Shabbat: A Time of Rest or Unrest?

In 2009, when Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, opened a parking garage on Shabbat, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets in violent protests. A counter-protest was organized by secular Jews who held placards that read “No Religious Coercion” and “Jerusalem is for Everyone.”1 As the Jerusalem garage protests demonstrate, Shabbat observance has become a contentious political and religious issue and has lead to a bifurcation within the Jewish State between the secular and the religious. To the most secular Tel Aviv resident, Shabbat as a “day off” is viewed as a major contribution to civilization, but its strict religious observance belongs to the religious Jews. To the most religious Jerusalemite, Shabbat is the pinnacle of creation, a divine gift. Every law is scrupulously followed, and those who opt out of Shabbat are violating a divine command. In Israel, both ideologies mix, sometimes in a creative and peaceful fashion, but more often with hostility. Temporary solutions are offered and political concessions are made. A long-term resolution, it seems, is out of reach. However, by thoroughly examining the political origins of this debate, discussing the legal issues, and acknowledging the social reality of contemporary Shabbat observance, the possibility of reaching a long-term solution to this pressing issue facing the modern state of Israel becomes foreseeable in the near future.

Shabbat and the Status Quo Rule

A year before the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, outlined the relationship between religion and state in a letter to the Agudath Israel Organization.2 He guaranteed full and equal rights for all citizens and an absence of coercion or discrimination in religious affairs.3 Regarding Shabbat, Ben-Gurion asserted, “It is clear that the legal day of rest in the Jewish state will be on Saturday, obviously permitting Christians and members of other faiths to rest on their weekday holiday.”4 After the establishment of the state, legislation was enacted to achieve that goal. A limited number of factories, military bases, hospitals, and power plants were allowed to stay open if the government deemed them essential to the security or economy of the state.5 The law also forbade an employer to force a Jew to work on Shabbat, but left the decision to allow businesses to be opened on Shabbat to the will of various municipalities.6 For example, in Jerusalem, buses do not run, and shops and restaurants are closed. The legislation set down in the early days of the state was accepted as policy and was observed as the status quo. Religious and secular parties agreed not to alter legislation, and any proposed changes usually met with fierce opposition and were subsequently abandoned.7

In 2008, a bill allowing buses to operate throughout the country on the Sabbath, albeit avoiding religious populations, was shut down in the Knesset.8 The status quo ruling has prevented a Kulturkampf between the secular and religious by preventing sweeping legislation concerning Shabbat. Nevertheless, small changes in municipal laws have circumvented national laws and eroded the traditional Sabbath.

The Erosion of Shabbat

From the establishment of the State until the mid-1980s, public Shabbat observance was determined by the status quo in each locality. According to writer Elaine Ruth Fletcher, the subsequent establishment of chain stores and large malls in Israel, along with a rise in automobile ownership, began to chip away at Israel’s traditional Shabbat.9 Cinemas, theaters, and restaurants began defying national laws while municipalities either turned a blind eye or allowed the openings. Dance clubs opened up in Tel Aviv and even in Jerusalem, where Friday night dances attracted thousands. Since the government does not operate on Shabbat, many semi-public companies and airlines circumvented local and national laws. For instance, El-Al, Israel’s flag-carrier airline, purchases flight codes from Sun D’Or Airlines in order to operate on Shabbat. By the 1990s, automobile ownership soared, and rural Israeli kibbutz collectives began to take advantage of a 1950s loophole in the law banning Sabbath day commerce in cities, by opening warehouse outlets and malls on kibbutz-controlled property.10

In 2002, journalist Hillel Halkin observed that the consumerism taking over Israel was manifest by a change in attitudes towards Saturday. While most Israelis enjoy a two-day weekend on Friday and Saturday, Halkin writes, “massive Sabbath shopping, once unimaginable in Israel, is today an entrenched fact of life… the shopping mall has already become Israel’s favorite Saturday excursion site.”11 Indeed, more than 45 malls are open on Shabbat, which is creating an irreversible trend toward the commercialization of Shabbat. A quarter of commercial areas are open for business, and 600,000 Israelis leave their homes to shop.12 In addition to legally operated stores, there are dozens of commercial centers operating illegally on the Sabbath.13

A large workforce is required to sustain this newfound consumerism on Shabbat. Data collected by the Planning, Research and Economics Administration at the Industry, Trade, and Employment Ministry show that 345,000 people, 19% of the working population, particularly those who work in food services and malls, work at least one Shabbat a month. They have not pursued higher education. They work, on average, 240 hours per month, compared to 175 for salaried workers, and earn particularly low wages. Some are not even given extra pay for working on Shabbat.14 Most work seven days a week, and work 11 hours more per week than Israelis who refrain from work on Shabbat.15 The poorest Israelis are forced to work on the day of rest. The Biblical injunction to have even the most destitute represented in the celebration of Shabbat has fallen on deaf ears.

