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Israel: Harry Potter does not observe the Sabbath?

The synchronized worldwide launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, fell at 2:01 a.m. local time in Israel, during the Jewish Sabbath, when Israeli law requires most businesses to close. Nevertheless, Steimatzky, Israel's biggest bookstore chain, held a gala event in the Tel-Aviv port, launching the book at the appointed hour. The Minister of Industry, Commerce and Employment, Eli Ishai, requested from major book stores in Israel not to begin sales of the new Harry Potter book during the Sabbath, but rather to delay it until the end of the Sabbath. He intends to place a fine and prosecute stores which will violate the basic Israeli law for working hours.

Steimatzky, ran the event as planned, drawing thousands of anxious fans late last night. Israeli law forbids employment of Jewish labor at the time of Sabbath. But in reality, there are growing number of businesses open and fully active during the Sabbath. Even if fined, it is still highly profitable for most to stay open on the supposed day of rest. However, in contrast to many people's beliefs, the purpose of this law is not solely religious, but also contains social intentions, protecting employees from their bosses. The legislator felt the importance of giving every employee, secular or religious, the right for one rest day per week, to spend with family. But in such competitive, capitalistic settings, when there is strong demand for leisure during the weekend, it will be met by market forces, even if it means receiving some monetary losses from enforced fines. The overall profit usually exceeds that loss.

An Israeli blogger describes some of the complexities of this law :

זה לא סוד שלאורך שנים נפערות שוב ושוב מחלוקות קשות בין דתיים לחילוניים בנוגע לדרך התנהלות סדרים מסוימים במדינה, ובפרט בנושא השבת שהוא עניין בעייתי במיוחד. חוק שעות עבודה ומנוחה קובע את השבת כיום מנוחה וטומן בחובו איסור מפורש על עסקים מסחריים לפעול בשבת, אולם המציאות בישראל כיום מוכיחה שאיסור זה אינו נאכף כמעט לחלוטין.ראו מה קורה היום – ההפקרות חוגגת: יותר ויותר עסקים נפתחים בשבת, מרכזי קניות ומתחמים גדולים פועלים ללא הפרעה וכתוצאה מכך נוצרת תחרות קשה בין רשתות-ענק לבין עסקים עצמאיים קטנים הסופגים הפסדים רבים כיוון שלא יכולים להרשות לעצמם להעסיק עובדים בשבת.

נשאלת השאלה: האם זה הוגן להפעיל את החוק באופן סלקטיבי כזה – האם הטלת קנסות על חנויות הספרים שיפיצו את הארי פוטר בשבת זה מה שישנה את כל זה? האם זה מה שיציל את דמותה של השבת בפרהסיה? מדוע דווקא עכשיו בוחר השר לשחק אותה סופרמן שרץ להציל את דמותה של השבת מידיהם של החוטאים והכופרים? איפה נמצאים אלי ישי ורביץ כל שבת כאשר המוני בני ישראל צובאים על מרכזי הקניות ההומים?… הגיע הזמן שתאכפו את החוק כמו שצריך, או שתמשיכו לא להתערב כפי שעשיתם עד עכשיו.

עוד תהייה שעולה אצלי היא, האם השר הנכבד היה מגיב באותה צורה אלמלא היה מדובר בספר שלכאורה קורא תגר על האמונה הדתית.
האם אין גבול לצביעות?…

Its not a secret that over the years, complex disagreements emerge between the religious and secular citizens, with regards to the way certian issues are handled in this country, the topic of Sabbath is especially problematic. Israeli law determines the Sabbath as a day of rest, and explicitly forbids commercial entities from operating during that time. In reality, this law is hardly enforced. Look at what is happening today. More and more businesses are open on Saturday, shopping centers and other commercial areas operate without interference, and as a result, there exists tough competition between the larger chain-stores and the small independent businesses, who absorb many losses as they cannot afford to employ workers on Saturday (and absorb fines).

I question how appropriate it is to operate this law in such a selective way – is it solving anything by placing fines on book stores that sell Harry Potter on Saturday? Will this actually save the public face of Sabbath? Why does the minister choose this specific moment to save the face of Sabbath from sinners by acting like a superhero? Where is Eli Ishai and Ravitz every Saturday when masses of Israelis gather at shopping malls? It is time that you enforce the law properly, or continue your non-intervention.

I still wonder if the minister would react in the same manner if the sold book did not publically criticize religious beliefs. Is there no limit for hypocrisy?

Following is an image of one of the posters placed in the event space, which drew thousands of excited fans to buy the book early Saturday morning.
Harry Potter sales event during Sabbath in the Tel Aviv port

5 comments

  • […] My latest Global Voices Online post examines the Israeli law which forbids businesses to run during the time of Sabbath. Over the past week there has been rising anticipation towards the planned Harry Potter gala event, which was synchronized worldwide to 2am local time, Friday night, smack in the midst of the Jewish Sabbath. The law itself is extremely problematic, in a country like Israel which is becoming more and more capitalistic. in current day Israel, many businesses are open during the Sabbath (unlike a mere 15 years ago when I was growing up there…). They are willing to soak up the cost of the fine received for working on Saturday, since the profit is so much higher. There was definitely no worry about Steimatzky, Israel’s largest bookstore, canceling the event because of threats from the religious parties in the government. Still thousands of excited fans came to the Tel-Aviv port to participate in the event! […]

  • Laws imposing religious observances are obviously wrong, and it is ridiculous to expect people to obey bans on doing business like this if they want to.

  • Wow, interesting! The book wasn’t even sold in Morocco and probably won’t be for a few months.

  • Isn’t trying to make this to be a labour issue/workers rights issue a way of trying to make Israel seem more secular than it is? It almost seems apologetic…

  • Shira

    Mohamed –

    Around 72% of Israelis define themselves as secular. Most of my friends in Israel have never entered a synagogue in their lives. There has never been a religious prime minister of Israel, either. The religious political parties represent a small sector of the population; however, due to the structure of the Israeli parliamentary system, they have power that is far in excess of their numbers. This is a source of tension between the secular majority and the religious minority.

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