Kosher and Open on Shabbat: Israel's Restaurants May Be on Their Way to Revolution

A petition filed by a restaurant owner in Jerusalem seeks the same terms that hotels receive regarding Shabbat observance

The Bab al-Yemen restaurant in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019.
Jonathan Vadai

How come hotels in Israel are entitled to kashrut certification even though they serve customers on Shabbat, but restaurants, cafes and catering companies lose theirs for performing many of the same functions?

That’s the question the High Court of Justice is being asked in a petition filed Sunday by Yehonatan Vadai, who owns the restaurant Bab al-Yemen in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. Working with an attorney through the Ne’emanei Torah va’Avodah movement, he is asking the court to order the Jerusalem Rabbinate to grant him a kashrut certificate under the same terms hotels serving food on Shabbat receive one.

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Vadai says Bab al-Yemen offers meals to those who can’t prepare their own meals for Shabbat, letting them pay in advance and preparing and serving meals according to Jewish law.

“Absurdly, an Israeli backpacker can roam around the world and almost anywhere can find a Shabbat meal with the payment arranged before or after the Sabbath,” Vadai said. “In Israel and in Jerusalem, its capital, young people have no option like that. Ironically, instead of helping fill the vacuum, the Chief Rabbinate creates it.”

He argues that Shabbat observance in hotels is more problematic than at restaurants because they offer so many different services, and guests are free to do what they want in the privacy of their rooms. Either way, the Jerusalem Religious Council has awarded more than 100 kashrut certificates to city hotels but not to a single restaurant that operates on Shabbat.

Since 2000 the Rabbinate has granted an exemption to hotels – all other businesses operating on Shabbat are automatically disqualified from receiving a certificate. The petition asks the High Court to void the 2000 exemption.

“Why should the plaintiff’s name be removed from the list of legitimate business owners?” the petition asks. “Is the fact that the petitioner operates a dining room without operating guest rooms relevant to the issue of awarding kashrut?”

That, argues Vadai, constitutes unfair discrimination against other businesses. Denying other businesses a certificate violates the Rabbinate’s authority on kashrut, which is limited to taking into consideration kashrut matters alone.

“One of the biggest barriers to getting a kashrut certificate in Israel is the issue of being open on Shabbat, even if these places aren’t violating Shabbat laws at all,” said Tani Frank, head of religion and state issues at Ne’emanei Torah va’Avodah.

“In many Diaspora communities eating a meal at a restaurant isn’t seen as desecrating the Sabbath. We believe that the High Court should let the religious, traditional and secular public hold events and family meals at these places without desecrating the Sabbath, just as they do at hotels.”

The restaurant industry is watching the case closely and rooting for Vadai.

“More and more restaurants want and need to be designated as kosher because the public is becoming more traditional while the religious public spends more time eating out,” said Shai Berman, chairman of the Israel Restaurants Association.

He said that for some restaurants Shabbat business – from sundown Friday till nightfall Saturday – can account to between 30% and 50% of its weekly turnover.

“Until now, it was inconceivable for restaurants to be able to work on Shabbat and receive kashrut certification, and businesses were afraid of the Rabbinate’s abuse,” Berman said. “Now alternatives to personal supervision [by an inspector] have been developed and technology can help by enabling payment before or after Shabbat.”

Vadai has brought kashrut issues to the court before – twice he has asked that alterative certification for restaurants be recognized.

In the first case, in June 2016, the court prevented the private organization Hashgacha Pratit from issuing certificates in its own name and affirmed the Rabbinate’s monopoly. In the second, in September 2017, the court affirmed the monopoly a second time but said a business could inform its customers about the steps it took to ensure that its food is kosher.

“The plaintiff isn’t asking the respondents to bend a single aspect of halakha,” religious Jewish law, the current lawsuit states. ”He is asking to receive a kashrut certificate in accordance with his compliance to all halakhic requirements so that he can also serve customers who view the Rabbinate’s certificate as a condition for kosher food.”

In the meantime, other restaurants around Israel are being invited to join a campaign on the issue that includes a Facebook page and Instagram account tagged “Kosher and Shabbat.”