Open on Shabbat

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

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.

In reality, though, few businesses that operate on Shabbat have been forced to close. This was underscored last Shabbat when 70 stores in a Kfar Saba mall defied municipal regulations and opened on Saturday. Storeowners said the small fines they received were outweighed by hefty Shabbat sales.

The Shabbat closure regulations have come under intense scrutiny during the past couple of months following a decision by Ehud Olmert, the new industry and trade minister, to freeze Shabbat inspections, at least for the time being. But Olmert, a devout secularist, was forced to reinstate the inspections after Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein this week ordered the Ministry of Labor to enforce the Shabbat business ban.

“A political government department does not have the authority to order a suspension of law enforcement,” Rubinstein said this week.

Businesses have long defied the ban because inspectors are few and resources are small. Though the lack of funding is not limited to Shabbat inspections, it does appear to reflect the low priority government officials are now giving to the issue.

A glance at the current religious status quo reveals a marked erosion in the religious establishment’s power base in recent years. The monopoly over religious affairs enjoyed by the Orthodox a decade ago is slowly wearing away, according to observers.

The secular Shinui Party, which scored a strong victory in the [2003] national elections, already has introduced a bill permitting civil marriage for non-Jews and is pushing for the sale of pork in non-kosher shops. The first initiative has a good chance of being passed.

The fact that the Orthodox parties lost several seats in the election and now sit in the opposition has left them with little clout. Even the National Religious Party, the only religious party in the Sharon government, decided not to quit the government over Olmert’s initiative to freeze Shabbat inspections.

The Rules Are Changing

“I think the NRP [National Religious Party] realized the rules of the game are changing,” said David Clayman, the director of the American Jewish Congress in Israel. “The religious don’t have that much bargaining power.”

Shinui, Clayman said, “represents something new in Israeli political culture. Suddenly the religious, which have been running rampant for years, have run into a wall: the secular society. The secular society finally said we’re fed up and won’t be pushed around anymore.”

Indeed, the absence of fervently Orthodox parties from the government has resulted in some major setbacks for the Orthodox public, which constitutes approximately 14 percent of the population. (Another 20 percent are considered secular, while the remainder are considered somewhere in between.)

Budgets to yeshivas and Torah institutions have been slashed, and the Large Families bill that would have granted big bonuses to families with five or more children (mostly the haredim and Arabs) already has been shelved by the new government.

Two years ago, in response to demands by Russian immigrants and their advocates, the government established so-called joint-conversion centers to train potential converts who ultimately would be converted by Orthodox rabbis.

Though there are problems with the system, Clayman said, “the very fact that [the centers] exist is making a chink in the armor of the ultra-Orthodox. It’s long overdue.”

Clayman stresses that this shift did not occur overnight. “It’s been a gradual transition,” he said. “When we came here 30 years ago [from the United States], the very notion of opening a movie theater on Friday night caused rioting. Things really began to change about five years ago and now Shabbat openings are taken for granted.”

Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, traces this “tilt” toward secularization to the 1970s. It started with the broadcast of TV on Shabbat in 1968,” the year television was introduced to Israel, Sandler said, adding that the Westernization of Israel, as well as the vast Russian aliyah of the 1990s, served to speed up the process. “In the West we see democracies becoming more liberal and this influences Israel,” Sandler said. “As a result it is difficult today to justify not allowing people to marry civilly if they cannot marry according to Jewish law. Today there are cemeteries for non-Jews as well as a secular cemetery.”

Jonathan Rosenblum, a Jerusalem Post columnist who writes from a fervently religious perspective, believes these changes are hurting all Israelis, not just the Orthodox. Referring to the many businesses that now operate on Shabbat, Rosenblum said, “There is a domino effect, and it’s negative. If a kibbutz is open near Netanya, then the storekeepers in Netanya find themselves losing business because they’re closed on Shabbat. They then feel compelled to remain open, though they would otherwise have remained closed. They then put pressure on Raanana and so on.”

In addition to hurting religious proprietors, Rosenblum said, “the workers are forced to work on the one day they would ordinarily get off.”

“The employees, who tend to be minimum wage earners, have to work so that someone in Ramat Aviv can buy milk seven days a week,” he said, referring to an upscale neighborhood near Tel Aviv.

Rosenblum finds it sadly ironic that the Jewish state is emulating the rest of the world, when it was “the Jewish people [who] gave to the world the concept that man is a spiritual being, not a beast of burden.”

The Manufacturers Association, a nonreligious body, agrees. It vocally denounced Olmert’s plans to freeze Shabbat inspections on the grounds that Shabbat violators put everyone else at a disadvantage.

There are, of course, many Israelis who do not want to work on Shabbat, and not because they are religious. “Shabbat should be a family day,” asserts Momo Mor, the affable owner of Cafe Masryk on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street, giving a hug to his young daughter. Despite the fact that he is not religiously observant, Mor says he will not open his cafe or another of his nearby restaurants even if other eateries on the trendy street decide to do so.

“We don’t want to work on Shabbat,” he said. “If there are people who want to work, that’s fine. I don’t believe in religious coercion. They can do what’s good for them. I’ll do what’s good for me.”

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