Secular and Religious Attitudes

The growing opposition of secular Israelis to Sabbath laws relates to their broader attitudes towards religious coercion and the modernization of society generally. A study conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation in 2000 revealed that secular Israelis wish to preserve freedom of choice. Indeed, while only 17% of those responded to the study actually shopped on Shabbat, over 60% favored having open malls on Shabbat as an option.16 A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2007 found that only 27% of the population define themselves as Sabbath-observant, while 36% shopped on the Sabbath.17

Uzi Even, a member of the Knesset representing Meretz, defended this phenomenon by saying, “A modern society operates seven days a week.”18 Eliezer Zandberg, a Knesset representative of the Shinui party, said, “Observing the Sabbath for secular Israelis means filling it with content that is suitable for the 21st century, and that is not necessarily prayer… right now, every store that opens is part of the secular struggle for freedom from religious coercion.”19 The most secularized Israelis wish to see Shabbat as any other day, devoid of overt religiosity and open to all activities. Capitalism, it seems, is welcome if it can lend a hand in weakening Jewish tradition.

Many Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe seemingly coercive and strict Sabbath laws must be in place to both uphold human rights and preserve Jewish identity. The Avi Chai study found that less than ten percent of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel support opening malls on Shabbat. Moshe Gafni of the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said, “A man isn’t a beast. And it shouldn’t be that only the wealthy can be entitled to take off on the weekends, while everyone else works seven days a week, 365 days a year… If people don’t have a single, fixed day off, then everyone will be working in shifts, and no family will ever be able to spend time all together.”20 Gafni’s petition to secularized society lacks any appeal to traditional, halakhic observance of Shabbat. However, his colleague Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism said, “The Shabbat is a holy day with obligations and commandments… not just a day with cultural, socioeconomic and national-historical meaning.”21 For Porush, Shabbat is a day steeped in Jewish religious traditions, which justifies protection using coercive laws in a Jewish state.

Shabbat in Court

The only governmental power that can bypass legislative stagnation caused by the status quo law is the judicial system. In 2005, when the Welfare Ministry fined the Design 22 furniture company 5,000 shekels for hiring workers to work on Shabbat, the company filed a suit in the Israeli Supreme Court.22 The company took the position that employees should be able to choose their own day of rest. The court, however, ruled that national and local laws banning work on the Sabbath were legal and compatible with the country’s values.

Supreme Court President Aharon Barak defended the position: “Shabbat is a central value of Judaism - the soul and the essence of its character. It is our national asset. Shabbat safeguards the humanity of the worker, his quality of life, honor, and relationship with family.” He said the law intended to guard the rights of employees and employers, and to ensure equality among both religious and secular workers.” The justices rejected the claim that enforcing Sabbath laws was a form of religious coercion or a Blue Law.23 They asserted the rules were in accord with international conventions, as well as laws and court rulings in other Western countries.24

With this ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court did not clarify or change Sabbath laws to fit with the changing political and economic realities; rather, it preserved the forty-year-old status quo. Yedidia Stern, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, commented, “Regrettably, the High Court of Justice is wary of commenting on the yawning and incomprehensible gap that exists between binding law and the realities of the working Shabbat. Rule of law cannot exist without enforcement.”25 The court’s ability to circumvent the Knesset’s red tape and entrenched politics gave temporary hope to some that Sabbath laws could change. However, the court’s ruling was a disappointment.

With the court’s neutrality and the police’s fines small, laws alone clearly cannot act as a deterrent. Perhaps the only way to bypass the stagnant law system is to change individual attitudes towards Shabbat observance. In reality, court rulings do not bring about substantial change. Instead of pursuing legal arguments, the polarized discussion of Shabbat in Israel must pursue agreements, compromise, and, most importantly, common ground.

