"The nation that seeks to fulfill G-d's Will?" Sabbath in Tel Aviv

The title is from the songs sung at the Sabbath table, zmirot, specifically the haunting and poetic "Ka Echsof" written by the Karliner rebbe.

Rabbi Baruch Efrati,

Judaism חנויות בשבת?
חנויות בשבת?

What is the most burning issue currently facing Israel?

When approaching this important question, it is a good idea to pay attention to the difference between our spontaneous response and the one that follows time spent in serious contemplation of what that response should be.

At first glance, it seems that the most burning issue at present is whatever affects the physical existence of our state: the IDF, economy and settlement.  All these are the material factors that sustain us, literally – land, money, security. Without them, there would be no Torah study in Israel. Without them, we could not be a proud nation living in its land.

However, after realizing that these values are of utmost importance, we must focus more intensely on what the burning issue facing us really is. Let us activate the latent spirituality within us and look again. Just what is that burning issue on which we should be expending most of our energies?

Careful observation will show us that it is not the physical state of the country that serves as its foundation, but the depth of our identity and the level of our spiritual consciousness.

A nation without an identity of its own is not a nation. Even if it has an army and a thriving economy, land and prosperity, it is not a nation because it cannot define what G-d expects of it as a collective entity. It has no purpose and no mission.  It does not unify around the spiritual ethos that brings its national ethos to life. It is not a nation but a collection of individuals.

If we look even closer, deep into our national character, we will discover that the most burning issue of all is that of observing the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is the basis of our national identity.

You, dear reader, must be asking yourself – the Sabbath? What are we, the Eida Hachareidit (an anti-Zionist ultra-hareidi group, ed.). Observing the Sabbath is a religious issue, and we, normative Jews, do not force others to do as we do. A Jewish state, you may feel, doesn't need general Sabbath observance, just the agreement to honor the day, declare it a day of rest – and that's all.

This thought is a travesty into which we have been dragged without our noticing it. Keeping the Sabbath is not the struggle of the Eida Hachareidit on its own, but of anyone who combines the fear of G-d and love of the Jewish State. The Sabbath is not an individual value, but a collective one; desecration of the Sabbath is not a mistake, but a spiritual catastrophe and a loss of direction.

At the start of our country's rebirth, Rabbi Kook spearheaded Sabbath observance. The number of letters and proclamations the founder of religious Zionism published on the subject is greater than the number he wrote on the important topics that we connect his name with today.

Even his writing style on the subject of the Sabbath is unusual in comparison to his other works. Rabbi Kook wrote sharply about keeping the Sabbath,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              whether in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or smaller communities. He not only explained its importance to the Jewish public, he actually sent official letters to the British governor, to the heads of municipal and regional authorities, to city councils, the JNF, and others – demanding strongly that they must all desist from any desecration of the holy day. Rabbi Kook tried with all his might to sway leaders of every persuasion on public Sabbath observance, from Torah luminary Rabbi Yitzchak Sonnenfeld to Mayor Dizengoff of Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Kook was especially furious when there were public instances of Sabbath desecration, such as soccer games or stores open for business. He fought like a lion, pulled out all the stops, and literally took his life in his hands to stand up for the holiness of the Sabbath day. Certain circles were offended by his behavior and could not fathom how this rabbi, known for loving every Jew, could be so angry and speak so sharply about the Sabbath that he rivaled the most radical groups in the pre-Zionist Yishuv (the hareidi Jews who predated the Zionists, ed.). Rabbi Kook was willing to pay the price of their being offended, because he understood that public and private Sabbath observance is the most basic expression of our nation on its own land.

The reason Rabbi Kook gives to explain his struggle for the Sabbath as opposed to other issues, is that this mitzvah is the root of Jewish collective identity, tradition and heritage.

Observing the Sabbath is the recognition that there is a Creator who runs the world, who cares about His people and his world. That is why someone who denies the Sabbath denies the entire Torah, for the Sabbath is the basis of everything. Observing the Sabbath is a pubic pronouncement of the new rebirth of the Jewish people in Israel, a people with a living connection to its G-d.

Rabbi Kook viewed any deficiency in Sabbath observance as having a negative effect on the entire Zionist project, on the people of Israel – as if it cuts off the Jewish people's only source of oxygen, its connection to the G-d Whose wishes it is to fulfill with all its might.

After Rabbi Kook's passing , his successor, Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, continued the struggle for public Sabbath observance, saying "We turn to you, the government and security agencies,  in the name of Judaism in its entirety, asking you to understand what the Sabbath means to Israel…join the covenant to save the Sabbath…first and foremost this is the responsibility of the authorities…this with the understanding that as the Sabbath is gradually desecrated, the main substance of our national home is gradually lost."

