Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi: Don't Let Businesses Break Shabbat

In a letter to the mayor, Yisrael Meir Lau condemns a new bylaw that would let certain businesses stay open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has come out against a planned city bylaw that would allow certain business to open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

In a letter to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai last week, Lau charged that the bylaw, which was approved by the city’s executive two weeks ago and is slated to be approved by the City Council at its next meeting, alters “the character of life in this city since its founding 105 years ago.”

Lau wrote that in 14 years as the city’s chief rabbi, he has never asked the mayor for anything. “But I’m violating my custom because the cry of Shabbat is bursting through the walls of my heart and I cannot keep silent,” he wrote.

Noting that most of the businesses that will be authorized to open on Shabbat are those that are already opening on Shabbat in violation of the law, he wrote, “Do they deserve a prize? Should the sinner be rewarded?”

Moreover, he wrote, the new bylaw is “the start of a slippery slope. Today, major streets; tomorrow, the entire city. Today, grocery stores; tomorrow, stores of every kind. Today, Tel Aviv-Jaffa; tomorrow, all of Israel.”

Lau argued that the new bylaw will also hurt small grocery stores, which won’t be able to compete with the big chains that are open on Shabbat, as well as religious people, who will now find many jobs closed to them because they refuse to work on Shabbat. “This is gross discrimination, and bars the religious public from integrating into the work force,” he wrote.

Finally, Lau quoted an advertisement published by the Tel Aviv municipality and signed by its first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, that ordered all businesses in the city closed on Shabbat to prevent “the public desecration of the Sabbath.” Though Dizengoff wasn’t religious himself, Lau noted that he once wrote, “Shabbat is our most amazing sign of national solidarity from generation to generation, and anyone who undermines it undermines the unity of Israel ... Preserve the Sabbath, and it will preserve us.”

The municipality declined to respond to Lau’s letter. But Huldai made it clear he has no intention of changing the bylaw. When the city’s executive approved it two weeks ago, Huldai termed the new law an expression par excellence of “the Tel Aviv spirit of tolerance ... that allows everyone to live his life and express himself as he pleases.”

Ofer Vaknin