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Israeli Politicians in Hot Water over Sabbath Rules

Israeli Politicians in Hot Water over Sabbath Rules

A first-time visitor to Israel will notice something different on Friday afternoons: Much of the country shuts down on Friday afternoon—and doesn’t reopen until either Saturday evening or perhaps Sunday morning. In larger hotels and in hospitals, there’s a special “Sabbath elevator,” which stops at every floor, allowing observant Jews to move from one level to another without doing the “work” of pressing a button to indicate their stop.

Such exacting measures have their reason: Israel, which has proclaimed itself a “Jewish state,” supports those who observe the seventh-day Sabbath instituted in Genesis chapter 2 and codified in the Ten Commandments. Seeing businesses close and watching residents prepare for the day of rest is a pleasant sight in a world where the Bible Sabbath is rarely elevated to such cherished status.

But it’s important to note that while a “Jewish state,” Israel is not a “religious” state. Even though much of the nation closes on the Sabbath, such closures are not mandatory in every circumstance. Some stores, restaurants, and other venues open on Sabbath for a variety of reasons; water parks, zoos, and other family activities are also open on the seventh day of the week. That’s because many Israelis are secular and use the Sabbath day as a family day.

Secular-Orthodox Tensions Rise

The tensions between more-secular Jews and those who are highly observant has been a part of Israeli life since before the state was even formed. During the British occupation, Jews who were compelled to travel on the Sabbath were pelted with stones or spat upon when they crossed into orthodox neighborhoods.

Now, the orthodox comprise roughly 12 percent of Israel’s population, up from 5 percent in 1990, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. By the year 2030, that share of the population will grow to 16 percent, the newspaper reported.

Those percentages are significant because orthodox Jewish residents and religious leaders in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv that has 154,000 residents, are up in arms over a just-launched Sabbath-day bus service. This service will make it possible for residents of Ramat Gan to ride a bus to and from Tel Aviv—noted for its nightlife, dining, cultural activities, and Mediterranean coastline—on the Sabbath, providing an outlet previously denied secular Jewish residents who don’t own a car.

By doing this, ultraorthodox Jewish politicians say the mayor “has crossed the red line … staining the city of Ramat Gan with the destruction of religious values and the sanctity of Shabbat,” as the Sabbath is called in Hebrew.

And as the Journal notes, it’s not only bus schedules that can spark conflict: “Fights over observing the Sabbath have played out across the country. The ultraorthodox have launched a boycott of a glass bottle company that operates on the Sabbath, delayed weekend construction projects, and held up at least one city budget in protest.”

The paper added, “The disputes between religious and secular Jews are fraught with emotion, as the sides try to balance the needs and norms of a modern state with the Jewish tradition at the heart of Israel’s identity.”

What’s a Christian to Do?

It’s not the purpose—or the place—of this blog to suggest what the state of Israel should do about these matters. Those decisions are for the people and leaders of Israel to make.

The dedication many Israelis have to the Sabbath, whether they are orthodox or not, is admirable. In a world where 24/7 seems to apply to everything from news cycles to shopping, it’s refreshing to see a society where many, if not most, of the citizens separate themselves from more pedestrian pursuits one day in seven.

For those who follow not only the Old Testament command to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8–11) but also do so in light of the New Testament’s account of how Jesus and His disciples kept the Sabbath, there might be a bit more latitude in how the Sabbath commandment is interpreted.

In urban areas, many Christians who keep the Sabbath will use public transportation to attend services if they don’t live close enough to their congregation to walk. Others who own cars will drive to church instead.

In Mark 2:27, we read Jesus’ response to religious leaders who questioned something the disciples did on the Sabbath. While walking through a field, the hungry disciples plucked some grain and ate. Doing this was considered “work” under the Old Testament system.

In response, Jesus noted that King David went into the temple and used the showbread, which is consecrated for religious use, to feed himself and his troops in an emergency. Equating this with what the disciples did in the field of grain, Jesus declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

That does not mean, of course, that God wants us to just run off and do whatever we wish on the Sabbath. His plan for us is to rest, to worship, to connect with family, and also to enjoy nature as far as possible. If a bus or a car is involved, or necessary, the Christian will use these.

When it comes to maintaining family ties on the Sabbath, our free article “Sabbath—A Family Day” is a good place to start. But feel free to look around the entire website for more ideas about the Sabbath and resources to help you enjoy the special day that God has set aside for us!

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