Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Shabbat Law: A Lesser Evil

By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute

"See that G-d has given the Shabbat" [Shemot 16:29]. "There He put down for him decrees and laws, and there He tested them" [15:25]. "He gave him some of the passages of the Torah for them to be occupied: Shabbat, the Red Heifer, and economic laws" [Rashi]. to you 
Religious Laws, Bypassing the Religious People
For the last two months or so, a proposed law has been making the rounds in the Knesset – the "Shabbat Law" of MK's Miki Zohar and David Amsalem, both from the Likud Party. I raise a very perplexed eyebrow – as I assume is true of most of my readers – with a question: Where are the religious parties in all of this? What is going on here in political terms? The situation seems to be quite absurd! "Religious legislation" – which we have been told time and again "upsets" the people and is completely "outdated" – has suddenly renewed its popularity, and from a very unexpected direction, from within a party that is not defined as religious and is certainly not expected to innovate in this matter. Does this have anything to do with the increased numbers of religious people in the Likud who are proud of the traditions of their fathers and the Jewish heritage? Have they suddenly decided to enter the fray with this subject? 
This "theater of the absurd" reaches greater heights when we find that other religious MK's are some of the most outspoken opponents of this legislation, such as Elazar Stern (from Yesh Atid) and Rachel Azaria (from Kulanu). Why? It is because the proposed law is not liberal enough for them. It prohibits commerce on Shabbat, to which these MK's agree, for both religious and sociological reasons. And it permits cultural and recreational activities. However, it does not allow public transportation on Shabbat, and therefore they as religious people are dead set against it. 
Here is another matter: With my sharp political hearing, I can hear some "deafening silence" from the direction of the Bayit Yehudi Party. It is true that the ministers of the party supported the law when it was brought to the ministerial committee for approval, but no "Jewish" voice has burst out from the Bayit Yehudi in this matter. What worries me about this is that it makes me fearful: It may be that matters of " religion and the state" are being silently removed from the interests of the party. As far as I can see, this is a result of internal tension in the party and tugs of war between the "Chardal" (Chareidi Zionist) and the "liberal" segments of the party. The result of such factors is a feeling that it is best to "sit idly by" and take no action of any kind! 
As a service to my readers, I have extracted the main features of this proposed law from various internet publications: 
- No industrial or commercial operations will be permitted on Shabbat. 
- The Economy Minister will be able to approve such activity on Shabbat. 
- It will be prohibited to make being open on Shabbat a condition for operating a business. Contracts that preceded the law with such clauses will be annulled. 
- Places will be allowed to operate on Shabbat for purposes of entertainment and culture, including theaters, movies, and museums. 
- Punishment: A business which is open on Shabbat will be fined three times the value of its cash flow on that day, but not less than NIS 4,000, for every instance of a violation of the law. 
- Businesses within 3 km of a business which is open on Shabbat can sue them for damages based on a claim of economic harm. 
The Traditions of the Mafdal?
I have been in the front lines in activities involving Shabbat in Israel for the last forty years, in my capacity as the head of the Zomet Institute, with respect to government activity, the public in general, institutional matters, and through my own personal interests. In addition to the realm of technology, I played substantial roles in the public realm, including some attempts to propose Shabbat legislation. In 5767 (2007), I supported a law titled "Shabbat as a day of culture and rest," which was proposed by MK (at the time) Zevulun Orlev. In a way similar to the current proposal, the idea then was to completely close down all commerce, for the "price" of ignoring cultural and entertainment activities (through very careful wording, without giving explicit permission). The proposal was written in the wake of a conference which was attended by dozens of rabbis, and the result was that I was appointed chairman of a committee of four "senior rabbis" (an awful term if I ever heard one!) – Yaacov Ariel, Tzefania Drory, Shaar Yeshuv Cohen, and Nachum Rabinowitz. (I have kept all the records of this activity). The "halachic policy" which we followed was based on the writing of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli ("Coalition Halacha," Amud Hayemini, chapter 11), who ruled that it was necessary to "save whatever is possible" as opposed to demanding "all or nothing," even in strictly halachic matters. This means that we are allowed to ignore what cannot be effectively prohibited even if it can be understood between the lines that you will not object, and the result will definitely be some desecration of the Shabbat. In the end, the subject was dropped because of disagreements among the rabbis and a fear of "legitimization," even at the cost of increased commerce and the development of a culture of "shopping" on Shabbat.
From my personal viewpoint, as one who has "eaten in honor of Shabbat" [Beitza 16a] all my life, I definitely approve of this parliamentary initiative, with some small modifications. If rabbis have "abandoned" the realm of Shabbat – they are privileges to have their labors performed by others. If the Bayit Yehudi Party had been involved better results might have been achieved from the halachic point of view. But in the end, it seems that "sitting idly by" was the best policy in this case!
* * * * * * 
Shabbat was presented to Bnei Yisrael before the Torah was given, as is quoted above. This includes matters related to the principle that "derech eretz – proper behavior – came before the Torah," and this is related to the sociological aspects of the issue. Even Pharaoh and his taskmasters understood the sociological needs, and during the early stages of the oppression "they used to rest on Shabbat. But then Pharaoh decreed that the labors should be increased and that they would not get involved in false ideas, they could not have recreation, and they could not rest on Shabbat." [Shemot Rabba 5:18].

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