Tel Aviv to Let More Grocery Stores Open on Shabbat

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Shoppers in a Tel Aviv grocery store
Shoppers in a Tel Aviv grocery store Credit: Eyal Toueg

The Tel Aviv Municipality has decided to increase the number of permits allowing grocery stores to open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, by about 60 percent.

Until now, 164 food retailers have been allowed to operate in the city from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. According to last month's decision, the city will now be boosting that figure to 273.

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Grocery stores owners in the city have objected to increasing the number of licenses at the present time and the chairman of the grocery store owners’ association, Shlomi Ben-Gur, accused the municipality of failing to take them into account. The owners expressed concern that raising the number of food retailers open on Shabbat would hurt their own businesses.

The coronavirus pandemic is still affecting business, Ben-Gur said. Increasing the number of stores open on Saturdays might lead to the collapse of many retailers, he claimed, saying that the municipality informed his organization about the move around a month ago, without any consultation. “They said they had already considered everything and that that’s the way they were going,” he said.

Closed storefront in Tel AvivCredit: Moti Milrod

Despite the new plan, in some parts of the city fewer businesses have applied for the permits to operate on Shabbat in recent years than what the existing quotas permit. Although the municipality acknowledged that this was the situation last year, it noted that in some neighborhoods, the demand for the licenses exceeded the number available.

Initially, in 2014, the city sought to permit 330 to 360 food retailers to remain open on Shabbat, but the interior minister at the time, Arye Dery, disqualified the plan and ultimately compromised at 164.

“I’m not in favor of commerce on Shabbat. I think it would be a disaster for the State of Israel if we come and say that all commerce will be open on Shabbat, that anyone who wants to can open [their business]. I was educated and brought up to believe everyone deserves a Sabbat day or a free day,” Ben-Gur said during a meeting on the subject at the municipality last month. “As a result, I view the opening of groceries not as commerce on Shabbat or work on Shabbat, but as a service provided to the residents of the city on a day off,” he said, asserting that the number should therefore be limited to what is appropriate.

The increased number of licenses, which are limited to a specific figure in each district of the city, are based on calculations by city officials using a range of criteria – the percentage of secular residents, the percentage of young people, the proportion of rental properties, the number of food retailers and population size. It is calculated, the city said, in “a manner that will ensure a proportionate and proper balance between the needs of the public and the desire to preserve the character of Shabbat as a day of rest.”

Shoppers in a closed market in Tel AvivCredit: Hadas Parush

In addition to the increase in the number of young people in the city and the number of people living in rental apartments, a survey found that most of the residents in all the city’s neighborhoods describe themselves as secular. In some city districts, the figure was more than 80 percent.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said that Tel Aviv is the only city in the country that has passed a bylaw regulating such Shabbat commerce. However, Deputy Mayor Elchanan Zvulun of the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction on the city council said he saw no reason for there to be four or five food stores open in each of the city's 60 or so neighborhoods. 

“Why is it that when it comes to an issue like [businesses open on] Shabbat, which is painful to a lot of people and is a wound that is hurtful to a many in the city, we need 273 businesses to provide service one day a week? In my view, it’s disproportionate,” he told a meeting on the issue.

“For us, every store that’s closed is painful,” said Deputy Mayor Assaf Harel in response. “In my view we don’t have to close anything.”

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