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Sabbath in sin city: Keep the shops open

A Supreme Court ruling dictates that Tel Aviv must shut down its chain stores on the Sabbath. But it is in this city that freedom of religion means living one’s religious feeling as they choose and experiencing the diversity of how others interpret their spiritual lives. 

Convenience store. (photo: Shutterstock.com)

I have a love-hate relationship with the 24-hour convenience store AM/PM on the corner. It is full of overpriced, processed junk food and decorated with soulless, florescent sterility. For some reason the management regularly shifts around the merchandise such that no one item can be found in the aisle where it resided the previous week. I assume this is some sort of insult-my-intelligence marketing technique but the main effect is to waste my time and try my nerves. Not to mention the strange characters who trudge around there at night, gazing at the alcohol section.

On the other hand, it does have a decent fresh fruit and vegetable section that tends to beat the wilted greengrocer across the street. The AM/PM has bailed me out of more than one dinner party on a Friday night when the wine ran out or provided supplies for spontaneous Saturday brunch. I make regular bleary-eyed pilgrimages there at 7am when the milk for morning coffee has run out without warning. Including on Saturdays.

On Tuesday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the municipal bylaws prohibiting certain businesses from opening on Sabbath have not been properly enforced and that the city must either shut down such chain stores on Sabbath, or change the bylaws. On Wednesday, Israeli television reported that the Court’s decision might eventually mean closing all businesses in the city on Saturdays, not just large food chains, but cafes and restaurants that are major attractions for recreation centers such as the Tel Aviv Port. The Court accepted the appeal by small business owners, who claimed their profits were being undercut because they do close on Sabbath. Up to now, the city has just slapped a ritual fine of NIS 660 (about $180) on the large shops, who easily absorb the fee.

Small shop owners explained to television news reporters that Tel Avivians, who are largely secular, hardly bother to shop on Friday before the Sabbath anymore. Profits are draining away as the flood of shoppers are siphoned off into the large chains over the course of the weekend.

One said he didn’t want to be like America, where the constant unlimited competition turns life into one big chase for money. And finally, both the existing by-laws, the court justifications and the small business owners speak of preserving the Sabbath (Hebrew).

This may seem like a very specific, local municipal issue. But it has to do with the meaning of a Jewish state that is also a democracy. Compared to the far larger complications this equation creates for citizens here, Saturday shopping is a luxury item, a bratty bourgeois question of how and when to wield my spending power as a member of one of the most privileged classes in the world. And ideologically, I do want to support small businesses, rein in the conformist commercialization of large chains.

Further, I do so love the serenity of Sabbath. It is magical when around 4pm on Fridays, the sin city of Tel Aviv ceases its race for higher highs and bundles itself up into the warmth of friends, family, quieter conversations, naps and yes, a few moments of contemplation. Most shops close down, and people like it that way.

So why do I want to keep the chains open?

Because my Sabbath is not your Sabbath. Fridays used to begin as days of stress. You had to wedge and elbow your way through masses of frenzied, sweating shoppers in pretty much any outlet – large or small shops, or the Carmel market teeming with hawkers and running with the mud of trampled vegetables. To avoid the rush, you could rise at 7 and be at the market by 8am, which put a hefty damper on Thursday nights.

Working people pressed most of their general errands, not just food shopping, into Friday morning. The crowds slowed everything down and the chores inevitably ate up half the day. Exhaustion took over until evening and then there was one weekend day for actual relaxation.

The 24-hour stores changed the rhythm of my weekend and my Sabbath. Thursday nights I was free to roam the urban landscape. Friday mornings were transformed into a delightful tradition of meeting friends spontaneously, catching up on the week, making plans for the weekend, sampling breakfast food and several versions of the milky Israeli cappuccino.

The afternoons went from crash-landing exhaustion to soft slowing down. I could pick up tail ends of work left over from the week, have a nap, and still go running on the stunning beach at sunset. Yes, I am secular. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about Shabbat; it means I choose how to do so. Gazing at the beauty of this earth from the shores of the country I chose to live in is pretty meaningful to me. Knowing I am not constrained by petty, earthly errands which can be done some other time makes a real difference.  If I need milk for my morning coffee on Shabbat, I soak in the silence on the walk to the store, broken mainly by birds from the trees and prayer melodies from scattered shuls.

