God gave us Shabbat for us to rest, but God also gave us free will, so that we can make our own decisions. And now, one Jew has decided that he’d like to spend his Shabbat working, because it’s his God-given right. Or, at the very least, his court-ordered right.
Richard Zilber, a hairstylist from Montreal, sued his Jewish employer, Iris Gressy, after she refused to let him work on Saturdays, and fired him when he complained. And now, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal says she owes Zilber $12,500 in damages because employers aren’t permitted to impose their religious values on their employees, even if these values are all about taking a day off.
But working on Shabbat, Zilber said, was very much an expression of his Jewish identity. It was his “Jewish pride,” he told the Canadian Jewish News, that encouraged him to stand up for his rights. “A Jew has zero-tolerance for discrimination,” he said, “even if it’s among your own people.”
Zilber wanted to work on Saturdays, he added, because it is the busiest day of the week for the salon and because he wanted to build up his clientele. But Gessy implemented a new policy dictating that Saturdays would be a mandatory day off for her Jewish employees. Zilber mentioned the policy to a client some months later, and was then fired soon after for the “breach of confidentiality.”
“She tried to leverage my income and my livelihood so that she could satisfy her beliefs, completely disregarding that I should be free in my own spirituality,” he said.
The case was initially heard by Quebec’s Human Rights Commission, a body that cannot issue binding rulings but which nevertheless found in Zilber’s favor and recommended Gessy pay her former employee $20,000. When she failed to respond to the charge, the case was carried to the Human Rights Tribunal, a higher court.
“The decision to forbid Mr. Zilberg to work on the Sabbath because he is Jewish violates his right to equality in employment due to his religion,” the Tribunal’s Judge Yvan Nolet decreed in a 16-page decision, ordering Gessy to pay Zilber $12,500, a lower but still significant sum.
Some in the Montreal’s Jewish community were uncomfortable with the case, highly publicized in the city’s local media, and argued that it should’ve been handled in a Beit Din or another Jewish authority. But Zilber disagrees. “Not only am I Jewish, I’m Canadian also,” he said. “Isn’t it true that a Jew has to respect the law of the land he lives in? A Jew here in Canada has to respect Canadian law.”
Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.