Court's Tel Aviv Shabbat Ruling Upset a Delicate Status Quo

Ruling touches on a very delicate subject for a city that has branded itself as the city that doesn't stop, also, it has implications for other Israeli municipalities.

The High Court of Justice ruling ordering the Tel Aviv municipality to properly enforce its ban against operating businesses on Shabbat, or repeal it altogether, is ruining what had been a comfortable albeit unofficial arrangement.

On Tuesday the High Court ruled that the city needs to decide officially whether it's allowing businesses to open between sundown Friday and sundown on Saturday, and revise its laws accordingly. The justices, ruling on a petition filed by the owners of small grocery stores in 2007, said that since the current municipal bylaws state that businesses must close for Shabbat, city hall must do more than occasionally issue a handful of fines to offenders.

The ruling touches on a very delicate subject for a city that has branded itself as the city that doesn't stop. It also has implications for other Israeli municipalities, many of which view Tel Aviv as a model for allowing some commerce on Shabbat while maintaining a semblance of Jewish culture. The court gave the municipality 60 days to resolve the issue.

There are some 30,000 businesses in Tel Aviv, around 2,500 of which sell food. Several hundred are open on Shabbat, but city hall issues only 260 fines a month on average, or 80 a week. The penalty - a NIS 730 fine - is levied neither consistently nor systematically. Some business owners told TheMarker that a municipal inspector visits and fines them every week, while some said they're fined only every several weeks. In Jaffa, home to a mixed Jewish-Arab population, there is no enforcement.

"The municipality is pleased with the current mix of businesses that are open on Shabbat. It's a good mix, one we wouldn't want to upset," said a source at city hall. "That's why city hall isn't hard-pressed to enforce certain bylaws. For instance, entertainment venues open after midnight could also be fined, but no one wants to start a war here - so businesses are fined once every two or three months so we can tell the court that laws are enforced."

While the court placed the ball in the municipality's court, city hall believes the decision on such an important issue should be made by someone else. "This fell on Tel Aviv-Jaffa by chance, but it holds nationwide meaning. Many cities and complexes have malls and shopping centers that are open on Shabbat, and they exist by virtue of weak enforcement. Many other municipalities have called us when facing this problem," said the source.

The city's paradoxical approach to the matter has led to absurd situations. For instance, the municipality actively promotes the train-station complex Hatahana, close to Jaffa, which does most of its business over the weekend. Yet the dozens of stores and restaurants operating there are regularly fined for opening on Shabbat. Fashion designer Ronen Chen, who has a store at the complex, says he is contractually obligated to open the store on Shabbat, and thus receives a NIS 730 fine once a month.

The municipal source admits that this is a real problem. "City hall wants the businesses to be open, but it's not allowed," he says.

While the court ordered Tel Aviv to address the problem so far as it involves food retailers, there are other types of businesses that are open - and fined - on Shabbat. For instance, the Super-Pharm drugstore chain operates 24 branches within Tel Aviv, nine of which open on Shabbat on a rotating basis in order to provide emergency pharmacy services - with the city's blessing. But city hall conveniently overlooks the fact that the stores sell much more than just drugs. Gas station convenience stores, which also open on Shabbat, now sell a wide range of products.

Meanwhile, the grocery stores have a lot at stake. The two big chains that are open on the weekend, AM:PM and Tiv Ta'am, are generally packed on Saturdays. Representatives declined to comment, but a senior retail sector source said they likely do 20% of their business on weekends.

"These chains exist because they're open on Shabbat, when everyone else is closed," said the source. "They exist because people know they have somewhere to shop if they get stuck without something. If they can't keep working on these days, they won't have any reason to exist."

A branch of the AM:PM convenience store chain in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin