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Tel Aviv’s Sabbath Day: Religious Coercion?

By David Rubin
8/17/2014, 10:08 AM

Israel’s Sabbath day, otherwise known as the Shabbat or Shabbos, depending on who’s talking about it, is once again stirring up controversy in the stores and the streets of Tel Aviv. What’s is this fuss all about and why should we care?

“Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Deuteronomy 5:12)

Nice biblical words, and much of the Israeli public takes those words very seriously, but what about the large part of the public that doesn’t believe in it, or believes in it only partially? Shouldn’t they be allowed to shop to their hearts’ content on Saturday afternoon? Why should their freedom be restricted by forced store closures?

In Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem, there is hardly a supermarket or grocery store open on Shabbat. This is partially because of the municipal bylaws making such activity prohibitive, but also because of the very large religiously observant population, most of whom desire the peaceful feeling of walking through the streets without the noise of heavy commercial activity, but many of whom also want the Sabbath to be a symbolic standard for the nation of Israel and sincerely believe that the nation would be strengthened, as it says in the Torah, by such public observance.

However, much of the staunchly secular population vigorously objects, seeing such laws as coercive. For example, the city of Tel Aviv has always been known as “the free city”, with its extensive nightlife and its assertive flaunting of vices. How can the municipality inflict Shabbat grocery closures on such a lively population?

The truth is that it always has, to some extent. The city of Tel Aviv has always had bylaws enforcing some degree of public Sabbath observance. Cafes are open on Shabbat, but fines are issued to supermarkets and grocery stores that open their doors for business on Shabbat. Is it an infringement of public freedom?

Well, yes, it certainly seems to be. While the religious public would strongly argue that Shabbat observance actually frees us to spend quiet, reflective time with our families, away from the hustle-bustle of the shopping and the markets, the truth is that it is a restriction of free choice.

However, there is another angle that has inadvertently been highlighted by recent attempts in Tel Aviv at changing bylaws to allow groceries to be open on Shabbat – the right of those who are employed in such businesses to a day of rest. Isn’t it also a restriction of freedom to compel someone to work?

Even so, the commercial engine is not so easily silenced.There has been a growing phenomenon of large grocery chains in Tel Aviv opening on Shabbat. Ignoring municipal bylaws, they swallow the fines and open up for full business, knowing that they are large enough to withstand the penalty.

This has sparked a new, and perhaps unexpected form of protest against coercion. This past Friday, a contingent of small business owners of groceries in Tel Aviv flocked to the larger chain stores, handing out mock violation notices, protesting their opening for business as usual on Shabbat, which they described as unfair and discriminatory competition. The small grocery store owners pointed out that the current  arrangement puts them at a disadvantage against the big chains, which can afford to keep their stores staffed on Shabbat. Small business owners, they say, deserve a day off, too.

As one small store owner explained it, “We favor a free Tel Aviv – this city has always been free and open and it should stay that way, but this city cannot continue retail trade that so sweepingly and plainly robs me and my friends of the one free day in the week, which everyone in the city deserves”.

And that quote reveals an often ignored perspective, which in turn reveals a critical universal aspect in the nature of the Shabbat, a day of rest for all. As slaves in Egypt, we were forced to work seven days a week. The Shabbat is, indeed, a day of freedom from a full seven days of labor, or an excessively grueling work week with no respite, what is known in modern parlance as "the rat race". In this sense, what appears on the surface to be a demand for total freedom from religious coercion can actually be an obstruction of freedom.

Yes, the return to the land as a sovereign nation has often required a difficult rethinking of the question of how to live together peacefully, productively, and in a way that is consistent with the wonderful heritage of Israel. In our internal conflicts, we Israelis tend to see things in black and white, but the reality is often not as it seems.

To be an Israeli is to struggle with these issues and to seek peaceful solutions, and to do so, as difficult as it often is, working together as a people.

This complex return to the land is certainly unique in the annals of humanity, and it’s not always easy, but after 2,000 years of being scattered around the world, persecuted, and killed by the millions, it’s also a privilege.