And now – we cling to the last vestiges of Rabbi Kook's mission and that of his followers, and are forced to remind ourselves that there is a great danger waiting at our door, a sword raised in order to cut the spiritual pipeline enabling the Jewish people and the Jewish state to breathe and survive.

This is the story and how it took place:

During almost all the years of its existence, Tel Aviv has been the scene of arguments over the character of the "Sabbath Laws" that were supposed to take effect in this, the first Hebrew city.

Towards the end of 1932 (5783), then Mayor Meir Dizengoff, published a special proclamation which said: "The Tel Aviv Municipality turns to our residents once more, both new arrivals and long term citizens , many of whom may not be aware of this city's customs – and asks that they honor and keep from desecrating the Sabbath whether or not there is a police officer in the vicinity."

In 1938, Tel Aviv passed the first municipal by-law concerning the Sabbath, prohibiting the opening of commercial and industrial facilities on the Sabbath day.

From then on, there has been a steady deterioration of the Sabbath atmosphere in the city, mostly due to the opening of cafes, restaurants and other places, all simply ignored by the municipality.

In 1979, another decision was reached on the issue and the City Council renewed the municipal by-law which proclaimed: "Subject to what is written in the sections of the law… no store or café owner may open and remain open on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals unless he has received a special permit to do so from the city."

Beginning in 1999, the Sabbath atmosphere was damaged further by the opening of department stores and supermarkets on the day of rest. These places of business were unaffected by the fines imposed on them by municipal inspectors and continued to rake in handsome profits. 

Despite the fact that Tel Aviv's municipal by-laws prohibit the opening of businesses and factories on the Sabbath, a cursory glance is enough to show that these laws are increasingly ignored by shop owners who brazenly open their doors to customers in the middle of the Sabbath day. The city's failure to enforce the law has encouraged more and more businesses to open, as each fears the other's competitive edge will grow greater if it is the only one of its kind open on the Sabbath .

As a result, the Supreme Court enjoined the Tel Aviv Municipality to enforce the law and prevent those businesses open on the Sabbath from continuing to do so. Following that decision, the Tel Aviv Municipality took the unprecedented step of changing the by-law and allowing some 300 businesses and places of entertainment to remain open on the Sabbath.

A delegation of "Derech Emunah" rabbis met with the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, to discuss ways of strengthening Sabbath observance in the city. Rabbi Lau showed them a letter he had sent to the mayor and both religious and secular city council members and described what else he had done to try to combat the change.

The Businessmen's Union turned to the courts requesting that the change in the municipal law be rescinded. This brought the issue back to the Supreme Court, whose judges asked for the state's opinion. The Interior Minister disqualified himself from involvement in the issue (claiming conflict of interest) and the Minister to whom it was given over ignored it. This ministerial neglect caused the case to be given to the state's legislative department.

We have reached the critical point where public observance of the Sabbath in Tel Aviv and every city like it, hangs by a thread.

If the state's legislative department, G-d forbid, presents an opinion to the courts which allows commerce on the Sabbath in Tel Aviv, this will be a fatal blow to Sabbath observance in all of Israel's coastal cities – and it will announce to all that Zionism has nothing at all to do with the Sabbath.

As elucidated at the beginning of this article, the Sabbath day is the foundation of our national identity; it expresses more than any other thing our living connection with the G-d of Israel. The spiritual and national damage of this step is incalculable.

Almost no merchants will be able to resist the temptation and the possible losses of not opening on the Sabbath, even if doing so is not at all what they would like to do.

The decision will be taken in a few days.

To summarize, if we, the Religious Zionists, do not raise a loud cry in defense of Sabbath observance in the coastal cities, the entire idea of "Sabbath" in the public venue will disappear in these areas.

We are "the people who wish to know G-d's Will". That is how we were forged as a nation and that is the Religious Zionist ideological DNA. How can we sit idly by while the Sabbath is destroyed in the cities on the coast and soon after, all over the country?

Let us stand up for the soul of the state, and request that the Prime Minister and his government stand up for the Holy Sabbath, along with all the rabbis of Israel.

All our life forces, all the ideological blood coursing through our veins, all the holiness in our Torah study halls, all the political savvy of our representatives – must now address saving the public face of the Sabbath in Tel Aviv and along the coast. That is the only way to elevate the building of our land and the other ideals which we espouse, the most basic of which is the eternal covenant with the Creator Who rested on the seventh day.

The writer is head of Rabbanei Emunah, a group of young Zionist rabbis whose goal is preserving the status of Judaism in Israel in the public sphere.