High Court: Tel Aviv Stores to Remain Open on Shabbat

Justices approve local bylaws enabling the opening of 160 stores on Jewish Sabbath, calling it balanced

A branch of the AM:PM convenience store chain in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

The High Court of Justice approved on Wednesday Tel Aviv bylaws that would allow around 160 grocery and convenience stores to open on the Jewish Sabbath in three areas of the city.

The stores will be allowed to open on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sunset on Saturday, in the Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv Port and the Old Railway Station (Hatachana).

The three-justice panel rejected the government’s request for another extension until Interior Minister Arye Dery decides whether to approve the bylaw.

Supreme Court President Justice Miriam Naor and justices Esther Hayut and Daphne Barak-Erez unanimously ruled that the Tel Aviv bylaws are “proportional” and should be published in the official government gazette, after which they will become law. In their ruling, the justices criticized the government’s delaying tactics in which it avoided making a decision on the issue for the two and a half years since the Tel Aviv city council passed the bylaws.

The High Court of Justice also ruled that the government failed to meet a number of its commitments to reach a final decision on the bylaws. As a result, the court said this indecision must be viewed as a decision in practice to reject the bylaws without any explanation, which is invalid, wrote Naor.

The limited number of areas where stores may open was also balanced, which “take into consideration the various rights, the character of the city and the interests of the status of the Sabbath day,” she said. These compounds have clearly delineated borders and are separate from residential areas.

The four different interior ministers, Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan, Silvan Shalom and Dery, who served in the two and a half years since the bylaws were passed have all avoided making a final decision on approving the new regulations. So far, the government has explained this delay by the possibility of merging the city of Tel Aviv with its southern neighbor Bat Yam, and asking the court to wait until such a merger was concluded.

Dery, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said the decision was a breach of the religious status quo. He said that just before Passover last week he decided to overrule the bylaws and had intended on announcing it in the next few days. The decision will seriously harm the “holy Sabbath and the character of the Jewish People.”

“I plan on meeting with [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] soon along with members of the United Torah Judaism [party], and other ministers and members of Knesset for whom the Sabbath is important, and protest the serious harm to the status quo on the matter of the Sabbath,” said Dery. “We will act to restore the status quo with all available means.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said “the city of Tel Aviv was always free and will remain free.” Different and diverse communities live in the city and live together with mutual tolerance, he added. The new legal arrangements are meant to express this balance between observing the Sabbath as a day of rest and the needs of residents and the ability to allow everyone to enjoy their day of rest as they so desire, Huldai said.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the chairman of United Torah Judaism, spoke out against the High Court ruling, calling it a severe attack on the Jewish character of Israel. “This is the continuation of the gross judicial intervention in the values of religion and Jewish law, which leaves no choice but to advance a legal move to bypass the High Court of Justice in order to prevent the continued erosion of the Jewish tradition and religion in Israel.”

Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon praised the decision, saying it is important approval of the right of the residents of Tel Aviv to decide for themselves in a democratic manner, as well as for the authority of the city to pass bylaws accordingly. “Today, sanity overcame the voices aspiring to establish a halakha state in Israel,” said Galon, referring to Jewish religious law.

MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) said the government has once again forced the High Court to decide on matters of the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. When the legislator is negligent in carrying out his duty he leaves no choice except for the High Court to decide on fundamental issues of our lives in Israel. “It is a good thing there are judges in Jerusalem,” said Stern.