A Brooklyn judge has upheld the right of individual communities of Orthodox Jews to define what time they end Shabbos in a dispute over the serving of a summons to a shomer Shabbos individual.
“The Court understands that there is disagreement as to the time at which Sabbath ends among different groups of observant Jews,” wrote Kings County Supreme Court Judge Johnny Baynes in his opinion. “This Court does not believe it would be appropriate for it to determine the manner in which religious custom should be observed by any individual group or require that one particular group’s traditions be adhered to uniformly.”
According to state law, the serving of a summons or similar legal documents is invalid if it is delivered to a Sabbath observer on Shabbos. Additionally, an individual or company that does so can be fined.
In this instance, Signature Bank delivered a notice to Solomon Koschitzki at 5:30 p.m. on November 30 of last year. When he disputed the summons, an unusual legal argument arose, with the bank claiming that they had served him with documents after the conclusion of Shabbos.
“They [Signature Bank’s attorneys] came to court with a calendar that said Shabbos was over at 5:15, so we explained that my client is a Satmarer and we brought in a Satmar calendar showing that Shabbos ended that day at 5:43,” Jerome Goldman, the attorney representing Mr. Koschitzki, told Hamodia.
Not only did Judge Baynes uphold the statute, but recognized the law’s need to show deference to different prevailing customs.
“In support of this position, defendants submit information to show that among chassidic communities such as defendant’s, it is actually common practice to wait for 72 minutes past sundown to resume post-Sabbath activities,” he wrote in the court’s ruling.
The exact time and method of determining tzeis hakochavim, or halachic nightfall, which marks the end of Shabbos, has been a matter of dispute from the times of Chazal until the present day. Different communities of Jews have each accepted to follow a commonly accepted opinion. Satmar is one of many kehillos that adhere to the opinion that nightfall occurs 72 minutes after sundown. Many other groups, apparently including the one that printed Signature Bank’s calendar, adhere to opinions that rule that nightfall occurs earlier.
Brooklyn attorney Joseph Aron, who specializes in religious liberty issues, told Hamodia that the decision is not surprising and, given the existing statute, while it does not create a precedent, will likely be followed in the future as a “commonsense” approach.
“While the trial court’s decision does not technically create new law, the decision would undoubtedly be ‘persuasive’ should similar circumstances present themselves,” he said.
While the decision does not seem controversial, it is a welcome approach to advocates of religious liberty who have warned of an increasing trend in courts to define themselves what constitutes a violation of one’s faith. The issue recently came to the fore in Zubik v. Burwell, a case that was left undecided by a shorthanded Supreme Court last year, centering on whether the government could force Catholic groups to provide medical goods that conflicted with their faith.
Attorneys for the religious groups argued that lower courts had determined that the government’s arrangement did not force the plaintiffs to violate their faith, a point the organizations of priests and nuns disputed.
In a less publicized case, a Jewish inmate in South Carolina was denied the right to hold a study group by prison officials who claimed that his religious beliefs were not violated, due to their mistaken understanding that such a gathering requires a minyan or a Rabbi to be present. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case, a move that Justice Samuel Alito publicly protested.
“Repeatedly and in many different contexts, we have warned that courts must not presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion or the plausibility of a religious claim,” he wrote at the time.
Mr. Aron said that although Mr. Koschitzki’s case was relatively straightforward, the ruling was re-assuring.
“To me, the most significant part of Judge Baynes’ decision is the sensitivity he displayed to our community in recognizing that religious observance is not a one-size-fits-all thing.”