After Scuttling Western Wall Deal, ultra-Orthodox Parties Move to Close Stores, Public Transport on Shabbat

Haredi lawmakers want to revisit permits allowing some stores to operate in Tel Aviv and stop the shared minibuses running to the city's suburbs

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv protesting the lack of public transportation on Shabbat in Israel, March 2016.
David Bachar

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the Knesset are calling for the Transportation Ministry to stop public transportation in three cities near Tel Aviv on Shabbat.

Meanwhile, in his position as interior minister, Shas Chairman Arye Dery is asking the High Court of Justice to revisit its ruling on a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that permits 160 stores to open on Shabbat. Dery wants new hearings to be held with an expanded panel of justices.

The moves come on the heels of Haredi parties successfully freezing the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and ministers advancing a bill that would strengthen the Chief Rabbinate’s control over conversion in Israel.

In a letter sent Monday by Shas lawmakers Michael Malkieli and Yoav Ben-Tzur and Uri Maklev and Israel Eichler (both United Torah Judaism) to Transportation Ministry Director General Karen Turner, they demanded the cancellation of public transportation permits in Holon, Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya – all cities bordering Tel Aviv.

“Amendment 28 of the transportation regulations enables the transportation minister to rescue the honor of Shabbat and reduce the public desecration of Shabbat,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “The amendment states that ‘The minister will take Jewish tradition into account as much as possible when it comes to prohibiting the movement of vehicles on days of rest.’ In other words: Reducing the desecration of Shabbat and Jewish holy days on public transportation.”

“In addition," they continued, "we are turning through you to the honorable minister with a request to cancel permits that were given for operating shared taxi services (sherut), such as routes 24 and 89 of the Dan bus company, and routes 29 and 247 of the Metropoline bus company, which operate in the abovementioned cities.”

Last week, at the conclusion of a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Labor Minister Haim Katz with the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties, work on the rail line that was planned for Shabbat in the south of the country was canceled. It was agreed that the status quo would be maintained, in which work is not done on the Sabbath unless it involves a life-threatening situation.

The transportation minister said he had instructed his staff not to carry out work on Shabbat unnecessarily, and the labor minister said there will be a discussion every Thursday to examine requests for work permits on Shabbat in order to prevent nonessential work.

A team consisting of the four aforementioned Haredi lawmakers has been formed to monitor activities.

In an opinion submitted to the court on Monday, Interior Minister Dery said a rehearing of the Tel Aviv bylaw permitting the 160 small stores to open was justified.

Interior Minister Arye Dery.
Marc Israel Sellem

Dery cited “the importance of Shabbat,” and because the court had set a new legal precedent “that touches and has a substantial impact on the character of the State of Israel, and has broad public significance.” 

His opinion was submitted in support of the Association of Merchants and the Self-Employed, which had petitioned the High Court seeking a rehearing. 

In contrast, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit sees no reason to reconsider the issue other to decide a small point regarding the relationship between the Work and Rest Hours Law and the Municipalities Ordinance.  

In April, just after Passover, Supreme Court President Miriam Naor and justices Esther Hayut and Daphne Barak-Erez unanimously ruled that the Tel Aviv bylaw was “proportional” and should go into effect. The government had avoided making a decision on whether to approve the bylaw for 2 1/2 years after city hall passed it. 

Dery said that he had decided before Passover to override the bylaw and was planning to make an announcement to that effect before the court intervened.

“Acceptance and approval of the bylaw proposed by the Tel Aviv municipality is liable to undermine the social right of the weakest employees in the economy to a day of rest,” Dery wrote. “This bylaw could cause a radical change in the character of Shabbat and its value as a national day of rest. Shabbat and its observance have been a cornerstone of the existence of the Jewish people,” he said, quoting passages from Ahad Ha’am and Haim Nahman Bialik on the importance of Shabbat.

Dery cited the fact that the court did not wait for him to publish his voiding of the bylaw, saying, “Under these circumstances, it turns out the High Court did not have the full normative and factual basis for making a decision.”

Dery was also highly critical of Mendelblit’s interpretation of Clause 9A of the Work and Rest Hours Law, which states, “On days of rest a workshop owner shall not work in his workshop, nor a factory owner in his factor, nor may a store owner trade in his store.” 

According to Dery, this clause “comes to forbid the opening and operating of businesses for commercial purposes on Shabbat. As such, I believe there is no place for the interpretation suggested by the prosecution, which is that this clause is only meant to forbid a business owner – who may not actually work in the business – to work there, and would allow a business owned by a Jew to be operated on Shabbat by employing non-Jews.”

Dery pointed out this interpretation was logically flawed “because it leads to an absurd situation in which a non-Jew cannot work in his own business on Shabbat in most cities in Israel but would be allowed to work as an employee for a Jewish business owner. Is there any logic in such a fundamental contradiction?”