From a Shabbat of Work to a Shabbat of Rest

IDI Vice President of Research Prof. Yedidia Stern discusses the innovative Sabbath Law proposed by IDI. This proposed legislation seeks to a unique Israeli character in the public sphere on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, in a way which does not force religion on the public.

What is Shabbat? That would depend on whom you ask. The observant Jew views it as a holy day, a taste of the world to come. Haim Nachman Bialik, Israel's national poet, called Shabbat "the most brilliant creation of the Hebrew spirit." Abraham Joshua Heschel, the non-orthodox theologian, viewed it as a "palace in time," a sanctuary, where a Jew is invited in to visit each week and listen to the inner voices of his soul. The Israeli lawmaker, of necessity dry and purposeful, has enacted laws for work and rest hours, including an official day of rest.

But what is the reality of Shabbat? Religious sanctity is limited to narrow confines. The Hebrew spirit blows mainly within books. An invisible hand has perverted the palace in time into a shopping mall made of marble and neon. Enforcement of the day of rest lies in the hands of four undercover inspectors from the Ministry of Labor.

Shabbat's special status has been trampled and crushed in the public domain of the Jewish State: 20% of the economy's wage earners work on Shabbat; 27% of commercial areas operate; 600,000 Israelis leave their homes to engage in the rite of consumerism, plunking down several billion shekels each year. Market forces continue to plow ahead, turning the day of rest into a Shabbat of work.

In this Shabbat of work there is social discrimination: the weaker segments of society, those with no alternative, work in shopping centers to serve the middle and upper class. And there is religious discrimination too - small businesses whose owners observe the Sabbath lose out on the most profitable day of the week.

The High Court of Justice has recently confronted this reality. Its judges have ruled that the values of the State of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, are compatible with prohibiting enforced work, including on Shabbat - thus further reinforcing a clear path plotted by previous generations of judges. As far as the Court is concerned, enforcing the day of rest is justified from a religious-national, as well as societal, aspect. Judicial rhetoric waxes eloquent: Shabbat is a central value of Judaism - the soul and the "essence of its character." It is our national asset. Shabbat safeguards the humanity of the worker, his quality of life, honor, and relationship with family. The judges rightfully elucidate that a Shabbat of rest is not based on any religious coercion. All this is true and clearly in accord with international conventions, laws and rulings in other Western, liberal countries. It is quite ironic that here, in our corner of the world, these simple statements are perceived as "courageous pronouncements" from the High Court of Justice, or, even, in the eyes of others, as capitulation to the religious.

Regrettably, the High Court of Justice is wary of commenting on the yawning and incomprehensible gap that exists between binding law and the realities of the working Shabbat. Rule of law cannot exist without enforcement. In this respect, the Israeli Shabbat, aside from all its other shortcomings, is an unmistakable expression of the illegality prevalent in Israeli society. The Shabbat economy is, in part, a black economy which functions by violating the Hours of Work and Rest Law. Some tens of thousands of Jews go to work in Israel each Shabbat, in contravention of state laws. Their employers are some of the most powerful firms in the economy, who brazenly transgress the law, time and again, while raking in huge profits. Consumers aid and abet this violation - not of religion, but of law. The human, economic, and geographic scale of this phenomenon; the elevated social status of the primary lawbreakers; the continued and deliberate impotence of the executive authority; and the deafening silence of those usually engaged in promoting the rule of law and protecting human rights - all these converge to portray a harsh picture of society.

The necessary social transformation can be achieved via the Sabbath Law, an innovative piece of legislation proposed by the Israel Democracy Institute. The goal of the law is to nurture a unique Israeli public character on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, in a way which does not force religion onto the public. The law was formulated in the spirit of proposals raised in the past by religious and secular parties. The law's current supporters include, inter alia, the Yahad Council, located near the President's Residence in Jerusalem, and the committee for implementation of the Gavison-Medan Accord.

Key proposals include permitting recreation, cultural, and entertainment activities on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, as well as public transportation in a special, limited format. In balance, all industrial activity, commerce, and services, as well as activity by national institutions will be prohibited (with the exception, of course, of essential activities). If these principles are applied, Shabbat will cease to be an ordinary day for consumers and commerce; general consumer areas in shopping centers will be closed, thereby reducing the number of Shabbat workers significantly; Shabbat will be dedicated to soulful activities, in the broad sense of the word. The opportunity to enjoy places of culture and entertainment will become available to all - even to those who do not own vehicles

The law includes an innovative proposal to set up a national committee for Shabbat issues, whose mandate will be to resolve differences regarding the interpretation of the law, and assure its implementation by consensus and not by fiat. The composition of the committee will reflect the diversity of outlooks in Israeli society regarding these issues. This law, founded with an awareness of the dismal record of enforcement of the Hours of Work and Rest Law in its current format, proposes a series of real enforcement measures: supervision by a special authority, annual reports, severe sanctions, and more - aimed at ensuring full compliance with the law. Obviously, the provisions of the law prohibiting activity on Shabbat will not apply to any community in which a significant majority of its residents are not Jewish; instead, they will apply, mutatis mutandis, to the religious day of rest of the majority of those residents.

The explanatory text to the proposed Sabbath Law concludes with the words: "This Bill is intended to preserve a fundamental component of the Jewish historical and national memory in the Jewish state."
And indeed, the State of Israel's Jewish character is likely to be strengthened considerably should the Knesset adopt the Sabbath Law.