Tel Aviv Threatens to Shutter Stores Open on Shabbat

City forced to act after Supreme Court ruled against turning a blind eye, and interior minister did not approve an amendment to the relevant bylaw.

Ofer Vaknin

The city of Tel Aviv recently warned more than 300 local convenience stores and kiosks of forced closure if they continue to operate on Shabbat.

The 311 businesses stayed open on the Jewish Sabbath following Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s decision not to approve an amendment to the municipal bylaws that would have allowed them to remain open on Shabbat. Still, it appears that the AM:PM and Tiv Ta’am markets will remain open on Shabbat as usual.

City officials said in a statement: “Following legal measures that were taken against the Tel Aviv municipality’s enforcement policy regarding the prohibition of opening businesses on Shabbat, the municipality is required by the Supreme Court to take enforcement measures in addition to fines, including asking the court to issue injunctions not to open to businesses that operate on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.”

The warnings to the businesses read, in part: “Under these circumstances, the municipality is required to obey the court order and take immediate enforcement measures, including asking that injunctions forbidding operation on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays be issued to businesses that do not heed the warnings and continue to operate against the bylaw.” Municipality officials told the business owners that they must not open their businesses on Shabbat without permission if they wished to avoid closure procedures.

The warnings were distributed to 186 small stores, kiosks and stalls and 125 larger convenience stores, including 37 branches of the AM:PM, Tiv Ta’am and Super Yuda chains. Until they received the injunctions, the chains broadcast that they were going about “business as usual.” Officials of AM:PM said that their company intended to open its branches on Shabbat and at the same time was studying the interior minister’s decision so as to decide on what legal action to take. Super Yuda’s Facebook page had a post saying: “Super Yuda opposes the Interior Ministry’s decision to close businesses on Shabbat. Businesses are open for the benefit of the residents and closing them will constitute a threat to this city’s free character.” Tiv Ta’am officials said after receiving the warnings that the chain’s branches “would be open on Shabbat for the benefit of the city’s residents.”

City and store officials have been studying ways to act against Sa’ar’s decision. Over the past few days, municipal officials said they were considering submitting a petition to the High Court of Justice, but no decision has been made yet concerning what legal measures to take.

Until recently, the municipality fined stores that operated on Shabbat in violation of the law, but did not use its authority to ask the court to order their closure. This act received criticism from the Tel Aviv District Court in a lawsuit brought by small-business owners. The owners of these businesses, which were not open on Shabbat, claimed their ability to compete had been compromised by the fact that their competitors were opening their businesses on Shabbat in violation of the law and that the municipality was not using the enforcement power available to it.

The Supreme Court accepted their position about a year ago. “The state of affairs that results from this enforcement is that the respondents are earning another day’s worth of revenue over the weekend, the municipality’s coffers benefit from respectable sums of money from the fines it imposes on the respondents every week ... but the rule of law — which requires that the law be obeyed — is damaged,” wrote Justice Miriam Naor, the vice president of the Supreme Court.

Following the ruling, city officials amended the municipal bylaw to allow the current situation. But the interior minister decided this week not to approve the proposed bylaw. In his decision, he wrote: “Those criminal business owners, who for years broke the law and opened their businesses on Shabbat despite the prohibition on doing so, will now receive a reward for that in the form of an official permit to open their businesses on Shabbat ... In comparison, the business owners who took care to obey the law and refrained from opening their businesses on Shabbat will have difficulty accepting the permit because of the restriction on the number of grocery stores and streets laid down in the bylaw.”

Sa’ar added that the proposed bylaw compromised the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. “It damages the democratic component by creating contempt for the principle of the rule of law ... It damages the Jewish component by harming the national and social character of Shabbat, which is a component of the public space.” Sa’ar wrote further: “Preserving the character of Shabbat and its special nature by reducing commerce in the city is an important interest of the Israeli public in general and the Jewish public in its own country in particular.”

Sa’ar's decision received criticism from Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. Lapid called the decision “odd,” while Huldai said it took Tel Aviv and the whole country back decades. Likud officials saw Sa’ar’s decision as nod to the Haredi parties on his way to running for the party leadership.