Lessons from Shabbat demonstrations in Petah Tikva

Political agreements reached in a broad public framework are more beneficial to Shabbat observance than demonstrations.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Melamed
Rabbi Melamed
Flash90

The basic prerequisite for the creation of the world and for the receiving of the Torah is the existence of Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel), as our Sages explained the word “Bereishit” (‘in the beginning’) – for the sake of Israel, which is called reishit (the first of His produce) (Leviticus Rabbah 36: 4). Our Sages also said “The Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with Ma’aseh Bereishit (the Works of Creation) and said to them: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness” (Shabbat 88a). \

In Clal Yisrael (the entire physical and spiritual community of Israel, past, present, and future) every Jew is included – even sinners – for even they are called sons of Hashem (Kiddushin 36a). This is the meaning of what was said in preparation for the Revelation on Mount Sinai: “Israel camped opposite the mountain” – “as one man, with one heart” (Exodus 19: 2, and Rashi there), and as explained in the midrash Mekhilta, that usually ‘they journeyed in quarrel, and encamped in quarrel’. Here, they were of one heart, so they may love one another, and receive the Torah.”

We see then that in the merit of their unity, they were able to receive the Torah. That is why Rabbi Akiva said that “ve’ahavta le’reiacha ke’mocha” (loving your neighbor as yourself) is a great rule in the Torah” (Sifra Kedoshim).

These ideas, which pertain to this week’s Torah portion, relate to what I wrote last week in praise of the agreements reached among the various sections of the public concerning the honor of Shabbat in the city of Harish.

In addition to appreciation and agreement with what I wrote, there were those who argued that since the issue involves public chilul Shabbat (desecration of Shabbat), demonstrations and protest are necessary to try to force the observance of Shabbat on the entire city. In this context, it is worth learning a lesson from the difficult struggle that took place over the opening of a movie theater on Shabbat in Petah Tikva. My friend, Dr. Haim Meitlis, summed up the affair for me.

The Struggle over the Opening of a Cinema on Shabbat in Petah Tikva

During the second term of the mayor of Petah Tikva, Dov Tavori, (1983-1988), a member of the Labor Party, he decided to allow the Histadrut, which owned the ‘Heichal’ movie theater, to open it on Shabbat evenings for film screenings. In doing so, he acted in response to the youth who demanded a place to hang out on Shabbat evenings. He explained that he wanted to prevent them from traveling to Tel Aviv and nearby cities for safety and financial reasons. His plan was that the tickets would be sold before Shabbat, and that the films would be screened starting at ten o’clock at night, in order to avoid harming the sensitivities of the religious public.

After the failure of meetings between the Mafdal (then the National Religious Party) faction headed by Avraham Marmorstein and the mayor, the Mafdal faction withdrew from the coalition. At the same time, the city’s rabbi, Rabbi Baruch Shimon Salomon ztz”l, seeing that efforts of persuasion were not useful, organized demonstrations on Shabbat evenings, and even led them. For the sake of this, he also recruited demonstrators from Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

The first demonstrations were attended by the heads of the Mafdal and municipal faction, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikva Rabbi Moshe Malka ztz”l, the National-Religious public, and even members of the Bnei Akiva youth movement. Within a few Shabbatot the demonstrations began to take on a violent and flagrant nature, as even the opposing, non-religious people recruited their friends from nearby cities to the demonstrations as well.

As a result, Rabbi Malka withdrew from the demonstrations, and even objected to them, claiming that they caused more chilul Shabbat (desecration of the Sabbath) than the operation of the movie theater, in that hundreds of demonstrators, police officers, and reinforcements arrived to the scene. Along with him, the heads of the Mafdal, Religious Zionists, and members of Bnei Akiva also withdrew, claiming that demonstrating in such a way also caused unnecessary sinat chinam (baseless hatred).

The demonstrations lasted for about two years, with demonstrators from the Haredi public standing counter to the non-religious public every Shabbat evening, hurling insults and curses at each other. During these two years, attempts were made to negotiate with the mayor from various factors, among them the then Minister of Interior and Police Dr. Yosef Burg from the Mafdal, rabbis, rebbes, and public figures. These meetings also included non-religious Knesset members from the Labor Party. During this period, some people even offered to cover all the proceeds from running the movie theater on Shabbat evening out of their own pockets. All of these attempts failed.

During these two years, Rabbi Salomon was even arrested by the police. Marmorstein and the former chairman of the Religious Council, Shmuel Weinberger, rallied for his release from custody on Shabbat evening, having to guarantee the rabbi’s lawful conduct in future demonstrations.

The demonstrations ceased following the appointment of Haim Bar Lev as Minister of Police and his order to take a hard line against the demonstrators. In the 1988 election the mayor lost, and was replaced by Giora Lev, a Likud member. He formed a coalition with the Mafdal and the Haredim, and together with the city’s director general, Moshe Spector, knew how to deal with everyone in the city, to the satisfaction of all.

He instituted an agreed-upon Shabbat framework according to which “places of entertainment, movie theaters, restaurants, and shops will not be opened throughout the city of Petah Tikva on Shabbatot and Jewish holidays,” while places of entertainment for youth, if operated, will be on the outskirts of the city, in industrial areas.” This framework has existed ever since.

