The Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Today, Jews continue to keep and maintain the Shabbat. However, not everyone interprets what it means to keep and maintain Shabbat in the same way.
What does Shabbat and its observance look like in the State of Israel? Can every individual enjoy this day of rest in the way he/she chooses? Are there actually individuals who are forced to give up Shabbat as a result of a lack of choice or economic coercion?
Keeping Shabbat is Israel today is sometimes somewhat lackadaisical. Legally, the state has not been able to completely mandate the keeping of the Sabbath. Further, state and local regulations create different arrangements in different places. The fact that the current law is selectively enforced encourages people to violate it. This situation harms the Sabbath significantly.
Then there’s the issue of commercial activity on the Sabbath. With its strong economic incentive, Shabbat commerce is flourishing. As a result, some of those who most need a day of rest once a week find themselves caught between choosing to work on the Sabbath or getting fired from their place of work. Religiously observant business owners may lose out to their competition by not operating on the Sabbath.
Conversely, community and leisure activities are not taking place in the name or spirit of Shabbat. Communities are generally discouraged from choosing to offer unique Shabbat experiences that are based on their unique characteristics.
Unfortunately, this friction between commerce and religious observance has led to wars over the Sabbath. Instead of making the Sabbath into a cultural and religious benefit for all of Israel, it has become a flash point for conflict. Shabbat has been transformed from a period of time when all the people of Israel were invited to take part in a significant and bonding weekly experience focused on family and community to a concept of which only a portion of the Israeli community even relates.
Too many Israeli Jews are not even aware of the beauty of Shabbat or its meaning, beyond that it is “a day of rest.” Little effort is being made to re-infuse Shabbat with deeper content out of a belief by many unaffiliated Jews that Shabbat belongs to “others.”
Unfortunately, the ability to change the situation on a national level is limited. But as has been proven in Jerusalem and some other cities, it is possible to make change on the local level. Communities can join together and transform Shabbat into a significant day.
Just last week, a group of 20 diverse organizations – religious, non-religious, Reform, Orthodox, right-wing and left-wing – spearheaded efforts to create a new and different Shabbat … an Israeli Shabbat.
In our vision, Shabbat will not be like any other day, as intended. However, our plan is to enable everyone and every community to craft their Shabbat for themselves, and infuse their weekly day of rest with content that fits their worldview and their faith.
We recommend communities take responsibility for their Shabbat by, in cooperation with their local authorities, first designing and then implementing it. Initially, this will be done on the local level. Then, when the time is ripe, on a national level across the State of Israel.
The hymn Lecha Dodi speaks of the Jewish people hearing the commandment to remember and keep the Sabbath in a single utterance. Remembering is a positive act that creates the special content of the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath means refraining from certain acts.
These two aspects have different arrangements that have been presented as a model for the Israeli Shabbat over the years and have apparently been accepted by most Jewish Israeli citizens. Keeping the Shabbat will be expressed by forbidding blatant commercial activity. But cultural and leisure activities and the services that come with them will be enabled, including a service that will provide citizens who do not have cars a reasonable way to travel on the Sabbath.
In two years, Israel will celebrate its 70th anniversary. This Shabbat coalition has set a goal of finalizing plans by then, which would give Israel its greatest birthday gift: An Israeli Shabbat that is not the source of wars, but a boon to the entire Jewish people.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute as well as a professor of law at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot.
This article was first published by eJewish Philanthropy.