Tel Aviv Mayor Calls for Balance Between Shabbat and Business

With High Court ruling on city’s bylaws coming up, Huldai also advocates limited public transportation on Jewish day of rest.

Tomer Appelbaum

In a letter to Knesset members and local authority heads on Wednesday, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai maintained that Shabbat laws, now a matter of political and legal controversy, must strike a balance between preserving Shabbat as a day without commerce or labor on the one hand, and allowing for limited shopping and public transportation on the other.

Huldai’s statement came a day after a Tel Aviv municipal affairs court rejected city hall’s request to close a supermarket that has been open on Shabbat. The city’s new bylaws, which allow some shops and kiosks to operate on Shabbat, are due to be ruled on in March by the High Court of Justice when it considers petitions against the liberalized regulations.

Huldai wrote, “The guiding worldview was and still is the idea that the Sabbath should be a day of rest in which there is no commerce or work. This is a prime social value. Every person should have the right to a day of rest in which he can seek entertainment, rest or visit relatives.

“It is only natural,” he continued, “that as Jews and Zionists we adopt Saturday as the day of rest in the state of Israel. This is not a matter of arguing about religious law but an issue of social values regarding limits imposed by the state in defining this day as a day of rest in which the majority of people don’t work, but in which services are provided so that people can enjoy their day of rest.”

Huldai further wrote that “Tel-Aviv-Jaffa – before and after this bylaw was passed – is a city that rests on Saturdays no less and possibly more than many other cities! Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, ‘the city that never rests,’ with its intense business, commerce and industrial activity that characterizes it on other days of the week, changes its character completely on Saturdays. The commercial and business activity gives way to activities of entertainment, culture and rest that are suitable for such a day. Our city thereby serves the entire metropolitan area. Even the large malls in Tel Aviv are closed, in contrast to the situation in many other cities.

“Our city council decided by an absolute majority to amend the municipal bylaw in a way that would permit the opening of a limited number of kiosks and groceries which have been operating for years (as in other cities) in order to provide service to city residents who are interested in this. This is a negligible number, amounting to 150-200 businesses out of 50,000 which operate on weekdays,” Huldai noted.

“If this were in my hands on a national level I’d propose looking into the existing situation and formulating a social contract in which we agreed that there would be no commerce on the Sabbath and that malls remain closed,” he added. “On the other hand, public transportation would be allowed, as well as limited services by kiosks and groceries on a weekend footing. This will ensure that Saturday is truly a day of rest for everyone, a day devoted to entertainment, culture and leisure time. For me this is preferable to the consumer culture that has developed here on this day.

“Public transportation should be available in a way that will allow citizens to get to services and their desired destinations on their day of rest, in a way that will differ from what is available on weekdays,” Huldai insisted. “This will allow people who don’t own cars to reach hospitals, to visit relatives, to attend sport and culture events and to go to the beach.

"This is not a local Tel Aviv issue but a national one. Why should only people with cars be able to visit relatives and enjoy cultural and sporting events or a day at the beach? Why can’t a grandmother in Tiberias or Beersheba be able to visit her grandchildren in Bat Yam or Herzliya? With a general view to helping the environment and the economy, public transportation on Saturday will remove many private vehicles from the roads, used by people who have no other option on their day of rest.

“The business of finding a balance and agreement on most topics will remain – as determined by law – in the hands of local leaders in each community, and the same ruling need not apply to Tel Aviv and to ultra-orthodox Bnei Brak. Just as the Bnei Brak municipal council can close what is open in the rest of the country on Saturdays, the Tel Aviv council’s authority to determine the character of the Sabbath on its streets should be respected.”

On Tuesday, a municipal affairs court rejected a request by the municipality to issue a closure order to a branch of the Tiv Ta’am supermarket chain that is open on Saturdays.

The city argued that this contravenes an older bylaw and that the new one, yet to be published, will not permit its opening. “This type of issue is usually easily resolved based on the facts. In this case, however, the question revolves around what the bylaw actually says,” wrote Justice Aviyam Barkai in his decision.