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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

A Jewish state II: shabbes!

Galilee Diary #187;
June 27, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

The laws of the Shabbat… are like mountains suspended by a hair, a large number of laws based on only a few biblical verses. 
 -Mishnah Hagigah 1:8

More than Israel has kept [observed] the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept [preserved] Israel. 
  -Achad Ha’am, “Shabbat and Zionism”

Before we made aliyah, we lived in a pluralistic Jewish community in Philadelphia, and our kids went to Solomon Schechter day school. Jews were a minority in our neighborhood, but Friday night for our community had certain expectations and a certain spirit that came naturally. It was not a night for going out, unless it was to another family for Shabbat dinner. Then we came to the Jewish state, where, if you don’t attend an Orthodox school, all class parties are on Friday nights. Be there or be square. Then the kids got drivers’ licenses, and we noticed that as midnight approached on Friday and we were getting ready for bed, they were getting dressed to go out. “Where are you going?” “To ___ club/pub.” “But it’s Friday night; nothing is open tonight.” “Right, Mom/Dad. See you in the morning.” Amazing how many times we had the same conversation before we got it.

Like so many Diaspora Jews, we had a hard time relinquishing our myths about a “Jewish state.” While we knew objectively that most Israeli Jews define their Jewishness as national/cultural, not religious, still, we clung to the notion that in a Jewish state, Shabbat must be special. Coming to live here was supposed to make observing traditions like Shabbat easier, not harder; wasn’t the “Jewish environment” what Israel was supposed to be about? No Christmas carols in public school – and no basketball games on Friday night.

Not so simple! Under the British Mandate, no nationwide laws could be enacted specifying Shabbat observance, but municipalities could enact local ordinances. In mixed cities, none were enacted – but in places with overwhelmingly Jewish populations, like Tel Aviv, city law could force businesses to stay closed on Shabbat. When the state was declared, the coalition agreed to take over the “status quo” with respect to religious law; thus, to this day, public buses do not run in Tel Aviv – but they do in Haifa, which was and is a mixed city. And there is now a body of national legislation regarding Shabbat, too. For example, El Al may not operate on Shabbat – nor may trains or interurban buses. Special permits are needed for agencies and services like the electric company and the police force to do necessary work on Shabbat. Violations of these restrictions have caused coalition crises more than once over the years. When Tel Aviv does enforce Shabbat closings, the municipal inspectors giving out the fines are Arabs – who, of course, are permitted to work on Shabbat.

On the other hand, most Israelis do not observe most Shabbat prohibitions, and are happy to travel, shop, and be entertained on Friday night and Saturday. There are two common patterns: those who go to bed early, and get up early to spend all day Saturday on an excursion – a hike, a beach, a national park, a bike trek, etc.; and those who go out to a club or party after midnight, get home at 6:00 am and sleep most of the day. And in the past few years, a number of large suburban shopping malls have opened on Shabbat, offering a new form of Shabbat entertainment.

My own leanings are certainly opposed to “religious coercion,” but the more Shabbat business and culture there is, the more jobs there are in the Jewish state for which observant Jews need not apply and the more cultural activities there are which shomrei Shabbat may not enjoy, which seems a strange irony. And if, in the Jewish state, Shabbat – perhaps the central symbol of Jewish identity since ancient times - succumbs to materialism and globalization and the sanctity of individual rights, then it seems not wholly out of place to ask, “OK, so what is Jewish about this state, anyway?”

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