A Shabbat Renaissance

According to Pinchas Peli of Ben-Gurion University, “there is much probing and on-going [sic] search among many sensitive Israelis to rediscover the eternal light of the Shabbat, not only as a nostalgic relic of the past, but as a fresh source of spiritual nourishment in the present and the future.”26 There is a yearning for Jewish tradition not bound by religious laws. Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, wrote in Slate Magazine of secular Israeli “Sabbatarians” who “want to save Sabbath from consumerism.”27 She wrote of her surprise to learn that other secular Israelis have begun to treat the Sabbath as a national treasure in need of preservation.

Ruth Gavison, a secular professor of Law and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, believes that the sanctity of the Sabbath goes straight to the heart of the Jewish society. “If the masses of secular people think that existence mandates some kind of cultural depth, they will respect the need of a shared day of rest.”28 She told Shulevitz in an interview that the Sabbath is intrinsically tied to the legitimacy of Israel, since “a Jewish state must have an authentically Jewish public culture.”29 Israel cannot claim to be a Jewish state without respect for its roots, and chief among these is the Shabbat.

A New Shabbat Covenant

In 2000, Professor Ruth Gavison and R. Ya’akov Medan (rosh yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion) initiated a series of discussions attempting to resolve the status quo arrangement. Three years later, Medan and Gavison published the Gavison-Medan Covenant, with the help of the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation. The covenant is not the first of its kind, but it is undoubtedly the most comprehensive. The covenant covers many issues related to state and religion such as Kashrut, marriage and divorce, and Shabbat.30

The emphasis in the covenant’s discussion of the Sabbath is that “The Sabbath is the official day of rest of the state of Israel.”31 Thus, the government would be closed, and the prohibitions laid out in the covenant would apply to kibbutzim and rural areas just as they would in cities. The covenant makes a distinction between cultural and entertainment activities on the one hand and manufacturing and commerce on the other, the former being permissible and the latter prohibited. Employees have the right not to work on their religious day of rest and are not to be discriminated against based on their preference. Restaurants and places of entertainment would not be forbidden to operate on the Sabbath, and some gas stations and pharmacies would remain open. Large shopping malls and department stores would be closed.32

The covenant and personal statements of R. Medan and Professor Gavison gave hope to many that the widening ideological chasm between the secular and the religious could be crossed.

R. Medan and Professor Gavison believed strongly that their proposals would benefit secular society. The first and most obvious benefit would be the existence of a national leisure day. The second would be the re-centering of Sabbath as a “central mode of expression of an overall Jewish - not necessarily religious – identity.”33 The third benefit would be that the mutual concessions on the issues of Shabbat would provide an opening for unity in a bifurcated society. Legal benefits for the non-observant public would include an explicit recognition of all commercial activity as legal or illegal. Politically, it would mean the official transfer of decisions regarding the form of the Sabbath in a given town or neighborhood to the residents and their representatives. Socially, it would allow hundreds of thousands of workers to take a rest day without fear of losing their jobs.34

Beyond the legal, political, and economic arguments in favor of the covenant lies an important cultural benefit. Yedidia Stern writes, “If these principles are applied, Shabbat will cease to be an ordinary day for consumers and commerce… Shabbat will be dedicated to soulful activities, in the broad sense of the word. The opportunity to enjoy places of culture and entertainment will become available to all - even to those who do not own vehicles.”35 The Israeli Sabbatarians, mostly liberal secularists, have a vision of larger audiences for music, art, and theater, more meetings of affinity groups, and even more “salons” devoted to Jewish texts.36 In the Aristotelian sense, Shabbat would be a chance to advance reflective thinking, generate ideas, and encourage morality. By reviving these cultural institutions in a secular setting by closing malls and stores, Shabbat can become a day devoted to the development of culture and entertainment.

Rethinking the Covenant

The Gavison-Medan Covenant’s lofty ideas are perhaps elitist and undemocratic. It is impossible to force people to have a soulful day of rest, as Yedidia Stern would like. In Thinking Aloud, R. Soloveitchik argues that compulsion stifles spiritual growth:

No undue influence and no coercive circumstances must interfere with the behavior of the person. If one is constrained by legislation which is provided by effective sanctions, by public opinion, by ulterior considerations to conform to certain codes of morality or ethical standards, then the sublime sacrificial action is desecrated, vulgarized.37

It is oppressive to compel cessation from “work and the pursuit of money and livelihood,” as R. Medan wishes, especially for the twenty percent of the national workforce whose very livelihoods depend on working on Shabbat.38 To create a utopian vision of Aristotelian leisure, the democratic process will have to disregard the sixty percent of Israelis who want shopping malls to stay open on Shabbat. Rabbi Dr. Alan Yuter, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Touro College, observed, “being coerced to observe the Sabbath makes for an angry Jew, not an observant, believing or loyal Jew.”39 If the people of Israel want to shop on Shabbat, it is their prerogative.

