'If They Uproot Settlements, Maybe Shabbat Shopping Can Be Uprooted'

The movement to stop commerce on the Sabbath has a mixed bag of supporters.

The disengagement has dramatically affected religious-secular negotiations about closing shopping malls that are open on Shabbat. From the secular viewpoint, as far as commerce in shopping malls such as Shefayim and the Bilu junction, the religious community missed the boat, and it is impossible to close down places where hundreds of thousands of people shop every Saturday. Since the disengagement, the religious sector is no longer willing to buy this argument.

On Sunday, the Israel Democracy Institute held a one-day seminar in honor of the publication of the book "Shevet Ahim," (edited by Uri Dromi, editor-in-chief of IDI Publishing), which deals with attempts to reach agreements between religious and secular Jews, and especially with the Gavison-Meidan covenant.

At the seminar Israel Prize Laureate Professor Avi Ravitzky of the Hebrew University noted the same was said of the settlements: "I was told you have missed the boat. Suddenly, it turns out that everything is reversible. I ask myself, if it was possible to uproot Gush Katif, perhaps it will also be possible to uproot shopping on Shabbat, despite the fact that things appear to be irreversible."

The head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Meidan, one of the covenant's coauthors, was even more resolved: "The Shefayim shopping mall is far less legal than the houses in Amona," he said. "If it was possible to raze 30 synagogues, and possible to drive ten thousand people from their homes, then why is it impossible to close a few shopping malls?"

In his view, almost all the commercial activity on Shabbat is illegal. "Is the law only for one thing, and only there it is possible to put the horse back in the stable and here it is impossible to put it back?" he asked.

Meidan cautioned, "If there is no Shabbat in Israel in the areas of commerce and industry, we, who have parted from places of residence, will also have to part from workplaces." He added that in such a situation, there would be "a separation into two separate societies" and "frightful hatred between brothers," because the members of both societies would get to know one another only by means of factious mediators like the television.

According to the Gavison-Meidan agreement, entertainment and cultural activities would be permitted on Shabbat, but not commerce. Public transportation would be limited. Local arrangements would be determined by committees established by the local governments. The Yachad Council, which works to find solutions to religious-secular conflicts and the Avi Chai Foundation, which works to encourage dialogue in Israeli society, have put a great deal of effort in the past year in advancing a Shabbat bill based on the agreement. Next week, the Yachad Council will convene a coalition of 20 social organizations opposed to commerce on Shabbat for social reasons, i.e. concern about exploitation of workers and possible harm to small businesses.

The Yachad Council also sought a meeting of politicians who support the law, but its director, Udi Cohen, says "quite a few requests" from probable future Knesset sought to postpone the meeting until after the elections in order not to play into the hands of Shinui and its splinter and provide them with campaign material. In a letter Cohen explains, "Because we are trying very hard so that the initiative to prohibit commerce on Shabbat not be associated with the dispute of religion and state and the all too familiar wars between the religious and secular in Israeli society, we have decided to accede to this request."

Who is expected to participate in the politicians' meeting? Perhaps Shelly Yachimovich, who immediately after entering politics said, "I think that the desecration of the Sabbath in the shopping malls is appalling." Or her fellow Laborite Knesset candidate, Ami Ayalon, who said, "I have no problem with the shopping malls being closed on Shabbat, or that people learn how to pass the time in other places."

Dr. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, who specializes in issues of religion and state, complains of the dearth of public support for this initiative. At seminar on Sunday, he saw "the same traveling troupe that goes from one symposium to another and talks about the same subjects. There are a few thousand people involved in the subject who are willing to make a compromise, and when I say a few thousand, I am being very generous."

These thousands, he says, are found in the area that lies between the large groups: the extremists, both religious and secular, who are unwilling to compromise on anything and the indifferent ones who simply couldn't care less.

Cohen also spoke of the difficulty in enforcing the laws related to commerce on Shabbat. He mentions want ads in the Russian-language newspaper Vesty, "in which a secular employer seeks a non-Jewish immigrant to work on Shabbat in order to prevent some ultra-Orthodox minister from sending a Druze inspector to fine him."

Social pig

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the head of the hesder yeshiva in Petah Tikva, spoke at the seminar of the difficulties rabbis for social justice face in the area of work on Shabbat.

The religious organization Bemaaglei Tzedek initiated the distribution of a social-welfare seal of approval (a kind of social justice kashruth certificate) to restaurants and food businesses that pay their workers the minimum wage, observe labor laws, etc.

The problems began when the group wanted to distribute its seal of approval outside Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, there are plenty of kosher restaurants. In the Tel Aviv area, it is much more complicated, and consequently, the rabbis of the organization were asked whether its social-justice seal of approval could be given to restaurants and businesses that are not kosher, those that may serve pork and seafood. An entire group of rabbis, Rabbi Cherlow revealed, decided to allow the granting of the seal of approval to non-kosher eateries and that this "received very broad backing." He explained that while "it is very difficult to sell a social-welfare pig or a Torah pig, the fact that a business serves non-kosher food does not rule out the need that its behavior be kosher in the areas related to employment."

However, the lack of kashruth often implies work on Shabbat, and that, explains Cherlow, is a far more complex issue. On the one hand, it is difficult to see the halakhic difference between a business that desecrates Shabbat and one that is not kosher. On the other, says Cherlow, businesses that are open on Shabbat often "treat their employees like slaves. How is it possible to give them a social-justice seal of approval?"

Cherlow says that it is a very difficult question. One of the rabbis suggested that the seal of approval will state: "This business is open seven days a week," rather like the warning on cigarettes.

Cherlow presented yet another dilemma. "There is nothing more just and fair than having public transportation on Shabbat," he says, "because it enables those who can't afford a car to go out and have fun on Shabbat in the way they see fit." On the other hand, he says, closing down public transportation on Shabbat is one of the important symbols of the character of Shabbat.

Rabbi Meidan related, "I too have been asked about the question of the seal of a pproval for pork and for the desecration of Shabbat, and after a great deal of thought, I am the one that actually pushed for this."