In general, Shabbat is officially kept in the State of Israel. The police estimated that closure of the Ayalon Highway on a weekday would endanger lives.
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Q: How come last week we heard in the media about representatives of the Haredi community fighting for the honor of Shabbat, which was publicly trampled upon with the construction work done on the Tel Aviv railway, while the representatives of the National Religious community were silent? Is Shabbat not worth fighting for?
A: There is great importance in the State of Israel officially observing Shabbat, and indeed, state-run institutions generally do observe Shabbat. This is something that should not be taken for granted. I have heard from Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, that in their eyes, the State of Israel is considered to be very religious, mainly because all the state-run institutions are closed on Shabbat. They also point out the central role holidays play in public life, and the observance of kashrut in all state-run institutions, the vast majority of stores and restaurants, and almost all hotels.
Nevertheless, the fact that the majority of the Jews do not observe Shabbat according to Jewish law is extremely painful and distressing, and it is a mitzvah for every person to do whatever they can to bring Jews closer to the mitzvoth of Shabbat. To do so, we must clarify the sacred value of Shabbat, and even those people who do keep Shabbat should try harder to observe it in the best and most superb way – through ‘oneg‘ Shabbat, Torah study, prayer, festive meals and rest – and the more successful we are, the more Jews will wish to keep Shabbat.
Apparently, those who touched-off the “war” on Shabbat, believed that by doing so they would strengthen the national status of Shabbat in the country. However, to do so there was no need to initiate personal attacks on the Minister of Transportation and arouse debate between the Haredim and the secular over the national character of Shabbat, because strengthening the status of Shabbat in official government frameworks can also be achieved by means of respectable dialogue.
The Present ‘Shabbat Law’ and its Implementation
In general, Shabbat was determined by law as the national day of rest of the State of Israel, in which employees cease working. However, in addition to that, it was determined by law (in the year 1951), that the Department of Labor would grant work permits on Shabbat in order to prevent damage to the security of the State, economy, or essential public needs, i.e., even needs that are not‘pikuach nefesh’ (life- threatening) which according to Jewish law are prohibited from being performed on Shabbat. To rid the Minister of Labor from the personal responsibility of granting work permits, and from pressures that political and public officials are liable to exert on him, it was determined in the year 2009 that the Director of Regularization and Enforcement in the Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor would be responsible for granting work permits on Shabbat.
Thus in practice, work permits are not determined according to Jewish law, therefore, in addition to permits for cases of ‘pikuach nefesh’, work permits are granted on the basis of the existing state of affairs (status quo), for example, such as operation of public transportation in Haifa, as it has operated even before the founding of the State. Work permits are also granted as a result of various public pressures, with matters dear to the religious community not given permits, but in matters relatively remote from the religious community, but extremely crucial for the secular public, more permits are granted. For example, the Israel Broadcasting Authority operates on Shabbat as a result of public pressure, expressed in a law decision by the secular courts.
The Story about Work on the Train Line on Shabbat
In practice, as part of the expansion of the train station in Tel Aviv, it was necessary to execute an extensive job that required the stopping of traffic on the Ayalon Highway for a day. The company carrying out the work turned to the police in order for them to make recommendations for its implementation on Shabbat. Police officials indeed wrote that it was proper to authorize this work on Shabbat, because the closing of a main traffic route such as the Ayalon Highway would cause traffic jams and blockages throughout all of Gush Dan (Greater Tel Aviv) “which would constitute an actual threat to life for all citizens.” They wrote that the work should be carried out from 16:00 before the beginning of Shabbat, until 18:00 towards the end of Shabbat “in order to prevent danger to human life, and taking into consideration that the coming weekend, traffic on the road would be relatively light due to fact that many people would be on vacation outside of the Tel Aviv area.”
Based on this, approval was given; but for some religious and Haredi people it seemed as if the permit was too sweeping and in violation of the status quo. Even prior to Shabbat, representatives of the Haredi and religious community met with the Prime Minister, and together, agreed that the Prime Minister would make a decision on the principle that work whose implementation on Shabbat involved‘pikuach nefesh’ would be carried out, and the remaining work would be done during the week. According to this, the Prime Minister determined that out of the 18 approved projects, 14 would be executed. It is not clear why after this, the representatives of the Haredi community decided to attack the Minister of Transportation and accuse him of desecrating the Shabbat. In practice, the work permit was given by the Ministry of Labor, and not the Ministry of Transportation, and the Prime Minister, in coordination with the Haredi representatives, supported and validated it.
