Israel Passes Law Permitting Nonreligious to Refuse to Work on Shabbat

The amendment dismisses need for religious justification to refuse work on the day of rest, while exempting those in ‘essential services, public health and safety’

MK Mickey Zohar, one of the initiators of the law, last February.
Olivier Fitoussi

Any Israeli citizen, whether religiously observant or not, can legally refuse to work on the weekly day of rest, according to a new amendment to the so-called Shabbat work law which the Knesset approved on Monday.

Sponsored by MKs Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Miki Zohar (Likud), the new clause in the “Work and Rest Hours Law” states that all Israelis are entitled to take off the Sabbath for any reason, not just on the basis of religious belief. The amendment was passed in two final votes by the plenum.

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The new legislation does, however, permit a number of exemptions, including in the case of those working in “public safety and health and the supply of essential services.” In addition, it does not apply to workplaces that are legally permitted to operate on Shabbat by dint of the ministerial committee – comprising the prime minister and the ministers of labor, social affairs and religious affairs – that wields authority in such cases.

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“The law is intended to allow any worker to refuse to work on the weekly day of rest as determined by law, and not just those who are strict about keeping the commandments of Shabbat and kashrut according to religious custom," according to the explanatory notes to the text of the amendment. "And this can be done without the risk of being fired or not being hired.”

“This is a historic amendment that recognizes that Shabbat belongs to everyone – nonreligious, religious and traditional as one, and there is no reason to differentiate between those who are strict about observing religious commandments and those who have social, family and other considerations," MK Lavie said after the vote.

The amendment, she added, "precisely reflects the nature of [Israel] as a Jewish and democratic country that does not discriminate against people based on their religious outlook. The law is balanced and does not force anything upon either worker or employer, but allows the worker to have a choice and makes it unnecessary for people to lie concerning their religious customs just because they want to rest on Shabbat. I am happy that Knesset members from all parties, from right and left, religious and nonreligious, united around the idea of this law.”

MK Zohar noted that, “the law was intended to allow every citizen the right to choose” and it will protect the rights of the country's poorer citizens and of workers that are most at risk, who receive no extra pay for Sabbath employment and are forced to work on that day.

He added that the law will not necessarily mean the closure of any businesses or factories, and stressed that in exceptional cases the ministerial committee can approve work on Shabbat.