Bill Banning Stores From Opening on Shabbat Seen Stalling

Even the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party opposes the bill, fearing a backlash by the left on the issue.

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Shopping on the Sabbath in Israel.
Shopping on Shabbat. The competition to religion posed by secular institutions has been ratcheted up by consumer society.Credit: Alex Levac

A bill that would bar businesses from opening on Shabbat is unlikely to advance beyond its preliminary reading in the Knesset, political sources said Tuesday.

The heads of the coalition parties have already decided that while they will back the bill in a preliminary reading, it will be frozen until a special committee of ministry directors general examines the issue of Shabbat commerce.

Kulanu, a key coalition party, has said it will prevent the bill’s passage in its current format. And even the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party opposes the bill, fearing a backlash by the left on the issue.

The bill, sponsored by MK Miki Zohar (Likud), would bar all stores from opening on Shabbat unless they received special permission from the economy minister. Currently, each town can decide whether to forbid or permit commerce on Shabbat.

The bill sets a penalty for violators of one year in prison and/or a fine of up to three times the store’s turnover on the Shabbat it was caught opening. The ban would not apply to restaurants, gas stations or hotels.

But the bill has upset opposition and coalition members alike.

“We won’t allow such a unilateral change in the status quo without a more thorough discussion of the whole Shabbat issue,” said MK Roy Folkman, Kulanu’s parliamentary whip. He said the coalition agreement prohibited private member’s bills (as opposed to government-sponsored bills) on the issue of Shabbat.

Kulanu believes no legislation banning commerce on Shabbat should be passed without also addressing the issue of permitting leisure activities and public transportation on Shabbat. Kulanu also considers the penalties in Zohar’s bill excessive.

“The bill is completely draconian,” said Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, who persuaded Zohar to postpone the preliminary reading. She added that many mayors and city council members have told her they fear the bill would spark “Shabbat wars” in their cities.

“Given the current coalition, I don’t see any legislation on the issue of Shabbat passing,” she said.

Many Likud members also oppose the bill and urged Kulanu to appeal the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s decision that the coalition should back it. “That’s your job in the coalition,” they said.

So far, no appeal has been filed, but Likud sources said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to freeze the bill.

Even Habayit Hayehudi, which publicly backs the bill, has been urging Kulanu in private to get it buried. Channel 1 television has reported that at last week’s meeting of Habayit Hayehudi MKs, party chief Naftali Bennett warned that any change in the religious status quo could spark a reaction – for instance, efforts to legalize public transportation on Shabbat.

Zohar said that if he doesn’t reach an agreement with Kulanu, he will bring his bill to the Knesset for its preliminary reading by January 6.

The bill would also make Sunday, which is currently a workday, another day of rest. Zohar said he hoped the ministry directors general would discuss this issue as well.

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