Israeli High Court Agrees to Reconsider Shabbat Store Ruling

Rehearing granted mainly because decision was based on municipal bylaw that interior minister now says he’ll veto

An AM:PM store in Tel Aviv on Shabbat.
Ofer Vaknin

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday granted a request by a merchants’ group to have the court reconsider whether retail stores should be permitted to open on Shabbat in Tel Aviv. The order granting a new hearing comes three months after a High Court hearing that affirmed a city bylaw allowing some shops to open on the Sabbath.

In granting the rehearing, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who is retiring from the court, attached particular importance to an announcement by Interior Minister Arye Dery following the court’s initial decision. Dery said he had decided to void the city bylaw on which the High Court relied, but hadn’t managed to announce his intention before the court ruled that some retailers could to remain open on Shabbat.

In requesting a rehearing, the merchants’ group seeks to have the court rule that retailers should remain closed on the Sabbath and asked that the new hearing of the case be held before an expanded panel of justices. The merchants are taking the position that the municipal bylaw destroys the legal protection for a weekly day of rest for employees, protection that is geared particularly to maintaining the rights of weaker segments of society.

“Whatever the outcome, Shabbat – whose status in Judaism does not require elaboration – deserves to have its status discussed and all positions elaborated, certainly given the implications,” Rubinstein wrote in granting the rehearing.

He rejected Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s position that there was no need to reconsider the entire case. Mendelblit had contended that what was necessary was more specific consideration of the relationship between the law governing hours of work and rest, and municipal legislation.

Three months ago, the High Court upheld a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that allows about 160 groceries and convenience stores, in addition to another 80 businesses in commercial centers in the city, to remain open on the Sabbath. In its initial ruling, the court took the national government to task for dragging its feet for two-and-a-half years, avoiding a decision on whether to veto the Tel Aviv bylaw. In her ruling, Justice Miriam Naor said the number of businesses allowed to operate on the Sabbath under the bylaw is a fraction of the number operating in Tel Aviv on weekdays, and therefore the unique nature of Shabbat would be maintained without altering the city’s current character.

In his order granting a rehearing on the case, Rubinstein noted that the court’s ruling upholding the Tel Aviv bylaw could serve as a model that would be emulated around the country. It was issued, he said, without knowing of Dery’s intention to veto the bylaw, despite a court-imposed deadline that the interior minister missed in stating his position.

In the past, there had been a distinction around the country between restaurants, museums and places of entertainment, many of which were open on the Sabbath, and retail stores, which were closed. Increasingly, however, retail establishments have also opened on Shabbat.

Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for which Sabbath observance holds special importance, issued a statement supporting a rehearing of the case, adding that the initial ruling three months ago represented a change that would “have substantial implications on the character of the State of Israel.” The Tel Aviv bylaw was liable to deprive the weakest members of the workforce from a day of rest, Dery said, and could “bring about a radical change in the character of Shabbat and its value as a nationwide day of rest.”