Israel's New Sabbath Supermarket Law Has Yet to Be Tested, but Tested It Will Be

Malls, shopping centers and other stores that operate on Shabbat will be forced to either shut down or break the law. It remains to be seen how local authorities will enforce the new law

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A woman rides past AM:PM, a 24-hour supermarket in Tel Aviv.
A woman rides past AM:PM, a 24-hour supermarket in Tel Aviv.Credit: AP

The Sabbath closing law passed by the Knesset on Tuesday has been dubbed the grocery store law. But a close reading reveals that it applies to a lot more than grocery stores.

It was nicknamed the grocery store law because grocery stores in Tel Aviv were the impetus for it. But it actually applies to any business that is open on Shabbat, aside from a limited list of exceptions that includes restaurants, cafs, theaters, movie theaters, gas stations and convenience stores on the premises of gas stations.

Consequently, it may result in malls, shopping centers and other stores that are currently open on Shabbat being forced to either shut down or break the law.

Sources on the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee told TheMarker that in towns without bylaws banning commerce on Shabbat, businesses will still be able to operate freely. But in towns that do have such bylaws and have simply not enforced them, businesses that obey the law and close on the Sabbath will have grounds to petition the High Court of Justice over the lack of enforcement by competing businesses that have chosen to flout the law. The court will then order the town to either enforce its bylaws or amend them. And once a town tries to amend its bylaws, the interior minister will be able to veto the change.

Therefore, contrary to the promise of coalition whip MK David Amsalem (Likud), who said that the law wont change anything; everything will stay as it was, the law may in fact change quite a bit.

The Knessets research center said that 92% of the towns it examined had bylaws banning at least some types of commerce on Shabbat, including major towns such as Herzliya, Haifa, Ashdod, Beer Sheva and Ramat Hasharon. But most of those cities dont enforce their bylaws. Many businesses open on Shabbat, and the municipalities simply turn a blind eye.

According to the Czamanski Ben Shahar consulting firm, Israel has 423 malls and shopping centers, of which 91 are open on Shabbat. But the 91 that are open on Shabbat account for fully 37% of the total commercial space occupied by all 423 shopping centers – 1.1 million out of 2.9 million square meters.

Moreover, Shabbat is a major sales day for those businesses that do open. For instance, at clothing stores that are open on Shabbat, the day accounts for 20% to 30% of weekly sales. The percentage is even higher for restaurants and movie theaters, but they will be allowed to continue operating on the Sabbath even under the new law.

Tel Aviv is the only city that completed the process of amending its bylaws to allow limited commerce on Shabbat before the law passed. It is therefore the only one to which the law, which isnt retroactive, will definitely not apply.

Several other cities, including Givatayim, Rishon Letzion, Eilat and Modiin, have approved similar amendments over the past two weeks, but those laws have yet to be approved by the interior minister, the final step before they can take effect. And Interior Minister Arye Dery, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who pushed for the grocery store law, is unlikely to approve them.

Most likely, therefore, those cities will end up petitioning the High Court of Justice, and the court will decide whether or not their bylaws, like Tel Avivs, should be grandfathered in.

Though the law also applies to Arab towns, every town can decide for itself which day will be observed as its weekly day of rest. Since many Arab towns prefer Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, as their day of rest, stores in those towns could legally open on Shabbat.

The new law is likely to be especially hard on Eilat, since its liable to undermine the citys main industry — tourism. Eilat hosts some 2.8 million tourists a year, and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin tried to get it exempted from the law, but to no avail. Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi vowed that no store will actually close. He said a city councilman from Derys Shas party had secured Derys promise to approve the citys recently amended bylaw, and if that didnt happen, he would go to court.

In many towns, store owners were reluctant to discuss the law on the record, fearing attracting attention that could lead to their closure. A rare exception was Menachem Meodi, CEO of Ofer Bilu Center Outlet, which is open on Shabbat. Meodi said his shopping center wouldnt be affected, because its outside the city limits of Kiryat Ekron, south of Rehovot. But the law will be a death blow for other malls, he warned. Without sales on Shabbat, they wont be able to exist.

Roi Lachmanovitz, chairman of the Coalition for Shabbat Equality, which seeks to end commerce on Shabbat, termed the new law worthless and predicted that it would do nothing to change the existing situation, since enforcement was still up to local governments.