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Image: picture alliance/DUMONT Bildarchiv/E. Wrba

The struggle over Israel's Shabbat

Dana Regev
September 26, 2015

It affects public transport, kosher food, football matches and opening times for retail chains and entertainment venues. The dispute over the significance of the Jewish Sabbath is far from over in Israel.


On Friday, Israeli Minister of the Economy Aryeh Deri ordered Israel Railways to revoke any permits it had recevied to carry out construction works on Saturdays.

The national train company replied by saying the decision would have major implications on the development of the rail network.

"Most of the infrastructure works take place on weekends since they require the closing of rail traffic for extended periods," Israel Railways said in response to Deri's order. "These closures are impossible during weekdays, since they will force the company to close highly active train lines for days."

Later on Friday, Israel Railways appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered a freeze on the decision until Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, can clarify his position.

For now, construction works will continue as planned. But the debate about the Shabbat, the Jewish holy day, is an ancient one, and has been a matter of contention in Israel since the country was founded in 1948.

Fragile relations

From the start, Israel has had an uneasy status quo agreement between its secular and religious communities.

Its origin is in a letter sent by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, when he was still serving as the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to the ultra-Orthodox party Agudat Israel, to form a united policy to present to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947.

Aryeh Deri, Shas Partei
Israel's ultra-Orthodox Minister of the Economy Aryeh Deri wants Shabbat closures enforcedImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

The letter stipulated policy principles in main areas that were fundamental to Orthodox Judaism, such as religious laws regarding food, family laws regarding marriage and the Jewish Sabbath - which was determined as the state's day of rest, from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.

Despite the fact that Ben-Gurion's letter referred only to few basic issues, it has formed the basis of relations between state and religion in Israel until this day.

A country on hold

Apart from Haifa, no other city in Israel operates public transport services on Saturdays. Under the Local Authorities Law, businesses inside towns are forced to remain closed, unlike those located on the outskirts or on main highway junctions in the country.

Cities with a mixed population of secular and Orthodox Jews often see clashes on the issue, as more and more customers and owners want businesses to open on Saturdays too. Many roads and neighborhoods are blocked on Shabbat, forcing secular-minded people to take long detours or to avoid parking their cars in certain places.

"The status quo should mean 'live and let live,' but in fact this is a one-sided coercion," says Amir B., a bar owner from Jerusalem. "There's no other way to say it: The Orthodox community is simply making our lives unbearable."

"Why shouldn't I be able to take a bus? Why do I need to pay 100 shekels (about 23 euros or $25) for a taxi? What if I need to get to a hospital? And that's without even talking about the secular way of life that is at stake."

Cities like Jerusalem see clashes between secular and religious JewsImage: picture alliance/Photoshot/BCI/M. Borchi

Amir is reffering to other key factors that seculars in Israel are complaining about. According to the status quo, not only companies, but also public entertainment places are forced to be closed on Saturdays, including cinemas, restaurants, cafes and clubs. However, each city handles this differently, depending on the municipality's will to enforce the law and the public demand.

In Tel Aviv, for example, it is almost impossible to force stores to shut down, and therefore most larger retailers are open even on Saturdays, willing to take the small risk of a modest fine.

This has led small businesses and traditional Jews in the city to appeal to court, asking to reinforce the Shabbat laws, as they cannot compete with big chains who can afford either to pay fines or to hire non-Jewish workers.

Small businesses at stake

Israel's labor law stipulates that the weekly rest will last 36 hours in a row, and for Jews Saturday is the day of rest, so it is strictly forbidden to employ Jews on that day. The intention is to prevent exploitation by employers, but it also creates a total lack of flexibility in the labor market. Non-Jews may choose between Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

The law requires workers to rest on a day which they are not necessarily interested in, and prevents them from earning more money, since the compensation for work on a Saturday is 150 percent of the regular hourly wage.

The "Local Authorities Law" harms the livelihood of secular store owners in the towns, because they cannot compete with flourishing businesses outside the cities, since opening on a Saturday means looking for very certain employees and paying them more.

Israeli supermarket (Photo: imago/David Vaaknin)
Small stores say they cannot compete with suburban businessesImage: imago/David Vaaknin

Secular customers are inconvenienced too, as the day of rest is imposed on them by the state, and they are not even able to take advantage of it to go shopping or fill up their fridge.

Culturally blocked

Deri has also ordered the closure of the Israel Export Institute's booth at the IBC conference in Amsterdam for a three-day weekend, in order not to violate the Shabbat. This is the world's largest exhibition for media entertainment and high-tech industry - and the move could cause the Israeli delegation to lose valuable customers.

Even soccer is at risk, as Saturday used the be the regular matchday of the Israeli league, but recently the Football Players Association has filed a petition to the Labor Court, claiming that playing on a Saturday is a vilation of the law.

The judge decided that it is indeed a criminal offense, bringing a halt to a situation that had lasted more than 90 years and putting the system into a tailspin. Less than seven hours before the entire Israeli football world was supposed to go on strike, the Attorney-General agreed to a request by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev for a 60-day extention in which no law would be enforced, while she sets up a committee to try to find a solution.

Israeli soccer team (Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Israel's national football team may have to stop play on SaturdayImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Coex
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