Jerusalem — As the manager of a busy downtown flower shop, Avraham Elharar, a 35-year-old father of three, works six full days a week. On Friday afternoons, when even workaholics close up shop for Israel’s Friday-Saturday weekend, Elharar must prepare bouquets for the pre-Shabbat rush.
“I work from Sunday morning till 5 p.m. on Fridays and have only one day to rest and spend time with my family,” the ponytailed Elharar said as he scooped up a bouquet of perfect white roses. “And that one day is Shabbat.”
Elharar hopes that a new initiative being spearheaded by Deputy Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will give Israel an official two-day weekend.
While various legislators have been trying to pass such a bill for a decade, Shalom is fairly confident he can win over the establishment.
“I’ve talked already with the heads of the labor unions, the prime minister, the minister of finance, the Defense Minister [Ehud] Barak,” Shalom told The Jewish Week. “I’ve spoken with the chairman of the Bank of Israel and many Knesset members.”
Shalom hopes to convince enough Knesset members to support legislation to change the weekend, but if he can’t, he or another legislator plan to draft a private member bill, he said.
What Shalom is proposing would change the way Israelis work, rest and play. Instead of the current Sunday through Thursday work week (with banks, post offices, shops and schools open till at least noon on Fridays), the minister wants to introduce a Monday through Friday workweek “that would put Israel in sync” with the Western world.
To accomplish this, people would need to work an extra half hour each workday and until two or three hours before the start of Shabbat on Friday.
Israelis work on average 43 hours per week. A significant percentage — no one knows the exact number — already take Fridays off.
Shalom thinks the switchover would be “the best move Israel can make.”
Right now, he said, “Israel isn’t engaged with the rest of the world three days a week: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and that’s not helping the Israeli economy, people in import, export, the stock market.”
The minister also thinks a Saturday-Sunday weekend will benefit Israeli society.
“We don’t have a real weekend,” Shalom said, referring to the overwhelming majority of shopping malls, movie theaters and other leisure venues that stop operating two to four hours before sundown Friday, and remain closed until Saturday night or Sunday morning. Most municipalities ban public transportation on Shabbat.
Under the proposed legislation, “the malls would be open on Shabbat, there would be public transport and of course the shows would be open. Soccer leagues might even decide to hold games on Sunday rather than Saturday,” Shalom said hopefully.
Cognizant that religious Jews in particular lack a full day of leisure (most spend Fridays preparing for Shabbat, and spend Shabbat at home or at synagogue), Shalom is trying to win the support of influential rabbis and lawmakers, including fervently Orthodox Knesset Member Eli Yishai of the Shas party.
While a few thousand people have signed the petition on Facebook dedicated to the cause, not everyone is on board.
Daphna Nitzan-Aviran, director of the Manufacturers Association of Israel’s economic research department, said her organization is dead set against the reform.
“Industry will lose a lot of money because workers will have to work longer hours to make up for Sundays off. It’s very hard to work nine-hour days, and productivity will suffer.”
Aviran expressed skepticism that companies would be able to operate for several hours on Fridays.
“Shabbat comes in early in the winter and some plants are far from residential areas, so the workers have to commute long distances. And it takes time to warm up machines.”
Utimately, Aviran said, “what we’ll have is a four-day work week, something inconceivable outside Israel. It will harm our competitiveness.”
Further, Aviran said, employees who are required to work on their traditional day of rest are entitled to 200 percent pay, so employers would need to double the Friday pay of Arab employees.
“Finally, what about parents? If they have a longer workday, the whole educational system will need to be changed. It’s problematic.”
Shalom said he is lobbying for the enactment of the long school day law passed by the Knesset, which requires all municipalities to teach students until 3 or 4 p.m. Today, many Israeli schoolchildren learn only until 1 p.m., making it difficult for parents, and especially mothers, to work full time.
But Aviran did acknowledge that a Saturday-Sunday weekend would be a boon to some.
“We believe if people have two days of rest they will of course buy more things, do more activities, go to more restaurants. It’s not that the benefits outweigh the negatives, but the commercial sector would benefit.”
Yisraela Amani from Israel’s Chambers of Commerce said her agency preferred not to comment until its officials meet with Shalom in the coming days.
A random survey in the streets of Jerusalem yielded a mostly positive response to Shalom’s proposal.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Ronen Rimon, the young manager of the Rimon Café, a restaurant established by his family in 1953. “I’ve experienced the Saturday-Sunday workweek abroad, and I think it will be good for business.”
David Weitz, a Modern Orthodox computer consultant, said he savored his Sundays back in his native London.
“I remember Sundays from England,” Weitz, who now lives in Jerusalem, said with a nostalgic sigh. “I would go on hikes, see friends. As things stand now, it’s hard to do that with just Friday and Shabbat.”
But for David Cohen, a retired 69-year-old bookkeeper, the prospect of a weekend that begins on Friday afternoon and ends Sunday night was discomforting.
“We Israelis already have enough time off. School starts and a couple of weeks later it’s Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and a full week off for Sukkot. Then it’s Chanukah, Purim, Pesach vacation and Independence Day. Not to mention summer vacation.”
“And that’s not even counting strikes,” Cohen said, his eyes twinkling.