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In Landmark Decision, Israel’s Supreme Court Allows Tel Aviv Businesses to Open on Shabbat

The delicate balance between civil liberties and Jewish identity is called into question

Liel Leibovitz
October 26, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Whoever feels in his heart a real bond with the life of the nation in all of its generation, could never imagine the people of Israel without Shabbat the Queen. One can say without a trace of exaggeration that more than Israel has kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has guarded them, and if it weren’t for Shabbat resurrecting their soul and renewing their spiritual energy each week, they would have been pulled down by the burdens of the workweek until they reached the bottom rung of materialism and with it intellectual and moral depravity.”

These lines were written in 1921. Their author was the essayist Ahad Ha’am. Despite being considered one of the founding fathers of secular, cultural Zionism, he realized that no matter what other compromises a future Jewish state might strike with modernity, observing Judaism’s eternal day of rest oughtn’t to be one of them.

Sadly, Israel’s Supreme Court disagrees. In a groundbreaking decision earlier today, the court ruled in favor of upholding a bylaw of Tel Aviv’s municipality that will allow 164 local businesses to open on Shabbat. Five justices joined the majority’s opinion, while the court’s two religious justices dissented.

The decision was delivered during a retirement ceremony for the court’s outgoing chief justice, Miriam Naor. “This verdict is based on the principle of live and let live,” Naor said, reading the decision out loud. “My decision is not a value judgment on the desired nature of Shabbat. It is not a secular or a religious decision. It reflects the correct interpretation of the law.”

I have neither a reason nor the qualifications to take issue with Naor’s legal opinion, but believe, like the majority of Israelis, that the issue is one best addressed in the Knesset, not the courts. Allowing businesses to open on Shabbat fundamentally changes the nature of Israeli public life, upsetting the gentle balance between civil liberties and Jewish identity that is at its core. A decision like this, then, ought to represent the will of the voters, not the views of the court. This is especially true as the new decision will likely mean that thousands of working class Israelis , the employees who run the local businesses in question, will now be forced to forgo their day of rest just to keep their jobs.

The court’s decision will likely meet with intense political pressure, and may lead to new legislation protecting the special status of Shabbat. As a secular Israeli who now lives in New York and misses nothing more about life back home than that magical feeling that permeates everything and everyone each Friday afternoon as all Israelis, regardless of their observance, turn away from commerce and towards family, friends, and much-needed rest and reflection, I hope Shabbat will soon find more secular defenders who, like Ahad Ha’am, recognize the essential role it must play in the life of the Jewish state.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.