Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


Should all business activity be prohibited on the Shabbat or should the prohibition be qualified, and certain business activities, such as sporting, tourism and leisure activities, be allowed?

The Gavison-Medan Covenant

Prof. Ruth Gavison holds the Haim Cohen Human Rights Chair at the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She describes herself as a secular and free-thinking Jewish woman. Rabbi Yaakov Medan is a Rosh Yeshiva and educator at Yeshivat Har-Etzion, Alon Shevut. What could the two have in common about matters as diverse as the Shabbat and personal status, you may be thinking, aside from the fact that they are both Jewish and live in Israel?

The fact is that Rav Medan and Prof. Gavison have taken the bold and somewhat daring initiative to combine forces “with the aim of promoting Jewish solidarity, a sense of unity and shared destiny among the various segments of the Jewish people and especially within the State of Israel, and dignity for each and every one of its sectors.” The two have drafted the “Foundation for a New Covenant among Jews in Matters of Religion and State in Israel,” to replace the “status quo” in matters of religion and state that has been in force for the past 50 years.

“Profound disagreements currently pose a threat to this partnership,” they write, “to the point of generating baseless hatred among different groups.” This fact inspired these two very different individuals to draft a covenant that provides a “consensual operating framework that enables the preservation of the lifestyles of the respective groups while emphasizing the common ground.” The main feature of this covenant is the rejection of “the use of coercion against any group in order to persuade it to relinquish that which it holds as holy and dear.” It advocates “the elimination of any monopoly exercised by a particular group on overall arrangements; [and] at the same time, the right of every group to preserve its own lifestyle according to its own conception and interpretation will be respected. The same will hold true in matters of burial, the laws of kashrut, the Shabbat, religious services and prayer arrangements at the Kotel.”

The Main Proposals of the Gavison-Medan Covenant Concerning The Sabbath

Because of their potential importance and their likely interest to Torah MiTzion readers, we are printing the main proposals for a new status quo regarding the public face of the Shabbat in Israel (any emphasis is my own – SMJ). We will discuss the thinking behind these principles in our next and final column in this series.

1. A Basic Law will be promulgated to the following effect: The Sabbath is the official day of rest of the State of Israel.

2. Government offices, educational institutions, factories, banks, services and commercial establishments will be closed on the Sabbath. The prohibition against opening on the Sabbath will apply equally to urban areas, kibbutzim and moshavim, and along the roads. Essential industries, hospitals and essential services will operate within a Sabbath framework, as is the current custom.

3. Employees have the right not to work on the Sabbath. Non-Jewish employees have the right not to work on their religious days of rest. No Sabbath-observing individual will be discriminated against in terms of hiring or promotion in the workplace. A self-employed businessperson will not hire employees to work on the Sabbath. Workplaces operating on the Sabbath will engage employees to work on that day on a rotating basis, and to the extent possible will give Sabbathobserving employees the opportunity to perform higher-paid work during the week.

4. Restaurants and places of entertainment will not be forbidden to operate on the Sabbath, subject to suitable locations and noise levels. A limited number of small grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies will not be forbidden to operate on the Sabbath. A concession to operate on the Sabbath may be awarded on a rotating basis, for a special fee. Restaurants, museums and other places of entertainment that are open on the Sabbath will close on another day of the week. Particulars of these arrangements will be elaborated and defined by an authorized committee of the local authority.

5. Transportation routes will remain open during all hours of the day and all days of the week. In towns or neighborhoods having a solid majority of Sabbathobserving residents, or in other locations where traffic should be limited to certain times, transportation routes may be closed for all or part of the Sabbath as per an authorized decision of the local authority. Local and public authorities are permitted to take measures to reduce the volume of traffic on the Sabbath in designated locations. Transportation arteries will not be closed for reasons of Sabbath observance.

6. A modified form of public transport will be permitted on the Sabbath on a reduced schedule, in order to afford mobility to those who depend on public transport while preserving to the extent possible the character of the Sabbath in the public domain and restricting the need to work on the Sabbath. Consideration will be given to operating public transport on the Sabbath by special concessionaires and by means of small vehicles (such as minibuses).

7. Steps will be taken to facilitate recreation on the Sabbath in a manner that does not involve Sabbath desecration in establishments such as museums, zoos and national parks, or participation in events (for example, offering the advance sale of tickets).

8. The possibility of transferring sporting and other events which are currently held on the Sabbath to weekdays will be investigated.

9. A comprehensive effort will be made to move the entire economy over to a five-day work week, in order to enable joint social, family, sporting and cultural events on days other than the Sabbath. An employee required to work on the Sabbath will not be required to work as well on the other general day of rest.

10. Official Israeli representatives abroad will not conduct official diplomatic activity on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, and will not publicly desecrate the Sabbath in the course of their official duties.

11. The above arrangements will be strictly and systematically enforced in order to effectively preserve the character of the public domain on the Sabbath.

12. This proposal does not attempt to detail all of the existing Sabbath arrangements. We recommend that these arrangements be reviewed anew in light of the principles of our proposal.