Open on Shabbat

Government's disinterest in Sabbath inspection of businesses underscores waning Orthodox power.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

On a gorgeous, summer-like Tuesday in early April, scores of families have flocked to Kiftzuba, a popular amusement park owned by this secular kibbutz just outside Jerusalem. It's a school day, but small children can be seen playing with the animals at the petting zoo while their older siblings try out the skating rink, the arcade and the bumper cars.

Launched during Passover 1997, the park is an important source of revenue for the kibbutz, which also produces safety glass (shatterproof and bulletproof glass are hot items these days) and operates a hotel. Like most leisure spots outside the major cities, Kiftzuba operates on Shabbat. On Saturdays the place is jammed, particularly during the warm months. Thanks to a legal loophole that allows kibbutzim [plural of kibbutz] to operate certain businesses on Shabbat and holidays, one-third of the park's visitors arrive on Saturdays. 

shopping on shabbat in israelSecularism As a Way of Life

"It's the most obvious thing to do," says Kiftzuba's marketing manager, Yael Kerem, explaining why the park is open not only on Shabbat but on most Jewish holidays as well. "It is an important part of our income."

Nor is the issue simply economic. "We are not prepared to close our gates and open them only for one part of the population of Israel," Kerem says. "We are closed just three days a year: Yom Kippur, Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Memorial Day], and Memorial Day. For us, being secular is our way of life and we're proud of it.

"If someone wants to be religious, they can't tell us what to do. It's not that we're anti-religious. But our feeling is, 'You come when you want to and we'll accommodate you.'"

That's the attitude of many kibbutzniks, storeowners, and restaurateurs around the country who operate their businesses on Shabbat. Although numbers are hard to come by, such enterprises--from plant nurseries and furniture factories to movie theaters and falafel stands--are believed to be in the thousands if not tens of thousands.

Shabbat Regulations

Although most municipalities have strict regulations regarding Shabbat closures, including the requirement that anyone employed on Shabbat be a non-Jew, enforcement is erratic. In Jerusalem, for example, at least three of the city's movie theaters and dozens of pubs, clubs and restaurants are open on Shabbat, some legally, some not. And this is in Jewish West Jerusalem.

Those operating legally employ gentiles and do not have a kashrut certificate. Anyone employing even one Jew faces closure by the authorities.

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Michele Chabin

Michele Chabin is the Israel correspondent for The Jewish Week.