The Supreme Court’s ruling last week that Tel Aviv-Jaffa must enforce its own laws prohibiting stores from selling on Shabbat is a gift. By outlawing the status quo, it makes it possible to think afresh about what Shabbat can be in a modern, Israeli city.
The status quo, it should be said, was rotten. A Tel Aviv-Jaffa bylaw outlaws retail from Friday evening to Saturday evening, but violators are punished with a 730 NIS fine. For big stores, especially chain-stores, this sum, dispensed weekly, is a cost-of-doing-business they can absorb. The fine is more than offset by the increase in sales they enjoy on the day of the week that has become shopping day for a great many people. But smaller businesses are triply squeezed. With fewer shoppers, paying the weekly fine wipes out whatever profit they stand to make by staying open. However, as more and more people buy their (say) groceries on Shabbat, closing their doors for the day becomes ever more costly. Finally, if they decide to stay open, their shrinking profit margins and the fine itself wipe out whatever money they might have to hire someone to work the register. Owner-run businesses become seven-day-a-week sweatshops, until finally they fail altogether.
For the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, this state of affairs was convenient. The bylaw mollified the religious politicians on the city council. Ignoring the law placated a great number of secular residents, pleased to be able use our day off to fill our pantries. And the fines provided a steady stream of income – millions of shekels a year – for the city. For the municipality, the status quo was a semi-legal protection racket. That is, until the Supreme Court intervened.
Like any good mafioso, Mayor Ron Huldai responded with bluster: “”Tel Aviv-Jaffa will continue being a free city,” he said. The court gave him two months to figure out how he would keep the shops open on Shabbat, perhaps by changing the bylaw, perhaps by legal sleight of hand. Most representatives on the city council agree. Reuven Ladianksy, who is challenging Huldai in upcoming elections, agrees with him on this issue: “The status quo in the city must be allowed to continue,” he told journalists.
This is exactly wrong. The city has an opportunity to rethink from scratch what Shabbat ought to be like, and we shouldn’t waste it. Our distant past offers some guidance. Beginning in 1926, the great poet Chaim Nachman Bialik organized a weekly “Oneg Shabbat” in the city. The gathering “brought together young and old, left and right, without distinction” to hear scholars, politicians, poets and writers lecture about history, literature and matters of the day, and to hear musicians play, to sing, and to drink tea and schnapps. The greatest cultural events of their day, these gatherings were free and open to all, and hundreds upon hundreds came.
My proposal for Shabbat in Tel Aviv-Jaffa is this. Free public transportation. Free city bikes for all. Free lectures. Free concerts. Free plays. Free readings. Free exhibits. Free museums. All this in neighborhoods around the city, providing opportunities for young artists to display their art. Rather than linking Shabbat to commerce, link Shabbat to culture, free and accessible to all.
I warrant that this proposal may be impractical (though it may be less impractical than it seems at first), so I offer another: Have the conversation, and on a grand scale. Let’s begin to discuss, around the city – in schools, parks, community centers, synagogues and old-age homes – what Shabbat could be. Instead of retreating to a corrupt status quo, let us use the opportunity foisted on us by the courts to devise a better one.