This is also what Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told me – that he was not involved in providing work permits, since this was the authority of the Ministry of Labor. At any rate, based on his inquiries, even after approval was authorized pains were taken not to cause any Jew to work on Shabbat who did not wish to do so. Furthermore, the railway administration had already recruited approximately 160 non-Jewish workers to perform the maintenance and development work which involved Shabbat desecration.
Incidentally, this is the seemingly appropriate solution for rare cases of great necessity, i.e., that non-Jewish employees perform the work. After all, more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish – why not use them in emergency cases like this? And if it’s essential for Jews to participate in supervision and guidance, they are permitted to do so, provided they do not carry out any work with their own hands (see, Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 9:11-12; 27:16).
An Open Struggle versus Broad and Quiet Agreements
Sometimes, when an affront to Judaism’s sanctified ideals is done out of malice, it calls for an open struggle, and insisting that the guilty party pay a personal price, even if the struggle increases tensions between the religious and secular communities. First of all, because justice requires it; secondly, because this is the most effective way to prevent such affronts from recurring. But when there is no malicious intent, even if it seems a mistake was made negligently, it is preferable to reach agreements that are acceptable to the majority of the public, including those who are not strict Shabbat observers. This is because a broad consensus on the importance of Shabbat and its public observance is extremely beneficial for strengthening the status of Shabbat in the State of Israel. How much more so is this true regarding the present government, whose ministers for the best part are either religious or traditional, including the Minister of Transportation. This is why representatives of the National Religious community do not wage wars about the issue of Shabbat, and prefer to reach an agreement.
Here’s an example: With a broad consensus, Members of Knesset Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Mickey Zohar (Likud) were able to pass a very important law in first and second readings, according to which even those who are not religious may refuse to work on Shabbat, without the risk of being laid off, or not being hired.
An Open Struggle is called for Over the Jewish Character of the IDF
In contrast to the case of work on the Tel Aviv train line, an open struggle for the Jewish character of the IDF is necessary, so that religious soldiers are able to observe halakha while serving in the army as conventionally accepted in civilian life. Even though the majority of IDF officers have respect for Jewish tradition, the top brass of the IDF themselves impose secular values on the army, such as forcing religious soldiers to participate in lectures degrading sacred Jewish values, forcing them to hear female singers, and so on. This, concurrent to the erosion of Israel’s traditional moral position that it has the right to defend its security and country, such as the dreadful and appalling words of the Deputy Chief of Staff comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, which won the backing of the Chief of Staff who himself, often sounds like a representative of the U.N. coming to reconcile between the Jews and the Arabs. This policy also receives expression in relation to IDF soldiers who kill terrorists intending to kill them.
In principle, the individual problems of the religious soldier is relatively easy to solve, seeing as religious freedom is one of the principles accepted by society as a whole. The majority of the secular public can easily understand that there is no justification of forcing a religious soldier who meticulously observes the laws of modesty to listen to female singers, or to participate in mixed-gender activities that conflict with customs of modesty with no essential security reason for doing so, and not to force him to shave his beard.
Concerning all these issues the Chief of Staff, his Deputy, and partners to their position, should be made to pay the price.
Haredi Public Officials and the IDF
Unfortunately, when it comes to the IDF, representatives of the Haredi community fail to make an effort. If they only would direct some of their energy and talents (they are among the most talented members of the Knesset) on behalf of the Jewish character of the IDF! It would be far more beneficial than the storm they generated about work on the train station for one Shabbat, work which did not deviate significantly from the norm. This uproar did not help even one Jew to keep Shabbat. In contrast, the struggle for IDF soldiers will help them actually observe halakha, and in practice, help safeguard the sacred character of Israel’s military camp.
The problems in the IDF are far more fundamental, because they constitute a deterioration of the status quo, whereas the whole issue about the train station, even if it was not handled properly, was a one-time event, without declaration of any fundamental policy change.
I would be elated to hear about a representative of the Haredi community who dealt effectively with the problems of religious soldiers in the army, and would also be happy to thank him publicly in my column. Aside from the personal benefit of such an action, by doing so he will merit increasing peace between the religiously observant and Torah scholars.
Along these lines, Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu shlita, who is the son of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu shlita and the grandson of the Rishon Lezion, our revered teacher Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l, should be commended for initiating a complaint hot-line for religious soldiers in matters such as these.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: