Preserving Shabbat

Here in Israel, the festive month of Iyar is bracketed by the two special days, Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Flags flutter the entire month, which is one long celebration. One issue that takes center stage is the role of Shabbat in these celebrations, and the extent to which Shabbat observance is encouraged or protected in society generally.

      It is well known and appreciated by many that the celebratory days are shifted annually – so the official reason goes – in order to avoid Shabbat desecration. Preparations, building, driving, etc. would all serve to undermine this cardinal Jewish value. So, for example, Israel’s independence – the first declaration of Jewish sovereignty over part of the land of Israel in almost nineteen centuries, an incredible, unprecedented and  majestic event – came into effect on the fifth of Iyar in 1948. As 5 Iyar fell this year on a Monday, that necessitated (by virtue of rulings of the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate) that Independence Day be postponed to Tuesday. Otherwise, Yom Hazikaron would have been observed on Sunday, and the preparations for that day might have entailed desecration of Shabbat (for those pre-disposed to desecrate Shabbat).

   The same holds true for years when 5 Iyar falls on Shabbat, or on Friday; then, Yom Haatzmaut is advanced to Thursday, and Yom Hazikaron to Wednesday. It comes out the only time Yom Haatzmaut is ever observed on its original day – 5 Iyar – is when it falls on Wednesday.

    Cynics note another possibility. To take this year, as an example, if Yom Hazikaron – a day of intense mourning in Israel – had been observed on Sunday, that would have required the closing of places of entertainment the night before, the busiest night of the week in those industries, and the same would have pertained the week before, as Yom Hashoah is invariably observed on the same day of the week as Yom Hazikaron. That loss of business for two consecutive weeks would certainly harm the bottom line. What is stranger is when Yom Haatzmaut coincides with Friday; by the time Shabbat arrives, the festivities are over. So why should a Friday 5 Iyar demand that the celebrations be advanced a day? People who desecrate Shabbat tend to desecrate Shabbat fairly consistently, so who or what is being protected?

  One issue that compounds the problem is the strong desire to juxtapose Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, for some very sound reasons: catharsis, a longing to link the celebrations to the sacrifice, and the like. All plausible, but the linkage does understandably trouble bereaved families who cannot easily turn off the spigot of tears when Memorial Day ends.  De-linking the two days would bestow 5 Iyar with greater gravitas as an historically memorable moment. (To use this year as an example: observe Yom Hazikaron on Thursday night and Friday, and then Yom Haatzmaut on Sunday (even Monday).

The purists note something else. It is rare for countries to shift their independence days, one of the most – if not the most – fundamental days in any nation’s narrative. For example, in the United Sates, Independence Day is always observed on July 4. That is the official day of celebration and public events. If it happens to coincide with a weekend, then another day is added as the official day off, either Friday or Monday.         Israel is different, and the good news is that if the reason for all the shifting is to safeguard the proper observance of Shabbat, such speaks very well of the Jewish state.

     The bad news is that, apparently, not everyone got the memo.

     The esteemed columnist for Besheva, Yedidya Meir, reported two weeks ago that he and others were disheartened and then horrified to see a scaffold being erected at Yad Labanim in Yerushalayim on Shabbat itself, for memorial ceremonies not scheduled to begin until Sunday night. A crowd, part aggressive but mostly plaintive, gathered to inquire of the workers as to how they can be desecrating Shabbat for Yom Hazikaron when the whole point of moving the day was to avoid Chilul Shabbat. The foreman sheepishly explained that he was ordered to have the job finished by the night before – Motzaei Shabbat – that he would rather not be doing it, but was given no choice.

   For all the healthy interest in avoiding Chilul Shabbat in the abstract, it strikes me that those who regularly desecrate the Shabbat do so irrespective of the changing of the dates, and those who don’t would not violate Shabbat if Yom Haatzmaut was observed on Shabbat itself. Those who do will, sadly, find other ways to desecrate Shabbat if the option of preparing for Yom Haatzmaut or Yom Hazikaron is precluded.

   The columnist continued that the Sabbath desecration in this instance reflects a lamentable and quite recent pattern in Israel, in which the laws that prohibit work on Shabbat are routinely violated and routinely not enforced. Tel Aviv is notorious for its Shabbat desecration, and there are chain groceries that are open on Shabbat. Every few months those stores pay a small fine that amounts to a joke when compared to the revenue earned on those days. A major court case not long ago decided that enforcement of Shabbat laws was not religious coercion (if so, they would have ruled against Shabbat!) but rather that the shameful non-enforcement fell under the rubric of labor laws – workers’ rights laws – that had to be enforced. As the plaintiffs argued, they do not want to have to work seven days a week, and smaller groceries that are closed on Shabbat have a harder time competing with those stores open for seven days.

   That is something to which denizens of the exile should be sensitive. Often, prices are lower in large supermarket chains that sell kosher foods (Pathmark, Shoprite) not only because of greater volume but also because they are open seven days a week, and sometimes 24/7, whereas the “Jewish stores” can only be open for fewer than six days a week. And Jewish-owned stores largely appeal only to Jewish clientele, who can jeopardize the viability of those stores by trying to save a few pesos elsewhere.

     The court ruled that the dignity of man, and not the laws of Shabbat, required that stores remain closed on Shabbat. Unfortunately the secular government of Tel Aviv has decided not to enforce the court ruling (only in Israel; so much for the “rule of law,” a club with which the right is regularly clobbered) and is attempting to enact new legislation permitting public Shabbat desecration.

        But as the column points out, the implications are ominous. Most traditional Israelis, even those who do not completely observe Shabbat, enjoy a family Shabbat dinner, complete with candle-lighting and kiddush. But the peace of Shabbat and family harmony are impaired when some people are literally being forced to work. He mentioned two painful anecdotes – of a makeup artist at a television station lamenting to Yedidya’s wife that she was told she has to work Friday night or she will lose her job, so she cooks all the traditional foods on Friday morning and her family has Shabbat dinner without her. Another technician at a radio station, anguished, asked him one Friday afternoon to please think of him when he is making kiddush that Friday night, as he too is being forced to work against his will. Both are what is called here “masorati,” traditional, with good Jewish hearts, but lacking the willingness to sacrifice for Shabbat because their observance, although respectful, is not rooted in abstaining from the 39 forbidden labors and their corollaries.

   For sure, it is bitterly ironic that in most instances there is more legal protection for the Sabbath observer in America than there is in Israel! While jobs that specifically call for work on Shabbat are understandably not accessible to Jews (something that effectively ended my professional baseball career before it began; it was never a question of talent), Jews are regularly accommodated by non-Jews and allowed to take off, or make up hours Thursday night, or Sunday, or some other time. That is both fair and just. Anecdotally I have long heard that Jewish bosses (of the not-yet religious variety) are usually much less understanding about the Shabbat needs of the observant Jew than are non-Jews.

  Hence the Shabbat problem in Israel. It is almost a throwback to the America of one century ago, where immigrant Jews were told that if they did not show up for work on Shabbat, they need not come back on Monday. Many (most?) succumbed and paid a very stiff spiritual price for it in terms of their children’s commitment to Torah. The minority that persevered, suffering penury and anxiety in the process, became the backbone of today’s Torah world. It is simply incomprehensible that Shabbat – the focal point of the Jewish week, the pride of the Jewish nation, and the essential definition of the pious Jew- should be trifled with in the Jewish state, of all places.

  In 5774, it is elemental fairness that a full time employee who works a five-day, 40 hour or more week, should not be compelled to work on Shabbat. If employers deem it necessary to conduct their business on Shabbat (life would not end if there was no television on Shabbat, certainly not for me, but even for non-Shabbat observers) then there is no shortage of non-Jews or even (sad to say) Jews not yet aware of the gifts of Shabbat who can fulfill those non-essential tasks and not oblige Jews who desire Shabbat to desecrate it and violate their conscience.

  I am told that resolutions here are in the works, grinding through the coalition, courts, government and rabbinate. The people that accepted Shabbat from the Creator as His gift and shared it with the world in one form or another should be the very first people to protect the Shabbat as much as it has protected us. Then, even Yom Haatzamut on Shabbat itself will entail nothing but joyous and holy festivities.

4 responses to “Preserving Shabbat

  1. Midrash Rabbah, Parshat Lech Lecha, chapter 46:

    G_d told Abraham: “If your descendants observe SHABBAT,
    they will be worthy to live in the Holy Land. If not, then not.”

    Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra, chapter 3:

    The Jews will not be saved except through
    the merit of SHABBAT observance.

    Avot DeRabbi Nathan, chapter 26:

    A Jew who fails to observe SHABBAT will NOT merit
    the afterlife of the righteous, even if he excels in
    Torah scholarship and good deeds..

    Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem depends on SHABBAT
    observance. (Bible, Jeremiah, chapter 17)

    The Bible teaches the importance of SHABBAT observance 17 times:
    [1] Exodus 16
    [2] Exodus 20
    [3] Exodus 23
    [4] Exodus 31
    [5] Exodus 34
    [6] Exodus 35
    [7] Leviticus 19
    [8] Leviticus 23
    [9] Leviticus 26
    [10] Numbers 15
    [11] Deuteronomy 5
    [12] Isaiah 56
    [13] Isaiah 58
    [14] Jeremiah 17
    [15] Ezekiel 20
    [16] Ezekiel 22
    [17] Nehemiah 13

  2. 1.Selective enforcement of laws is not “only in Israel”, but also in America. And in both cases, it is because the right lets the left push them around that way. The right grumble about left-wing legislation, but they are too law-abiding to not enforce it. That’s a problem. The Founding Fathers specifically foresaw forms of judicial or even legislative tyranny, and one of the explicit checks and balances is the possibility of non-enforcement. Someone really true to the principles of the Constitution would refuse to enforce certain laws. But Republican governors and presidents have time and again been weak, always fearing “the media.”

    2. As a labor lawyer, a lot of calls are referred to me from national Jewish organizations from people having difficulty with Shabbos laws. It is very, very difficult. I sympathize with such people greatly. But to be fair, in nearly every single case the employer made it clear from the get go that Shabbos work was a requirement of the job. (Pharmacy work, for some reason, is where lots of these cases arise.) What to do? And how can I go urge stricter and broader legislation forcing employers to accommodate Shabbos workers, when in every other arena of forced “accommodations” (the ADA, FMLA, etc.) the results have been disastrous? What happens when political principles bump up against personal religious desires? Surely you have considered these issues yourself, and I note you were careful not to advocate laws, but resolutions. (The problem is that its only laws that carry weight.) What say the Rabbi?

    3.The high cost of Jewish groceries is not because they are open less days a week, but because of the high cost of the “heimishe” brands they sell. Super-duper kosher califlowers is double the price of regular brands. Outside of NY, cholov yisrael milk is double the price or more of regular milk. And why are those prices so high? Because they can get them, that’s why. Because 50% of the people that buy these supposedly more kosher products (nonsense) are living off of communal charity, so they’re not spending their own money anyway. It’s hard for orthodox Jews raised with a proper work ethic to realize this, but yes, so many of our brothers and sisters have the same problems with money management as college kids or those in the poorest of ghettos.

    There once was a time when Torah Vidaas didn’t use glatt, because it was more expensive, and the yeshivah couldn’t waste community money on chumras. That attitude has entirely disappeared. We have kollel yungeit by the thousands buying Bodek and Dagim instead of Hanover and Starkist. Don’t think the owners of the heimishe brands are unaware of the gullibility of much of the orthodox public to believe anything marketed as having “higher standards of kashrus.” They know it, and boy do they take advantage of it.

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  4. A rare partial miss for Rabbi Pruzansky. Yes, of course, Israeli civil law should protect those who wish to observe Shabbat from job discrimination. I say, this should be even in the case where an employee chooses to become Shomer Shabbat after being hired. But the Rabbi does not seem, here, to distinguish between actions of the State (building stages for government-sponsored events, broadcast media – which are not but ought to be private), and private businesses (grocery stores). Knesset Deputy Speaker Moshe Feiglin (Likud) is fond of asking people what percentage of Jewish Israeli baby boys are given a Brit Milah. The answer is something in the high 90’s percentile. There is no State law requiring Brit Milah, and never has been. Likewise for the 95% of Israeli Jews that fast on Yom Kippur. Even 30+ years ago, Rabbi Chaim Brovender broke with other Roshei Yeshiva and opposed the government-forced Shabbat closure of El Al. He did so because, and I paraphrase, you don’t mekareiv secular Jews by taking away one-seventh of their income. He felt, as did many, that the religious in Israel must first mekareiv more Israeli Jews, until El Al, and other businesses, finds it too difficult to hire non-Shomer Shabbat staff and customers, and so must close on Shabbat. Another of Feiglin’s clever ideas is to turn Sunday from the first working day of the week in Israel into a more American-like non-work day, perfect for cruising the malls and soccer games. It would, of course, impact Israeli GDP somewhat, but, what is the priority here? Making sure all official government run functions and offices are compliant with basic Torah laws is a natural state of affairs for a Jewish State. But legislating individual Torah observance (including that of private businesses) at the civil level will only serve to alienate further those secular Israelis who have not yet found their way back to Torah. Removing obstacles to Torah observance should indeed be intrinsic to a Jewish state, but nobody should expect positive results from instituting a theocracy upon a people that has been estranged from its religious roots for many decades.