From the Status Quo to the Present Day: Sabbath Observance in Israel

An Egged bus. There is currently a ban on public transportation operation on the Sabbath in Israel. Photo by Grauesel via Wikimedia Commons.
An Egged bus. There is currently a ban on public transportation operation on the Sabbath in Israel. Photo by Grauesel via Wikimedia Commons.

By Dr. Shuki Friedman

The illusion that the Orthodox Jewish standard of Sabbath observance is kept by the majority of Israelis is fading away. This “status quo” that once existed has died. The time has come instead to move forward with a national-social Sabbath observance, giving up on the age-old dream of a full public Sabbath observance in Israel.

The “Sabbath war” has been raging since the State of Israel’s earliest days; the struggle over the character of Sabbath observance started even before the state was founded. The struggle has been both on the legal front and “in the field.”

The legal battle has been a continuous failure for decades. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s promise to the Orthodox Agudath Israel party before the State of Israel’s founding – commonly known as the “status quo” letter – stated the Sabbath would be Israel’s official day of rest. It did not commit to Sabbath observance in the traditional meaning of the term nor did it guarantee a law that would do so. Sabbath observance, which has relied on municipal legislation for its protection, has been eaten away by Supreme Court rulings. All attempts to legislate a Sabbath law that would obligate public Sabbath observance have failed and Sabbath observance as the Orthodox define it has never been put into law in the State of Israel.

The struggle over Sabbath observance has also failed in the field. The first battle took place only a month after the State’s founding, when Orthodox parties pushed back against individuals driving on Saturdays for non-emergency purposes. This struggle was broken up by the military police.

Since then, dozens of “Sabbath wars” have taken place. While there have been small or subtle wins, the majority of these battles have failed. Most cities, especially those outside of Jerusalem, choose not to observe the Jewish Sabbath in the traditional sense. Sidewalks are lined with open stores and shopping malls and some businesses, too. Cultural and recreational establishments often operate as well.

There is only one area in which the status quo continues to influence its operations: public transportation. There is currently a ban on public transportation operation on the Sabbath, though this has been recently challenged with the Saturday opening of alternative transportation services.

In Israel, we are wasting an opportunity. The Sabbath is a great gift and value that the Jewish people gave the world (though some other religions observe this day of rest on Sundays). Today, it is disappearing from the thread of Israeli society. Moreover, it is becoming a focus of political and capital disagreement.

We should not give up on the Sabbath completely. Practical solutions and compromises are available. For example, Israel could forbid commercial establishments from opening while allowing cultural and recreational establishments to operate. There is discussion about implementing Sunday as an additional day of rest (like in the United States). This could allow stricter limitations to be placed on Sabbath-day trade, etc.

The most important reform must be made in the realm of values. The time has come to return the Sabbath to the people and State of Israel. We must agree that the Sabbath is a national value and build from there to establish Saturday as a day that is meaningful to all of Israel’s citizens. A public conversation should not discuss bus schedules, but Jewish tradition and values.

As the writer Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) wrote, “For 2,000 years the Sabbath protected the Jews.” Now it is our turn to protect the Sabbath. Both those who observe the Sabbath as a day of rest according to Jewish law (halacha), and those who do not but do recognize its value, need to come together to reignite this day as a day that holds meaning for all of Israel’s Jewish citizens.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute as well as a professor of law at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot. This article was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon.