When chareidi Knesset members fight to restore yeshivah budgets that have been slashed over the years, they are representing the Torah world. When they fight for Shabbos, they represent the silent majority in Israel.
The latest scandal in Israel involves work that was done this past Shabbos to expand Israel Railways lines in Tel Aviv to accommodate the city’s planned light rail. In a clear violation of the status quo agreement that has governed relations between religious and secular since the founding of the state, the government carried out the work on Shabbos, causing massive and very public desecration of Shabbos.
The government tried to excuse itself by claiming that it was a matter of “pikuach nefesh,” saving lives. Performing the upgrade on a weekday would have entailed shutting down main highways in Tel Aviv, officials argued, making it impossible for emergency vehicles and ambulances to reach those in need. Police and other professionals submitted “expert” opinions confirming this view.
But the argument is specious. For starters, the Tel Aviv municipality shuts down half the city when it wants to hold a marathon and no one worries about “pikuach nefesh” or about the need to bring in hundreds of police to ensure public safety. It would have been no tragedy had the renovation of the rail line been done at night (when traffic is lighter), with ample warning given in advance to drivers about the closures.
Second, thought has to be given at the design stage as to how to build and maintain the train station and other major infrastructure projects without desecrating Shabbos. Instead of creating huge beams that must be transported on super-wide trucks that disrupt traffic, smaller sections can be designed and then assembled at the site. The (false) claim of “pikuach nefesh” cannot become a license to publicly desecrate Shabbos. It must be used judiciously and only with the approval of the Rabbanim. With all due respect, the transport minister is in no position to determine whether something is “pikuach nefesh.”
The status quo agreement, which — on a simplified level — calls for maximum Judaism in public life and minimum interference in private life, has created a modus operandi for religious and secular Jews to live together for the past 60 years. It has made it possible for the country to maintain a Jewish image — an army with a minimum standard of kashrus, the ban on the sale of chametz in public on Pesach — even though, R”l, so many misguided souls conducted themselves differently in their private lives.
But the status quo is being eroded at an alarming rate. And the biggest target for those seeking to turn Israel from a Jewish country into a “country of all its citizens” is Shabbos. Already today Tel Aviv stores that sell food have received municipal permission to open on Shabbos. A High Court ruling is expected in just a few weeks that could, chalilah, pave the way for all stores to open.
The decision, says Harav Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, is both historic and crucial, not so much for the religious, who will have Shabbos no matter what, but for those who are traditional, who would like to observe some form of Shabbos.
“We must think of the small-business [shomer Shabbos] owners, who will be deprived of their livelihood completely when the Shabbos desecraters sell food products on Saturdays and holidays,” Rav Lau argues. “We must also think of the many Jews who are Shabbos observers and would not be able to work in the hundreds of businesses that would be opened on Shabbos. This is serious discrimination and constitutes an exclusion of the religious public from the workforce.”
If the High Court and the “state of Tel Aviv” won’t listen to the Rabbis or to traditional sources, perhaps they’ll heed the advice of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff.
As Rav Lau recounts, the title of city notice number 36 from the Tel Aviv municipality was: “Against the desecration of Shabbat in public.” The notice, signed by Dizengoff, said: “All stores and places of entertainment must be closed from Shabbat eve to its termination.”
“Remember,” Dizengoff wrote, “Shabbat is our most amazing sign of national solidarity from generation to generation, and anyone who undermines it undermines the unity of Israel … Preserve the Shabbat, and it will preserve us.”