Israel Struggles With Doing Business on Sabbath

By Elaine Ruth Fletcher
Religion News Service
Saturday, July 28, 2001; Page B09

JERUSALEM -- For decades, writers have poetically described the rhythm of the Jewish Sabbath in Israel when virtually all traffic and commerce ground to a halt at sunset Friday. Stores, restaurants and bars closed until Saturday night, while pavements echoed with melodious synagogue prayers.

But the tone and texture of the Jewish Sabbath is changing in the land where the Western concept of a "day of rest" first developed millennia ago.

Globalization and other market pressures are pushing more Israelis to work Saturdays in new shopping malls and American-style warehouse outlets that play an increasingly important role in Israel's economy. Such trends are stirring a debate about the social and religious value of the biblical injunction to "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy."

Unlike most Christian denominations, Orthodox Judaism interprets the ancient commandment regarding the Sabbath -- one of the original Ten Commandments said to have been given by God to Moses -- as barring any form of commerce, motorized travel or productive labor between dusk Friday and nightfall Saturday.

Indeed, the word "sabbath" is closely related to the verb "to sit" or "to go on strike" in biblical and modern Hebrew, implying a clear break or time-out from everyday routine.

As a result of Orthodox pressures, laws were enacted shortly after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 allowing work on the Sabbath at a limited number of factories and hospitals, military bases and power installations, most of which provide essential "lifesaving" services.

At the same time, while public Sabbath observance has long given Israeli life a special rhythm and character -- distinct from countries such as the United States where many businesses and services operate seven days a week -- secular Jews have long resisted Sabbath limitations on personal freedom and mobility.

Sabbath laws that were written in the 1950s when Israel was a country of state-owned factories, mom-and-pop stores and public transport are slowly crumbling as American-based chain stores, high-tech hothouses and expensive four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicles become the norm.

The first cracks in the wall of restrictions appeared in the mid-1980s when cinemas, theaters, cafes and restaurants across the country began to defy a Sabbath ban on public entertainment and open their doors on Friday evenings. Even in Jerusalem, the holy city, a Sabbath "club" quarter soon developed where thousands of youths flock for parties and dancing every Friday evening.

Increasingly, private bus companies and foreign airlines are operating public transportation services on the Sabbath. And Israel's economic development as a high-tech powerhouse has meant that more and more computer programmers and electronics specialists feel pressured to work seven days a week along with their employers.

"Religious politicians write about the desecration of the Sabbath. But they don't care about the sufferings and trials of the little guy who is trying to be observant," said Ephraim Oved, who was denied several high-tech jobs when he refused to work on the Sabbath.

In the 1990s, as automobile ownership rates soared, rural Israeli kibbutz collectives began to take advantage of a 1950s loophole in the law banning Sabbath day commerce, and opened warehouse outlets and malls on kibbutz-controlled property.

In addition to the kibbutz-owned shopping centers, which technically are legal, there are now "dozens of commercial centers operating illegally on the Sabbath," said Rivka Makover, of Israel's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. But when courts are overloaded with violators and fines are small, the law does not act as a deterrent, he said.

Over the past five years, some prominent politicians, rabbis, academics and jurists have tried to devise innovative formulas for public Sabbath observance that would reconcile the secular Israeli demand for entertainment and recreation with the Orthodox demand for public observance of the Sabbath. But none of their plans has been transformed into Knesset legislation.

Orthodox politicians are taking unilateral steps to win approval of new Knesset legislation that would, in theory, close kibbutz shopping centers on Saturdays. The current situation, the Orthodox say, grants suburban-based stores an unfair advantage over city-based stores and creates a bad social precedent for the Israeli work force.

"A man isn't a beast. And it shouldn't be that only the wealthy can be entitled to take off on the weekends, while everyone else works seven days a week, 365 days a year," said Moshe Gafni, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party. "If people don't have a single, fixed day off, then everyone will be working in shifts and no family will ever be able to spend time all together."

The new legislation to curb Sabbath commerce is sure to encounter fierce opposition from secular Israelis, who see such laws as just another Orthodox bid for power and control over their lives.

"Observing the Sabbath for secular Israelis means filling it with content that is suitable for the 21st century, and that is not necessarily prayer," said Eliezer Zandberg, a Knesset representative of the "Change" party, which seeks to encourage liberal, democratic trends in Israeli society.

"Maybe if the Orthodox would recognize the secular right to observe the Sabbath in our own way, then we could redefine everything," Zandberg said. "Right now, every store that opens is part of the secular struggle for freedom from religious coercion."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company