The covenant is also out of touch with current political affairs. The United Torah Judaism party vehemently opposes any change in the law, as does Shas. Since moderate and even left-wing Knesset members do not want to risk alienating the parties by voting on the bill, the status quo remains.40 Protests by Ultra-Orthodox Jews of violations of Shabbat continue to become more violent, and secular Israelis fight back religious coercion with their insistence on keeping more stores, malls, and public facilities open on Shabbat. While the Gavison-Medan Action Group insists that a “situation that has been around for decades cannot be altered in a matter of days and that every journey begins with a single step,” they did not write the agreement for the current political climate, but for some distant political reality when Ultra-Orthodox and secular parties can sit down together and find common ground.41 It is no wonder that the covenant has yet to inspire even one piece of legislation. The goal of sanctifying Shabbat through the court system has failed. The hope of securing the holiness of Shabbat through the Knesset is in the remote future. The Gavison-Medan Covenant can only move from proposal to policy, from theory to practice, through a strong activist movement.

A New Grassroots Approach

In 2007, after unsuccessfully protesting the opening of stores and restaurants on Shabbat, observant Jews in Petah Tikvah switched tactics. They canvassed neighborhoods and stood in front of theaters inviting non-observant Jews to their houses for Friday night meals. Instead of using violent protest as they had in the past, they worked to establish common ground. Rather than trying to push legislation forcing Shabbat observance, they illustrated the beauty of a Friday night meal. The observant Jews who participated in this campaign knew that a covenant between people based on shared values and reverence for tradition cannot possibly be successfully legislated. It must be formed slowly by convincing the public of the worthiness of traditional practice by building grassroots participatory Shabbat communities, rooted in spiritual seeking, hospitality, learning, caring, and celebrating. There is no lawmaking shortcut.

A campaign to legitimize Sabbath observance holds real potential for realizing the aspirations of the contributors to the Gavison-Medan Covenant. A grassroots movement can achieve the goal of moving the legal discussion outside the court system and the Knesset. This campaign may well lead to the materialization of the covenant’s goals of renewing a healing process in Israeli society, not through political concessions, but through relationship-building between datiyim, hilonim, and the so-called Sabbatarians, by coming together in synagogues and salons, coffeehouses and theaters. It can revitalize the “central mode of expression of an overall Jewish – not necessarily religious – identity” by forcing people to evaluate their own Jewish identities when confronted by another stripe of Jew, face-to-face.42 Lastly, a solution to the unending clash between the observant and the secular can only be realized when Ultra-Orthodox Jews can no longer use their political and sometimes physical force to close down parking lots or bus routes. Instead, haredim would be forced to change strategy, just like the Jews of Petah Tikvah.

Israelis are faced with a unique and unprecedented challenge in shaping the Jewish character of the State while remaining a committed democracy. How the modern Jewish state will observe Shabbat gets to the heart of the Jewish identity of Israel itself. Shabbat can become either an enlightened day of thinking or just an ordinary day, and thanks to the “Shabbat renaissance” in secular communities, perhaps the former is possible. As the history of Sabbath observance has shown, however, temporary solutions that involve coercion are both spiritually damaging and potentially undemocratic. The approach to bridging the distance and creating lasting harmony between polarized communities of haredim, datiyim, hilonim, and Sabbatarians in Israel can only be achieved outside of the follies and foibles of politics. The rebirth of the Shabbat experience across Israel will create a more expansive and majestic platform on which to experiment with the changing nature of Jewish identity in the Jewish state.

Gavi Brown is a sophomore at YC majoring in English, and is the layout editor for Kol Hamevaser.

1 Associated Press, “Ultra-Orthodox Jews Protest Parking Lot,”, June 27, 2009, available at:


2 David Ben-Gurion, “Status-Quo Agreement,” in Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present, ed. by Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2008), 58-59.

