New Knesset Bill on Shabbat Business Closures Could Reignite Storm

Knesset committee to weigh in on law calling for grocery stores, malls to close, and making it a civil offense to stipulate Saturday openings in contracts.

Archive photo of a supermarket in Tel Aviv that belongs to a chain of stores that are open 24/7.
Ofer Vaknin

Discussion in the Knesset on a new bill has the potential to reignite conflicts over the possible closure of supermarkets and other businesses on Shabbat. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation was scheduled to decide on Sunday whether to support the draft law, introduced by MK Miki Zohar (Likud), which calls for an explicit ban on operating businesses in the country on the day of rest.

Zohar’s legislation would not apply to restaurants, gas stations or hotels, but rather to grocery stores and other shops, as well as shopping malls. It would give the economy minister, and not local governments, the authority to issue waivers of limited scope permitting businesses to open on Saturdays.

Businesses that cannot interrupt operations for security or economic reasons would be excluded from the law.

The bill would also make it a civil offense to demand that an establishment be open on Shabbat as part of a contract.

The economy minister would be responsible for appointing inspectors to enforce the law, who would be authorized to issue fines to business owners who do not obey it.

Zohar explained that the law is meant to address the rise in the number of businesses that remain open on Shabbat in violation of the Work Hours and Rest Law, on one hand, and the decline in enforcement of that law. In the preamble to the bill, he wrote that “the narrow economic interests of commercial entities and the lack of proper enforcement” were behind the current situation, and that this has had “a destructive effect on the values of Sabbath observance... and on the rule of law and public trust in the law.”

In July the High Court of Justice gave Interior Minister Silvan Shalom three months to make a decision as to the opening of businesses on Shabbat and Jewish holidays in Tel Aviv. The state requested an extension of three months. In October, the final deadline set by the court, the state announced that Shalom had recused himself from dealing with the issue due to a conflict of interest.

At that point, the court referred the whole case back to the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu, in turn, asked Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel to make a decision, but she has not done so yet.

Meanwhile, in August 2014, the Tel Aviv city council approved a bylaw allowing the limited opening of certain businesses on the day of rest. About a year ago, then-Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar requested clarifications from the city council on this issue, but passed the final decision on to his successor, Gilad Erdan, who has not responded.

Months have passed and the law relating to businesses open on Shabbat in Tel Aviv is still awaiting final discussion and approval. In the meantime, the municipality has allowed hundreds of establishments to continue to operate on that day as per the bylaw, which is still in effect.