Jerusalem is the place for people who want more regulated forms of religion. In Tel Aviv, freedom of religion means I can live my religious feeling as I choose and  experience the diversity of how others interpret their spiritual lives. I do get annoyed by cyclists on Yom Kippur, which I find somewhat offensive. But that’s personal, not rational. So I compromise and accept it; after all, I don’t have to participate.

I also don’t want Israel to turn into an American-style capitalist money-chase and we aren’t far off – Shabbat may be one of the last reminders that things can be different. But part of the beauty is that we, the people have chosen the cosmopolitan Shabbat together as a sort of self-regulating market. It’s not a financial market, but a spiritual one where bouncy urban energy coexists with a spontaneous embrace of identity that I have not experienced in any other city in the world. Leave the shops open.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. XYZ

      This law has nothing to do with religious coercion, it was first passed by the anti-religious MAPAI socialists in order to allow ALL workers to ahve a day off an not turn them into wage-slaves which Shabbat-opening will bring about. I myself, when I was in college was forced to work 7 days a week for financial reasons and it was detrimental to my health. I can’t believe “socially concious” people want to inflict this on working people. The inconvienece Dahlia complains about regarding having to go shopping early on Friday is a minor price to pay in order to keep our country’s youth and lower-paid workers healthy. Those who are always trumpeting “social justice” should be the FIRST to oppose Shabbbat opening, and I am glad to see that at least some are active in opposing this.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      I don’t mind if they give us Sunday off. I worked in hi-tech and unless you were an engineer there was nothing to do on a Sunday. I, and many others working in positions that dealt with overseas customers or suppliers, literally had nothing to do all day. So here’s the Tel Aviv bargain; the state gets to shut down the city for the Sabbath and in return we demand Sunday off.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Asaf lav

      someone however needs to work on Shabbat and to wake up early so you will have the luxury to buy milk because you were to lazy to buy one during friday

      Reply to Comment
    4. This sounds like an equal protection decision, and certainly you need more of those. If small business who close are indeed suffering economically, then the law should be enforced uniformly or nulllified, which I suppose is what the Court means by altered/removed. This is something of a good signal if equal protection is extended in other directions.

      XYZ’s, above, rationale probably also played out in Germany, where, in some areas at least, shops had to close on Sunday, save for a few hours in which you could by bread. The inner city (quite a different thing from the American form) was dead. I think such regulation is now gone.

      Reply to Comment
    5. @XYZ, I didn’t say the original law was religious coercion, but that full enforcement would mean I personally would lose something important to me about life in Tel Aviv.
      @Asaf, “lazy” is not a word most people would apply to me…How about, working like crazy during the week, and exhausted on the weekends? But forget about me – think about the shop clerks who were interviewed on the news last night terrified that they’ll lose their jobs. Some are students, work all week, and this is their only way to support themselves through school. changing the bylaws to allow saturday shopping does not force anyone to work on sabbath, observant people can do as they like – just as I don’t ride bikes on Yom Kippur only b/c other people are allowed to do it.
      @Greg, of course laws should be enforced diligently and equally. I am not against the ruling that law must be enforced – but laws should also be updated occasionally (if rarely), to suit social needs, and I believe this is one of those times.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Aaron Gross

      I don’t live in Tel Aviv, so my response is purely ideological.

      Forcing businesses to close on Shabbat is a Good Thing. I’m 100% with the grocer who said he “didn’t want to be like America, where the constant unlimited competition turns life into one big chase for money.” And that’s just one good reason of many.

      On the other hand (still talking ideology here), let Tel Aviv be Tel Aviv. Give local communities control over this. While this is in a sense a national issue – national being the nation of Israel – fight it out at the local level.

      I’ve shopped for groceries on Shabbat, and Scheindlin is right about the benefits, which are not just convenience. And of course there are huge benefits to not being able to shop on Shabbat. Personally, I’d have no problem in principle with the government closing all the stores on Shabbat and taking away that one freedom.

      Reply to Comment
      • Orbifold

        Of course, there is nothing wrong with stores closing on Shabbat. Most businesses are closed on Sunday on Sundays. The problem is when it is done by purely religious reasons. Some people even dare to claim that Israel is not a theocracy.

        Reply to Comment
    7. XYZ

      I think you are being naive, Dahlia. Many empolyers will say that they will not hire someone if they are not prepared to work on Shabbat. A significant percentage of the population does not work or shop on shabbat and they still manage to do all the ir shopping on other days and yet live a normal life. It can be done.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        I’m sorry, I don’t consider anyone who keeps Shabbat to have a “normal” life. How can you go anywhere for the weekend? How can you do anything fun?

        Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ – You can make your point without calling Dahlia naive. The point is not what “can” be done. The point is what “should” be done in a pluralistic democracy where the majority is not sabbath-observant and a significant minority is not Jewish.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Richard Witty

      Be a labor activist. Support workers rights to a day off.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Orbifold

      So, what would happen in that case with health centers? Should they also be closed on shabbat? Why should doctors, nurseries work? Are they not religious? Is there anything in the torah that allow them to work in these “special” circumstances?

      Reply to Comment
    11. I keep saying I’ll never post a comment on here again, but I just can’t keep away from the honeypot. I think you should retitle this story, “The Discreet Charm of the Global Jewish Intelligentsia.”

      Reply to Comment
    12. Kolumn9

      Of course the stores should stay open on Saturday. What kind of stupid policy should prevent me and another person from a mutually beneficial monetary transaction when no one is being hurt? And the retarded argument about “worker’s right to a day off” is so transparent so as to be laughable. As if a worker can not have a day off on a Sunday, a Tuesday or a Thursday. It is an even more retarded argument when one considers that mandating a day off for workers and allowing stores to stay open seven days a week means creating an additional day of work for other workers.

      There is no reason to grant a single grain of respect for those insisting that stores be shut on Saturday. Either they make the argument on religious grounds which should have no place here since the vast majority of Tel Aviv is secular and in any case are about as legitimate as arguments for the government forcing me as an individual to not use the internet on Saturday. Separation of church and state, religious freedom and all that. Or they make the argument on the basis of some stupid socialist hypocritical garbage about caring for workers while no workers actually benefit and the only people that might benefit are the owners of small stores who *choose* to close on Saturday. Why is there even an argument? Keep the stores open. Whoever doesn’t want the stores open let them move to Ra’anana, Jerusalem or some other place where the majority or at least a significant minority of the population is willing to listen to their superstitions.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I see, religiously observant Jews have no rights in Tel Aviv, since, according to you it is largely secular. Let them move away. Okay, what do you say about forcing out all the secular from Jerusalem and closing everything there on Shabbat since it is “religous”? Why shouldn’t religious Jews have any rights in the Jewish state, even in Tel Aviv, where there is a religous minority?
        The argument that the stores should be open on Shabbat because shopping on Friday is “inconvenient” can be extrapolated in the following way: The residents of south Tel Aviv who now have a lot of illegal Eritrean immigrant neighbors have clearly expressed that they are inconvenienced by them being there, so they should all be deported or at least run out of town. You have all just said that “inconvience” is more important than basic human rights, right?

        Reply to Comment
        • Haifawi

          Or you know, it’s inconvenient that there are so many non-Jews living here in our glorious Jewish State…but I don’t think you plan on applying basic human rights to this situation though?

          Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          You as a minority in Tel Aviv have no right to impose your religious edicts on me. If it bothers you that someone in this city is sinning then there are other places which give a crap. No one is forcing you to do anything. You are as free as me to shop or not to shop on Saturday and as free as me to open or not open a store on Saturday. What bothers you is what I do, not what you can do, so this isn’t about your rights. The real argument about stores staying open on Saturday has nothing to do with convenience. It is about people like you trying to butt into things which are none of your business whereby you think you should be able to tell me what I can and can not do on Saturday.

          You are crawling up the wrong tree with the Eritrean thing. I already think they should be deported.

          Reply to Comment
    13. Many radical and clear-thinking settlers have demanded that Yesha secede from the Zionist State of Israel and declare itself an independent, Orthodox Kingdom. Why not (a) annex Jerusalem and other religious-majority cities in Israel Proper to that, and (b) annex the coastal plain with its secular cities to Lebanon? That’s a secular state, with a sophisticated electoral system specifically designed to harness religious constituencies and render them harmless. Then the coastal people can have Sunday off and the Yesha Plus people can be Shabbos Shomrim. I admit I’m not quite serious here, but the idea would make an entertaining satirical movie.

      Reply to Comment
    14. klang

      That’s a secular state, with a sophisticated electoral system specifically designed to harness religious constituencies and render them harmless…. like they harnessed Hezbollah

      Reply to Comment

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