The Lesson

The best and only way to honor Shabbat in public is with broad public agreement, as many Jews who are not meticulous in observing Shabbat are interested in honoring it, and as long as there is no harsh coercion, they are willing to reach agreements honoring Shabbat. Demonstrations, on the other hand, are unhelpful, and generally harmful, because they create tension and polarize positions, and distance the secular public from honoring Shabbat.

The Rabbis’ Position

In practice, the one who led the struggles was the Ashkenazi rabbi, Rabbi Salomon, who was elected Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikva by the National-Religious public, but adopted the approach of the Haredi parties.

Often, because the Haredi position is clear and decisive, it seems to many religious people to be correct, and thus, they are inclined to follow it. However, after a while, members of the religious public, headed by Rabbi Malka, realized that Rabbi Salomon’s position was wrong, both halakhically, and from a public standpoint, as Rabbi Malka explained in writing, in detail.

Eminent rabbis joined his position, including Rabbi Chaim David Halevy (Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv), Rabbi David Shloush (Chief Rabbi of Netanya), Rabbi Yosef Sharvit (Chief Rabbi of Ashkelon), Rabbi Eliyahu Katz, Rabbi Mishael Dahan (from the Be’er Sheva rabbis) and Rabbi Yosef Kapach (Member of the Beit Din HaGadol). Among the rabbis who opposed his position were Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Simcha HaKohen Kook, and Rabbi Zilberstein (some of the halakhic responses were written in ‘Techumin’, volumes 7, 8, and some in the “Kuntris Le’man Shabbat” published by Rabbi Malka).

The Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikva, Rabbi Moshe Malka ztz”l

Rabbi Moshe Malka was born in Morocco in 1911. Already there, he was considered one of the most important rabbis, dayan (judge) and posek (Jewish law authority), serving as rabbi, dayan, and Torah disseminator to the masses in various communities. In his last position, he served as dayan and Deputy Av Beit Din of Rabbi Shalom Mashash (later, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem) in the large community of Casablanca, which at the time numbered about 100,000 Jews.

Rabbi Malka authored many books, the most important of which is the responsa ‘Mikveh HaMayim’ in six volumes, containing many halakhic answers in the areas of family law, and the release of agunot (Jewish women stuck in their religious marriage as determined by halakha). In 1967, he immigrated to Israel, two years later he was appointed rabbi of the Sephardic community in Petah Tikva, and in 1976, at the age of 65, was elected to serve as Chief Rabbi and head of the batei din (religious courts) of Petah Tikva and the district. He also served as a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council. He died in 1997 at the age of 87. At the time of the clashes over the ‘Heichal’ movie theater, he was almost 72 years old, with vast experience in pesika (halachic ruling) and dayanut (litigation), while his colleague Rabbi Salomon was about 44 years old.

Rabbi Malka would recite ‘Hallel’ with a bracha (blessing) on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), encouraged army service in the IDF, and even wrote regarding soldiers: “I was jealous of them and wanted to be with them, it is a pity that age prevented me from doing so. They were given a great privilege, because they were given the important role of the Supreme Providence, to guard the security and existence of the State of Israel.”

Summary of His Position Regarding Demonstrations

He published his position in the wake of numerous demonstrations for many Shabbatot against the opening of the movie theater, while in opposition, countless non-observant Jews arrived to demonstrate in favor of its opening; scores policemen drove to the demonstrations; television crews filmed everything that happened – giving the ‘Heichal’ movie theater worldwide publicity; and people from all over the country coming to witness with their own eyes, the chilul Shabbat taking place.

He subsequently wrote: “I thought to myself: how long will this continue to be a menace to us? How long will we disturb the residents’ rest for naught? … When we realized there was no hope of closing the movie theater on Shabbat, why should we continue to recruit police and Mishmar Hagvul (Border Police) and TV crews? Therefore, I stopped participating in demonstrations that were of no use; and given there are those who see my withdrawal as if, God forbid, I do not pay heed to chilul Shabbat, consequently, I confirm that according to the clear and explicit halakha, it is forbidden to hold such demonstrations, which cause more massive, and more severe, chilul Shabbat.”

“As for the many sinners, ‘Nimukei Yosef’ wrote that one who knows that others will not listen to him, should rebuke them only once, and this is how Rema ruled (OC, 608:2), writing: ‘And if it is known that his words will not be listened to, do not say publically to rebuke except once, but don’t increase rebuke since he knows that they won’t listen to him.’ This is also implied from the exact language of Rambam, who wrote: ‘He who sees his chaveiro (‘his friend’, in the singular) who has sinned’ – from which we can deduce that it is speaking only of an individual friend, in which case, he must rebuke once, or twice, etc., until hit by the transgressor, but not in the case of the many who have sinned, they should be rebuked only once …”

When there are numerous sinners, the reason they should be rebuked only once and not more, is very convincing – since they are many, they support each other and the more rebuke they receive, the stronger their minds will be to sin and hate those who rebuke them. Contrarily, the fundamental prerequisite of the mitzvah of rebuke is not to reach hatred by means of it.

To Increase Torah

Ultimately, the foundation of teshuva (repentance) and tikun (rectification) is in increased study of Torah, halakha, emunah (faith) and mussar (morality). When we encounter chilul Shabbat, we must increase Torah study on Shabbat. If the thousands of hours devoted to demonstrations and struggles had been devoted to the addition of delightful and informative Torah study on Shabbat, the blessing would have been many times over.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.


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