Israeli Retailers Don’t Fret About Shabbat Closings

Bill angers business people because of religious coercion, not as threat to sales.

Shoppers packing the Azrieli Center mall in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

Legislation that would bar businesses from opening on Shabbat has aroused powerful opposition in Israel’s continuing battle over public observance of religion, but an informal survey of merchants by TheMarker shows few expect their business to be hurt.

The only ones who express fear of a fallout are small supermarkets and do-it-yourself stories that get a lot of business on the Jewish Sabbath. The bill, which is due to go to the first of three Knesset votes before it can become law, penalizes violators with up to one year in prison and/or a fine of up to three times the store’s turnover on the Shabbat it was open. The ban would not apply to restaurants, gas stations or hotels.

Merchants don't believe it's 'social legislation'

But merchants – the ones who will be most directly affected by the law – don’t buy the claims of Likud MK Miki Zohar, the legislation’s sponsor, who has framed the law as “social legislation” that ensures workers a day of rest rather than as an imposition of religious law.

“The measure is like ‘Iran is here.’ Who are they to decide for me and all of us what day should be our day of rest?” said Eitan Bar-Zeev, CEO of Big Shopping Centers, which operates 16 strip malls and five enclosed malls around the country.

“If they want to be social like they claim, they should make a law that says every store needs to be closed one day a week without saying which day it should be and that it should be Shabbat. What if I want to close on Tuesdays?”

Most of Big’s shopping centers are now open on Shabbat, but Bar-Zeev says that isn’t why he opposes the legislation. He maintains that people won’t shop less if stores are closed on Shabbat, but simply do their shopping on the days retailers are open. Clothing stores won’t be affected at all, he expects, but DIY stores that do a lot of trade on weekends will be hurt. “The biggest beneficiaries will be merchants who sell online, which can’t be controlled by the authorities,” he said.

A fifth of shopping centers open on Shabbat

About 70 shopping centers, or a fifth of the country’s total, are open on Shabbat. According to Tamir Ben-Shahar, CEO of the retailing consulting firm Czamanski & Ben Shahar, they do about 15% of their turnover on Shabbat if one counts sales run up from the morning until the formal end of the day under Jewish law, which is nightfall. Closure on Shabbat would mean cumulative losses on that day of between 150 million and 175 million shekels ($38.5 million-$45 million) a month, or 2 billion a year.

But Czamanski & Ben Shahar expect the impact of the law, if it passes, will be minimal and affect mainly restaurants and cafes, which do a lot of business on Shabbat that won’t be done on weekdays.

“Some business owners will profit and may even grow,” Ben-Shahar said, noting that hourly wages on Shabbat are much higher – 50% higher – than those in the week.

Some staff may be let go in the absence of Shabbat business, but Ben-Shahar said they would easily find work elsewhere because the lost spending would go to some other retail business. “Instead of spending Saturday morning at the mall, people will do sports and other leisure activities, buying tickets and equipment in the process.

“The ones who will be hurt more are shopping centers in the periphery, small towns that depend on tourists passing through on Shabbat. Without the traffic they aren’t viable,” said Ben-Shahar, who urged that such centers be exempt from the law.

One executive at a national chain of gift ships, who asked not to be named, said he supported the law even though many of his outlets open on Shabbat.

“I know that’s not the usual view among business people, but I’m for closing on Shabbat because staying open causes all kinds of problems – we can’t employ Jews and there are problems employing Arabs in the current wave of terror,” he said.

High cost of Shabbat labor

Under existing law, businesses have to pay 150% the usual salaries to employees working on Shabbat. In the absence of public transportation, the executive said he has to arrange transportation for staff from Arab towns, which costs money, too.

“Most of our stores are closed on Shabbat and it won’t be a disaster if they are all closed because people will do their shopping on weekdays,” he said, adding that he favored a proposal making the Israel weekend Saturday and Sunday.