3 Contrary to popular belief, judicially there is no established religion in Israel. Judaism has no preference over other beliefs. According to Amnon Rubinstein, an Israeli law scholar and former member of the Knesset, Muslim courts have far wider jurisdiction than Druze, Christian, and Jewish courts. Further, no discrimination on grounds of religion is tolerated in Israeli law, with the exception of the Law of Return.

Furthermore, according to Rubinstein, Sabbath and holiday laws do not infringe on separation between religion and state, because those laws were selected by a secular legislative body, similar to holiday laws set up in America (Amnon Rubinstein, “State and Religion in Israel,” Journal of Contemporary History 2.4 (October 1967), 107-121 at p. 117).

4 Ben-Gurion. In addition to laws concerning the observance of the Sabbath, Ben-Gurion also guaranteed Agudath Israel that dietary laws would be observed in state-owned establishments and that separate religious schools would be established. In addition he promised to preserve the personal status laws in conversion and marriage to prevent divisions between the religious and the secular. (Rubinstein, 113).

5 Elaine Ruth Fletcher, “Israel Struggles With Doing Business on Sabbath,” Religion News Service (June 28, 2001), available at:

6 Theodore Friedman, “The Sabbath in Israel: Law and Life,” Judaism 31.1 (Winter 1982): 93-98, at p. 94.

7 ADL, “Creation of the State of Israel, in “The Conversion Crisis: The Current Debate on Religion, State, and Conversion in Israel,” Anti-Defamation League, 1999, available at:

8 Shahar Haselkorn, “Bill Proposes Public Transportation on Shabbat,” Ynetnews, May 9, 2011, available at:

9 Fletcher p. 2.

10 Ibid.

11 Hillel Halkin, “You Don’t Have to be Orthodox to Cherish the Shabbat,” Jewish World Review, December 13, 2002, available at:

12 Yedidia Stern, “From a Shabbat of Work to a Shabbat of Rest,” Israel Democracy Institute, February 26, 2007, available at:

13 Judith Shulevitz, “The View From Saturday: Secular Israelis Try to Rescue the Sabbath,” Slate Magazine, July 29, 2005, available at:

14 Haim Bior, “No Rest on Shabat for a Fifth of Israeli Workers,”, March 16, 2005.

15 Matthew Wagner, “A Legislative Initiative Presented to the Knesset Wednesday to Protect the Shabbat as a National Day of Rest,” Meimad Party Website, April 6, 2006.

16 Shlomit Levy, Hanna Levinsohn, and Elihu Katz. A Portrait of Israeli Jewry: Beliefs, Observances, and Values among Israeli Jews 2000. Jerusalem: AVI CHAI Foundation and the Israel Democracy Institute, 2002, p. 12.

17 “Sabbath Poll”, Dateline World Jewry, World Jewish Congress, September 2007, available at:

18 Halkin.

19 Fletcher.

20 Ibid.

21 Wagner.

22 Tal Rosner, “Court Says ‘No’ to Work on Sabbath.” Ynetnews, May 5, 2005.

23 Blue Laws are found in the United States and Canada, and are designed to enforce religious standards, particularly the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest.

24 Stern.

25 Ibid.

26 Pinchas Peli, “Shabbat - A Key to Spiritual Renewal in Israel,” Judaism 31.1 (Winter 1982): 87-92, at p. 90.

27 Shulevitz.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Yoav Artsieli, Foundation for a New Covenant Among Jews in Matters of Religion and State in Israel: The Gavison-Medan Covenant: Main Points and Principles (The Israel Democracy Institute and AVI CHAI ISRAEL, 2004).

31 Artsieli, 55.

32 Artsieli, 55-62.

33 Artsieli, 60.

34 See the full elaboration of the benefits of the Gavison-Medan solution in Artsieli, 58-62.

35 Stern.

36 Shulevitz.

37 David Holzer, The Rav: Thinking Aloud (New York: HolzerSeforim, 2011), p. 121

38 “Frequently Asked Questions,” The Gavison-Medan Covenant, available at:

39 Rabbi Alan Yuter, “Say No to Religious Coercion,” The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, May 28, 2009, available at:

40 No party in the Israel Knesset has ever gained a majority on its own, and thus the government is formed on the basis of a coalition. Political parties do not want to risk alienating other parties (thereby excluding themselves from potential coalitions) by voting on controversial bills.

41 “Frequently Asked Questions.”

42 Artsieli, 62.