Don't Tell Tel Aviv How to Do Shabbat

Secular Israelis have their own ways of spending the Sabbath; they don't need advice from rabbis.

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Israeli students at a Shabbat concert organized by the Tel Aviv University Hillel.
Israeli students at a Shabbat concert organized by the Tel Aviv University Hillel.Credit: Moti Milrod

Each of my friends has his or her own way of spending Shabbat. A. is willing to drive north and put up with hours of traffic jams just to see the Wild Peony in bloom. G. spends Shabbat in art galleries, studying paintings until his appetite for art is satisfied. My way of spending Shabbat varies. I like to sit in a cafe, see a film and then finish my grocery shopping. Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, would not like any of the ways we spend Shabbat. He wrote a letter to the city’s mayor last week, telling him that Shabbat should be spent around the Shabbat table with family “with two loaves of bread and a generous kiddush, with abundant delicacies and a generous spirit,” as the liturgical song celebrating Shabbat says. He’s almost right. I’ve had some opportunities to spend a few hours at the family table on Shabbat. Indeed, there were delicacies in abundance. There were also some moments of rare beauty. But a whole Shabbat?

Rabbi Lau is a clergyman, not an intellectual. There’s no way a rabbi would suggest spending Shabbat in any other way than around the family table. He wouldn’t recommend a book, performance or exhibit, but would be happy to expound on the countless and varied activities that are forbidden on Shabbat. But more than Rabbi Lau seeks to protect Shabbat, he seeks to protect those who observe it. A book, show or exhibit might tempt people to leave the family table and run to a museum, and after the museum, who knows where they might go? From there, it’s a short distance to joining Meretz or even eating shrimp.

Gone are the days when the rabbis led everyone, not just the observant. The have lost the spiritual authority they had in the exile and are left only with religious authority they’re careful not to bring up to date. Spiritual leaders could have led us to beautiful Shabbat days even without shopping. They could have directed us toward Shabbat days filled with cultural content, which might not have honored the faith but would have honored the day. Rabbi Lau gave up on us, but we have not given up on Shabbat. It’s ours too, and if he cannot fill it with content, we will do so ourselves.

Shabbat is a buffer zone. Religious and secular people want to annex all of it for themselves. It’s impossible to divide it equally. The religious side, in the nature of things, is sting and devoted to occupations. It’s not content with the estate set aside for it. It wants businesses to be closed on Shabbat for its own comfort, but speaks about social justice rather than prohibitions in religious law. It’s for your own sake, the rabbis and community leaders tell us. It’s for your own good and for your mental health. Thank you, we answer, but we have our own ways of protecting our mental health. At that point, they look at each other and say: They don’t understand anything, these stupid people. Explanations won’t help; only laws and fines will.

Laws and fines have never succeeded in imposing religious practice on us. Fines and penalties have never determined how Shabbat will look or what we will eat on Passover. Once upon a time, people used to keep rolls in the freezer. Now, they go to the Tiv Ta’am supermarket. We haven’t given up Judaism; we have given up the Judaism issued by the governing coalition in the Knesset. Only we can determine how much religion we will have in our lives. The character of the Sabbat, and that of Jewish holidays, are up to us, not the legislative body. If cafes were empty on Shabbat, they would have been closed, with no need for laws or fines. They’re open today because of market forces. We are the market forces, and we shop in the supermarket and go to the cinema on Shabbat. Market forces are a vague concept, but in the long debate over the character of Shabbat and holidays, they have the last word.

Time is a tsunami that makes no compromises. It passed quickly, making us forget the covenant that professor Ruth Gavison wrote together with Rabbi Yaacov Medan 15 years ago. This document, the Gavison-Medan Covenant, described a Shabbat that corresponded to the needs of a state that was both Jewish and democratic. The covenant spoke of mutual concessions and of the religious and secular communities meeting each other halfway. It recommended closing places of business and opening places of entertainment and culture on Shabbat. Nothing ever came of the covenant, but time marched on, doing its work. Shabbat changed. Now, it’s further than ever from a day spent around the family table.

A concluding comment: It’s nice to talk about Sabbath and festival days and forget about the Arabs. After all, they comprise only 20 percent of the population. When we talk about Sabbaths and holidays, the Arabs are left out, of course. As far as they’re concerned, it’s no great disaster that they’re left out of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s program to relieve the housing shortage. Still, to our credit, it may be said that we do not forget them on Passover — we will always make sure to sell them the country’s leavened products to strengthen the feeling of partnership, and to the glory of the State of Israel.

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