Shabbat Wars: Israel Passes Law Requiring 'Jewish Tradition' Be Taken Into Consideration

Law could curb infrastructure work on Jewish day of rest, was amended to allow minister to 'balance' Shabbat observance with Israel's economic needs

MK Israel Eichler and members of ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the Knesset on December 25, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli lawmakers passed a contentious law that requires the state to take into consideration the Jewish tradition of the Shabbat when issuing work permits for infrastructure work on the Jewish day of rest.

The Knesset approved early Tuesday the law, which requires the labor and welfare minister to "consider Jewish tradition" when issuing permits. The law, approved on its second and third readings, was promoted by ultra-Orthodox parties on the heels of a coalition crisis last month surrounding the issue of work on Shabbat.

Under the current law, work can be conducted on Shabbat only if the labor minister, currently the Likud's Haim Katz, is convinced that halting work could “harm national defense, physical security or property, or greatly damage the economy.”

MK Merav Ben-Ari of Kulanu who presented the bill on behalf of the coalition, said it was a "wonderful law," adding that "every person of this tradition is part of us - why would anyone oppose this law?"

Since the coalition crisis over Shabbat work on Israel's railways broke out in August 2016, Haredi politicians have been under heavy pressure from their voters and party leadership to put a stop to infrastructure work between sunset Friday and sunset on Saturday.

After the issue was raised again at a meeting of the heads of coalition parties last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to devise a solution.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians have asked Labor Minister Haim Katz a number of times to put an end to such work, but he rejected their requests, saying that under the current law, economic considerations outweigh religious ones.

Likud and the Haredi parties agreed to amend the law to let the labor minister take Jewish tradition into consideration so as to “balance” Shabbat observance with economic harm.

The bill was submitted to the Knesset Monday with the support of MKs from Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties. “This is a minor bill, which does not include religious coercion. All we are doing is bringing the Sabbath into the considerations,” said a Haredi politician. “The minister still has the authority to approve work on Shabbat, but it cannot be that in the Jewish state there is not minimal consideration for keeping the Sabbath.”