To the Defense of Shabbos

Last summer, when Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the Tel Aviv Municipality to enforce its bylaw banning businesses from opening on Shabbos, many in the religious community were delighted: At long last the court seemed to be recognizing — albeit on a roundabout and reluctant fashion  —  that Shabbos is an eternal value that must be protected.

But the celebrations were premature. As some warned even then, the court ruling also stipulated that the city has the right to change its bylaw, making it possible for all stores to operate on Shabbos, not just the large chains that can afford the fines for breaking the law. While such a change would address the problem of unfair competition, which is what prompted the original high court petition, it would lead to wholesale chillul Shabbos.

Sure enough, two weeks ago, the municipality executive approved a motion to change the bylaws, authorizing grocery stores on major streets to open on Shabbos, and Mayor Ron Huldai plans on bringing it to a vote at the next city council meeting, where it appears certain to be passed into law.

Stepping into the breach is Tel Aviv’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. In an open letter to the mayor, and in media interviews, he is leading the defense of Shabbos with his trademark eloquence, passion and dignity.

Noting that in his 14 years as the city’s Chief Rabbi he has never asked the mayor for anything, he explained in his letter that he was making an exception “because the cry of Shabbos is bursting through the walls of my heart and I cannot keep silent.”

First, he notes that operating businesses every day of the week “turns the people of the Book into a nation of merchants whose sole purpose is chasing after money. Shops and chains stores have desecrated the sanctity of Shabbat, broken the law, and disrespected the law. Do they deserve a prize? Do not enable selling the values of Shabbat in exchange for nothing.”

Worse, once a major city like Tel Aviv has a law on the books permitting businesses to open, the process is likely to get out of hand.

“It is a slippery slope. Today, [permission is granted for] major streets; tomorrow, the entire city. Today, grocery stores; tomorrow, stores of every kind. Today, Tel Aviv-Jaffa; tomorrow, all of Israel.”

The law that is being brought before the city council isn’t about desecrating Shabbos but destroying it, R”l, Rabbi Lau explains.

Small grocery stores will face an enormous spiritual test, reasoning that they will have to open in order to stay alive. Though in reality no one has ever lost out
by keeping Shabbos, they will assume that they will see fewer customers on Friday and Sunday if major chains are allowed to open on Shabbos.

If, chalilah, the new law is passed, it will create reverse discrimination: Thousands of workers will be barred from jobs because of their refusal to work on Shabbos, and this at a time when the government says it wants to encourage chareidim to enter the workforce.

Harav Lau, who has lived in Tel Aviv for 55 years, stresses that those who believe that Tel Aviv is a “secular” city would be surprised to learn it has more than 500 shuls that have minyanim morning and evening. Religious life is thriving in many corners of the city, and residents deserve an atmosphere that befits Shabbos, which is, in Harav Lau’s words, “the national calling card and symbol of identity throughout the generations.”

But even before the recent renaissance of religious life, Tel Aviv always understood the need to respect Shabbos. Harav Lau quotes from an advertisement published by the Tel Aviv municipality and signed by its first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, that ordered all businesses in the city closed on Shabbos to prevent “the public desecration of the Sabbath.”

Tel Aviv is not an independent state; it is part of a country that has adhered to a status quo arrangement that allows for harmonious life between religious and secular Jews.

We salute Harav Lau for fighting the fight of Shabbos and daven that he and the other askanim who are leading this battle succeed, for the sake of Tel Aviv, for the sake of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, for the sake of the holy Shabbos.