Haredim Losing Shabbat Wars as 7-day Shopping Spots Proliferate Across Israel

When the Haredim go to battle for their turf – for example, to get streets closed on Shabbat, along with budgets and educational autonomy – they generally succeed. Secular turf is another story.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Ultra-Orthodox in Ashdod gather for prayers against Shabbat desecration.
Ultra-Orthodox in Ashdod gather for prayers against Shabbat desecration.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

In Ashdod there’s an ultra-Orthodox guy name Meir Cohen who in the past year starred in a few viral videos, earning himself the name “Shabbat Hayom.” (“Today is the Sabbath.”)

Until recently he would come to the Big shopping center, which had started to open seven days a week, and scream at the top of his lungs, “Shabbat hayom!” dozens of times. In the videos, Cohen, a short and slight young man, is seen going right up to the burly security guards and yelling “Shabbat hayom!” right in their faces. The internet had a blast with this ridiculous scene. From time to time Cohen would be rebuffed, and he was once detained by the police for harassment. Then he apparently disappeared.

The videos he starred in are an allegory for reality in several major cities and watching them can also put the renewed Shabbat wars in perspective. The Haredim in Ashdod held one demonstration against the Big center, but as soon as the rabbis there realized that their struggle had no chance, they hastened to abandon it.

Cohen was left to scream “Shabbat hayom!” without any rabbinical backing, in a hopeless effort that even young Haredim started to mock. It’s easy to view him as an agent of extremism and religious coercion, but in reality the yeshiva student carried no weight. The shopping center continues to operate on Shabbat and there is no political power in either Ashdod or the national government that can close it down.

Religion and religious people are highly present in the Israeli public square, yet the number of shopping centers that have opened on Shabbat in recent decades and the extent of Shabbat commerce show that two opposing trends can coexist. Not only are leisure spots, restaurants and cinemas open on Shabbat, but all kinds of shopping is now available, with more stores opening on Jewish day of rest all the time. The secular Shabbat has changed beyond recognition from that of the 1970s and 1980s.

Once the Shabbat wars were focused on Jerusalem; that there are now points of friction outside the capital as well is primarily a real estate story. For years Haredim have been migrating from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to less expensive locales like Ashdod, Kiryat Gat and Arad, giving rise to new mixed cities and more friction. When the Haredim in these cities go to battle for their turf – for example, to get streets closed on Shabbat, along with budgets and educational autonomy – they generally succeed. But when they try to fight over secular turf, they very often fail.

This isn’t true only in Ashdod, but even in Jerusalem. The First Station and Yes Planet compounds in the capital operate seven days a week, as does the Carta parking lot across from the Old City, where the failed Haredi battles to close it down in 2009 marked a watershed in the Shabbat wars. (A contrasting example from recent years is the Cinema City complex, over which there were no street demonstrations, yet in the end its owners backed down from their original plan to open it on Shabbat.)

Ideally, the Haredim would like to block Shabbat desecration throughout the country, but their power is limited. The Shas and United Torah Judaism parties are part of the municipal coalitions in Jerusalem and Ashdod, yet there are stores open on Shabbat in both cities. Shas and UTJ are in the national government and yet there is Shabbat work on the rail lines and will be in the future.

Arye Dery, as interior minister, will soon have to deal with the conflict over Shabbat commerce in Tel Aviv. He is dreaming about closing supermarkets in the downtown area, but isn’t even thinking of closing three other compounds – the Tel Aviv Port, Jaffa Port and the Hatachana shopping complex. Last week Dery was making conciliatory statements about how secular people will have to decide for themselves what they want their Shabbat to look like.

The latest Shabbat battles were imposed on the Haredi leadership, revealing its confusion. The heads of Shas and UTJ are being attacked from without and within, and last week they issued an apologetic statement that they are fighting “to preserve the honor and sanctity of the Shabbat as it was at the founding of the state.”

In the past, conflicts of principle, and certainly Shabbat wars, were mentored by the revered authorities Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. They dictated the moves and gave weight to every political statement. Today their successors, Rabbi Shalom Cohen and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, remain silent, and the only corner making a purist stand against Shabbat desecration is the Chief Rabbinate, which the Haredim do not heed or even respect. Will UTJ and Shas take the purist Haredi outlook, or opt for the line dictated by their partnership in the government, with full-time ministers?

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