Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


What should be the constitutional-formalistic status of the Shabbat in modern Israeli society? Two choices stood before the early shapers of Zionism: (a) to leave Shabbat, together with other issues of ‘Religion and State’, in the private sphere; (b) to anchor the Shabbat in law so as to shape the public face of Israeli society. The latter prevailed and over the years, various bylaws were passed by local authorities, the majority of whose residents were Jews, which forbade the opening of businesses on Shabbat.

No Effective Enforcement Mechanism

In his celebrated “status quo” letter, Ben Gurion wrote in the name of the Jewish Agency: “It is clear that the lawful day of rest in the Jewish State will be the Shabbat day.” And, indeed, with the establishment of Israel’s independence, a new section was added to the first law passed in the State of Israel, the Rules of Law and Administration Ordinance, 5708-1948, concerning the determination of Shabbat as the official “day of rest.”

However, this section was merely declarative in nature and lacked any real enforcement mechanism. The religious parties exerted supreme efforts to enact a law which would impose sanctions on Sabbath desecrators. The result of this effort was the Hours of Work and Rest Law, which we discussed at length in the first two columns of this series, section 7 of which prescribed that every Jewish employee is entitled to a minimum weekly rest period of 36 hours including the Shabbat.

In practice, the religious achievement of this Law has been somewhat diminished by the failure to give expression to the religious and national aspects of the Shabbat, both by the restrictive interpretation given by the courts to the law and the emphasis placed on the “social” aspect. In addition, the provisions of the law do not apply where work permits have been granted or – however absurd this may seem – in the case of Kibbutzim, which have incorporated as a cooperative society, even though all of their members are Jewish! And, in practical terms – as with many other laws (e.g. anti-smoking legislation, environmental laws, planning restrictions etc.) – its validity is only as good as the manner in which it is enforced by the authorities.

In the last two decades, a clear trend has emerged in the attitude of Israeli society towards the Shabbat. The increase in people’s quality of life, the development of trade and the imitation of the American consumer culture (24/7), alongside the unfortunate deployment of the Shabbat as a tool for political bargaining and widening of the religious-secular divide in the State of Israel, have resulted in an increasing recourse to the courts, both on the part of those seeking to enforce the Shabbat rest using the force of the law to do so, and on the part of those seeking to get out of the burden of the Sabbath restrictions in the name of “freedom of religion” and “freedom of occupation.”

In recent years, the Israeli Supreme Court has had to consider again and again the issue of the Shabbat in two main spheres: (a) the closure of roads to traffic on Shabbat and (b) the enforcement and practical application of the Hours of Work and Rest Law on Shabbat.

The great 20th century Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his celebrated work “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man,” describes how:

“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”

Should Israel Play on Shabbat?

In March of this year, former Israel national soccer coach, Shlomo Scharf, not a religious man himself, had harsh words for Israel Football Association chairman after it emerged that the IFA had apparently made no effort to prevent the qualifying games for the Euro 2008 championships being played on Shabbat. The much anticipated England v. Israel game at Wembley Stadium next September is due to be played on Shabbat – hours before sundown. Scharf said that during the 8 years he ran the national team, Israel never played on Shabbat, “and to do so would break a tradition that had been kept for years.”

“Whether the players realize it or not,” Scharf stated, “the national team represents the Jewish people, and it can only be a positive thing to show the world that Israel has some sort of dedication to Jewish traditions.” All this is besides the fact that playing on Shabbat means that religious Jews in England will have no chance of seeing the Israeli team.

While it is true that the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) decides on the days matches can be played, and most of these are on Saturday, when the London police refuse to allow a late kick-off, Scharf argues that there is an unofficial policy to at least attempt to convince local FAs to ensure that the times of matches do not coincide with the Shabbat. If the will was there, it is not impossible that UEFA could be encouraged to allow Israel to play on a Sunday instead of a Saturday.

In the words of Jeremy Last, writer for ‘The Jerusalem Post’:

“Take Brigham Young University in deepest Utah, Western America. The institution has a student body of 30,000, many of whom are Mormons – believers in the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints.” The Mormon laws prevent its followers from working on a Saturday and therefore BYU has managed to convince the NCAA to create a fixture list so their games are never held during the Sabbath.

If the Mormons can do it, why not the mighty Israel? If the IFA realized the importance of this on a national Jewish scale, perhaps they would have made more of an effort rather than sink into a routine of giving in to the whims of the governing football bodies.”

Shabbat – A Day of Being – With Ourselves

Perhaps what is really needed, then, is the education of secular Israelis to the beauty and vitality of the Shabbat, rather than ‘forcing them to rest’ against their real wishes. Perhaps more attempts need to be made to find ways and means to enable all Israelis to appreciate the importance of what Heschel calls “an oasis in time” to enjoy the Shabbat experience, each in his or her own way. After all, the concept of the Sabbath was God’s gift to the whole of mankind, not just to the Jews, and certainly not just to religious Jews. In Heschel’s beautiful words, by keeping the Shabbat we set apart:

“one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar … a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle …”