By Larry Gordon
At some point, it becomes imperative to stop and take stock, or at least take a step back, and garner a renewed appreciation of the beauty and importance of Shabbos. The fashion in which we observe the Shabbos has to be more than how many types of herrings, kugels, or cholents we can boast that we partook of, tasted, or consumed.
In Israel today, there is a political crisis of sorts as a result of Shabbos observance and it has nothing to do with either kugel or cholent. If you have been following the story then you know that there is an ongoing battle between religion and state in Israel unlike the type of conflict on this matter that exists in any other country in the world.
The immediate matter is a simple and practical one. Israel’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has determined that it is most prudent and practical if repair work is done on Israel’s rail transportation system on Shabbos, the one day of the week when the train system is not used by the population to commute to work and therefore the imposition on the public is minimal.
On the other hand, most of the religiously observant parties that are coalition partners in the present government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–specifically United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas–see as an important component of their mandate that there be maximum observance of Shabbos in the Jewish state. And that makes sense because, simply stated, what is Jewish about a Jewish state if there is wholesale desecration of the one thing that more than any other sets the Jews apart from all the other nations of the world–the way in which we observe and respect Shabbos.
Over the last week, Israel’s Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman of UTJ, announced his resignation as minister from the government as a protest of the fact that work is being done on the railway on Shabbos. There was a threat there for a few moments that UTJ would withdraw from the governing coalition that would collapse the government and throw the country into a crisis.
The religious parties in any governing coalition have numerous roles to play on many levels as they look after the concerns and interests of the people who voted for them and saw to it that they have a seat in the Knesset. Sometimes the various aspects of these political parties and Knesset members can clash over matters like financing for education, housing, and military service. But there is nevertheless at least one issue where there is an across-the-board consensus, and that is on the matter of Shabbos observance in Israel.
The majority of Israelis are unfortunately not completely observant–at least not yet, anyway. But that does not mean that the government of Israel should place itself in a position that facilitates or encourages violating Shabbos laws. And that is where a cabinet minister like Rabbi Yaakov Litzman draws the line.
But still the debate is an interesting one that might be fit for a discussion amongst halachic experts who would have to consider all aspects of the matter and not just reflexively react according to important personal beliefs.
So collapsing the government for now by having UTJ withdraw from the coalition is not an option, as determined by the Gerrer Rebbe who is the guiding force behind which moves the religious party employs. So for now, Litzman has given up his Health Ministry portfolio, with Netanyahu assuming the role as health minister as Litzman stepped down one rung on the political ladder by becoming deputy health minister.
So what does that do to aid greater governmental observance of Shabbos? Well, probably little more than serving as the political version of the proverbial warning shot across the bow. No one wants this government to fall apart, regardless of the reason that may precipitate such an occurrence. Right now, this government is a strong and solid right-leaning entity that has an extraordinary relationship with the United States as well as an almost unprecedented solid relationship based on mutual admiration between the prime minister and President Trump.
The chareidi schools are getting the money they need to operate, although not as much as they would really like. The grand plan was to draft religious students into the IDF–a plan that the left was salivating over before the last election, when Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party were important partners of the Netanyahu government.
Lapid and his party are now sitting in the opposition, essentially powerless, though polls show them enjoying a resurgence and a return to prominence if new elections have to be held. No one on the right or amongst the religious parties like UTJ, Shas, and Bayit HaYehudi wants to see that nightmare replayed.
But still, chillul Shabbos as a policy of government is just not tolerable. Transportation Minister Katz has tried tinkering with the work-on-Shabbos formula but so far it is too early to tell whether the new plan is satisfactory. At first, Minister Katz attempted to dissuade Rabbi Litzman from stepping down by assuring him that only non-Jewish workers would be used on the Shabbos work on the train system.
But then that became unworkable as certain expertise was required that only some of the Jewish employees of the transportation system were able to provide. Minister Katz tried tact by saying that the Shabbos work was a matter of pikuach nefesh, or saving lives, because parts of the train system, particularly in the Negev, were unsafe and could pose a danger to life.
Some have said that though this type of work on the rails has been going on for years with the participation of Jewish employees, it may have only burst out as a crisis because of the attention paid to it by the chareidi press. The pressure from editorialists on the matter of Shabbos desecration made it impossible to ignore, and therefore Rabbi Litzman had to make his move in the direction of bringing down the government and triggering a crisis all around.
For his part, Litzman said and did all the right things. He told the Times of Israel: “Citizens of Israel, throughout the generations, the Jewish people knew it must safeguard the Sabbath as a supreme value, and even to sacrifice one’s life for it. The holy Sabbath is the national day of rest, and we were raised to protect against desecrating the Sabbath. Unfortunately, in light of the great pain caused by the government’s work [on the Sabbath] carried out openly by Israel Railways for some time now, I’ve decided to resign my position as health minister. I cannot continue to bear ministerial responsibility as a minister of Israel while there is state-sanctioned public desecration of Shabbat, in contravention of the sacred values of the Jewish people, the status quo, and the coalition agreement.”
So what is the solution here that allows Shabbos to be properly observed and the railways in Israel to be safe? It is certainly not a good thing for Israel or Jews around the world for Shabbos observance to be handled cavalierly anywhere, but especially inside of Israel.
No, Shabbos is not just a family day, a day for shul and for dining with family and friends. In this busy, rough-and-tumble world of ours, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that Shabbos is an intangible sign between G-d and the Jewish people. It is a covenant and an eternal bond that both connects us to Him and also sets us apart and makes us unique. If we treat the day as everyone else around the world does–washing our cars and mowing our lawns–then I suppose we are not any different after all.
On Tuesday, the Israel Airport Authority (IAA) announced that they were planning to go out on strike for a 24-hour period over wage and labor issues. The IAA represents all employees at Ben-Gurion Airport. I was thinking of the people who I know who might be stranded both here in New York and at the airport as a result of the strike until I read the story a bit further. The union leaders announced that the strike would take place from Friday night until Saturday night, this coming weekend.
When I read the story in the Israeli press, I was already in the midst of writing this essay. It struck as an amazing thing–a labor strike where no one works for an entire Shabbos. It’s unintentional as well as a little backwards, but the end result is that if they cannot come to an agreement, these folks in Tel-Aviv will one way or another be observing Shabbos.
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