Interior Minister Annuls Tel Aviv Law Allowing Stores to Remain Open on Shabbos

Interior Minister Gideon Saar annulled a bylaw passed by the Tel Aviv Municipality that would have enabled shops and groceries in the city to be open on Shabbos. The decision means that the municipality will not be able to permit the Tiv Taam and AM:PM supermarket chains to be open on Shabbos.

The municipality passed the bylaw after grocery owners went to court over the fact that the municipality was not enforcing an existing law that bans the opening of stores on Shabbos. The grocery store owners said this negatively affected their livelihood and their Shabbos rest. The Tel Aviv District Court and the High Court ruled that the municipality was not acting legally. As a result, the municipality passed a bylaw that wanted to anchor in law the Shabbos desecration which had been conducted against the law. However, such a municipal bylaw has to be approved by the interior minister.

Yesterday, Minister Gideon Saar annulled most of the clauses in the law. In a detailed, 10-page decision, he criticized the effort to pass a law that was tailored for lawbreakers.

The minister’s decision states that “the proposed bylaw is an effort to kasher the activities of more than 300 food businesses that are up to 800 square meters in size, who, for years, trampled the bylaws of the city. In addition, the law provides the mayor with the power to allow an unlimited number of businesses to open on Shabbos without any criteria for this being listed, and without any need for the businesses to get an approval from the city council. This law unfairly affects the value of Shabbos as a day of rest in the State of Israel and deviates from the rule prohibiting business to be open on Shabbos in an unacceptable fashion.”

He further writes that “indeed, there is a religious background and association regarding the uniqueness of Shabbos among the Israeli public, but it also relies on cultural, historical and national foundations. Shabbos is a central expression of Jewish identity in its broader context … and it is paramount to preserve it.

“Finally, approving this bylaw is liable to be a significant step down a slippery slope that can be followed by other municipalities, and, in the end, it seems that the character of business on Shabbos will not be significantly different than on any other day of the week.

“I decided to annul the opening of the groceries in the city and to negate the clause that authorizes the mayor to add or subtract from the list of groceries, the streets and the complexes; and to annul permits for businesses that are larger than 800 square meters …”

With that, the minister approved the clauses in the law allowing activity on Shabbos of commercial complexes at the Tel Aviv Port, the Jaffa Port, the Mitcham Hatachanah center in Neve Tzeddek and convenience stores adjacent to gas stations.

The process began with an appeal against the Tel Aviv Municipality filed by a group of grocery store owners from Tel Aviv as well as the General Association for Merchants and the Self-Employed.

The grocery owners, who are not religious, said that the stores opened by AM:PM, a chain that is open on Shabbos, was destroying their business and threatened to force them to open their stores on Shabbos due to their inability to keep up with the competition. They complained that the municipality was cooperating with lawbreakers by not enforcing a bylaw that prohibits stores from being open on Shabbos.

Last year, the High Court ruled that the municipality had to enforce the bylaws obligating businesses to be closed on Shabbos. And that’s when the municipality enacted the law allowing businesses to be open —namely accommodating those that were already open. The grocery store owners appealed to the District Court, which ordered the municipality to uphold the original law as long as the new bylaw was not yet approved by the interior minister.

Then the law was presented to Saar, who has the authority to approve or reject it. The explanatory notes presented with the bylaw are very general, and state that the objective of the new bylaw is to adapt the legal situation to the reality on the ground.

The minister critically stated that from the protocols of the municipal council meetings, it is clear that there is no logical rationale for the decision, other than reinforcing the existing situation.

Saar quoted one councilor, Ms. Dvir, who stated at the meeting that “there’s a picture of an existing situation.” And what was that picture? Saar asked. “Criminal activity. One who chose to open on Shabbos established the existing situation, the one who chose to violate the laws that were in place until now and to pay a fine — is the one who benefited here.”

Saar determined that “this means that those lawbreaking business owners who operated for years against the law and opened their businesses despite the ban, would now get a prize in the form of an official permit to open on Shabbos.

“By contrast, those business owners who made sure to uphold the law and keep their businesses closed, will at the very least have trouble obtaining a permit …

“Doing it this way is encouraging criminal violation of the law.”

The minister determined that the proposed bylaw “violates the Jewish component, and violates the national and social character of Shabbos, which is a component of the public sphere.

“The law violates the delicate balances regarding acceptable commercial activity on Shabbos. The balanced approach is the one that takes into consideration the importance of Shabbos as a national symbol in Israel for the general public, as well as the rights and sensitivities of various sectors. These populations are not only religious, but also traditional and secular people, who wish to have the quality of life and maintain a weekly day of rest.”

He also pointed out that the “principle of the weekly day of rest is a fundamental principle in our state. This is the gift of the Jewish people to humanity. Throughout history, many other nations adopted this principle.

“Preserving the character of Shabbos, and its uniqueness, among other ways by reducing commercial activity in the city serves an important interest for the Israeli public in general and the Jewish public in particular in our country,” he concluded.