Cynics’ Sabbath

Political hypocrisy wasn’t invented in Israel, at least not this week. But 48 hours may be a new record for turning on a ten-agora piece.

Just two days ago, the so-called Mini-Markets Law was passed by a 58-57 vote in the Knesset. It let the Interior Minister, ex-con Aryeh Deri, overrule local bylaws allowing certain commercial establishments to operate on the Sabbath. Deri was extremely eager to pass this law, vowing to topple the government if it wasn’t passed. The Angel of Death would not stop him from passing this law. But of course, this had nothing to do with Deri’s position as head of Shas, the Sephardic haredi party. It was mere coincidence that the other proponent of this bill was the head of the Ashkenazic haredi party, Yaakov Litzman. No, this was about social values, because somehow closing down the few places the average Israeli could buy stuff on Saturday would help the little guy. Public transportation? No, they don’t need that. Basic services? No way! It’s amazing how many religious people would tell you they were just looking out for traditional Jews — by telling them what they could and couldn’t do on their day of rest. It was hard to find many traditional Jews who would say that for themselves. Still, it was so imperative to Deri & Co. that it was worth bringing down the coalition for it.

And today, Deri announced that he will not enforce the law, and indeed couldn’t even if he wanted to.

It reminds me of two interesting passages in the Midrash (Exodus Rabba) about the origins of the Hebrew Sabbath:

“And [Moses] saw their burdens”–he saw that they had no rest. So he went to Pharaoh and said: “A slave who never has a day of rest dies. If you do not give your slaves one day off, they will die.” Pharaoh replied: “Go and do for them what you suggest.” So Moses went and instituted the Sabbath day for them to rest.(1:28)


This teaches us that [the Hebrew slaves] had scrolls in their hands in which they would delight each and every Sabbath, saying that the Holy One, Blessed be He, would redeem them because they would rest on the Sabbath. So Pharaoh said to them: “Let the labor be made heavier on the people, so that they will not be swayed”–so that they will not be delighted and not be restored on the Sabbath day. (5:18)

Initially, Moses convinces Pharaoh to endorse the idea of a day of rest, for his own benefit; however, when it becomes clear that the freethinking the Hebrew slaves engage in on their day off threatens him, he bans it.

The message is clear: even tyrants want to appear generous and kindhearted; it helps them hold on to power. But eventually the true cynicism of their worldview is exposed, and the mask comes off.

Everyone is entitled to a day of rest; in fact, Israel already had a law that said exactly that before the Mini-Markets Law was a twinkle in Deri’s eye. But this was never about social justice. It wasn’t even about Shabbat. It was about playing God, in every sense.


About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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