv on the Sabbath. We won’t give up on this,” Chaimovich said. “We won’t accept religious coercion. [The refusal] is a payoff to the religious parties. I don’t think there’s any logic. Some people want it to be like Iran here. If there is an area that is influenced by a secular population, you need to take that into account, just like you need to do for an area that’s influenced by a preponderance of synagogues.”
Mayor Huldai hailed the decision, saying it maintains the balance between The protecting the Shabbat’s special status as day of rest and the need to provide services to the city’s residents. Just as ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak can close down for Shabbat, “it’s proper to respect the authority of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa to determine the character of the Shabbat in its streets,” he said in a statement. “The concept of ‘live and let live’ in the ruling is something wonderful that characterizes this city, where diverse communities live side by side in mutual respect.”
Deri accused the Supreme Court of instituting a “coup” through the ruling. “It’s sad to see that observing the holy Shabbat — which so many Jews sacrificed themselves for over the generations — has now become a banner and symbol of desecration in the state of the Jews,” Deri said after the ruling.
Deri has vowed to pass a law to give the Interior Ministry the authority to strike down municipal ordinances that allow businesses to open on the Sabbath. Observers noted that the court is split along cultural lines: its secular judges voted with the majority and two religious justices formed the minority.
The city ordinance allowing businesses to open on Saturday has been opposed by an association of mom-and-pop groceries, which complains that the extra day of activity hurts the businesses it represents and hurts their ability to rest on the Sabbath.
Uri Keidar, the executive director of Be Free Israel, warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other secular leaders in the coalition not to bow to calls for religious Shabbat legislation. “The existing situation today is supported by an overwhelming majority of the public. … Whoever tries to shut the Israeli public in their house on Saturday apparently doesn’t realize what they are up against. … It’s enough just to visit Eilat, Hadera, Rishon Lezion or Beersheva to realize that Israel is open on Shabbat.”
The Shabbat controversy goes back decades. In the mid-1980s, Jerusalem and Petach Tikvah became the sites of a largest protests over whether or not to open movie theaters. In the late 1990s, secular residents of Ramat Aviv sought to pressure religious owners of a local mall to open the cinema on Shabbat. More recently, Israel’s government has squabbled over the shutdown of highway infrastructure renovation work on Saturday.
Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and the vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that while some see the court’s ruling as an important step in defending individual rights, others see it as a judicial intervention into an area where the Knesset should decide. However, he said that the Knesset has never been able to pass a law regulating business activity on Shabbat because of a lack of consensus among the public.
“It is clear that Shabbat is changing its nature: about 20 percent of the shopping malls in Israel are open on Shabbat, about 15 percent of employees work on the weekly day of rest; and 90 percent of movie theaters are open. … The picture is that even though the majority is not with halachic observance of Shabbat, they have not turned their back on the Shabbat; they want it to be more family-oriented and a day of fun.”
Hogeg argued that most of Tel Aviv’s residents — secular and religious alike — are not bothered by the grocery stores remaining open on Saturday. The convenience store entrepreneur speculated that the controversy is being spurred by politicians from outside the city. Every municipality should do what is suited to their citizens.
“This is the beauty of the city,” he said. “In a tourist city, most of the shops are open on the weekend. Why shouldn’t it be that way here?”