Israel’s plant nurseries face stiff fines for employing Jews on Shabbat

‘Now it’s our turn,’ fumes owner of garden center as Economy Ministry targets the industry over resting hours law

Nursery flowers watered with drip irrigation in Israel. (Martin Fischer/CC/via JTA)
Nursery flowers watered with drip irrigation in Israel. (Martin Fischer/CC/via JTA)

A plant nursery has been forced to close on Shabbat after it was notified that it would have to pay huge fines if it continues to employ Jewish employees on Saturdays.

According to a Facebook post earlier this week by Galit Or, an employee of the Saloner Nursery in central Israel, the nursery was warned it would face a NIS 321,000 penalty ($83,000) for violating the prohibition on working on Shabbat, which is part of the Hours of Work and Rest Law.

The law, which aims to protect employees from exploitation, dates back to 1951 and is loosely enforced. Many businesses considered houses of entertainment (cinemas, theaters etc.) are allowed open on Saturdays, while other businesses compensate employees working on Shabbat with higher pay. Other businesses, by their nature, must remain active also on weekends and holidays.

Or and other employees at the nursery are standing by the owners, she wrote on Facebook.

“We need to work on Shabbat – we also want to work on Shabbat!” she wrote. “A significant part of our income is the substantial extra money we are paid for working on Shabbat and as a result [of the proposed measure] our wages stand to be significantly hurt. We may seem like a small group, but if you put together all the people working in nurseries across Israel, the number is not insignificant.”

Owners Tzipi and Brian Saloner, both in their late 50s, are trained agronomists and their three children are part of the family business. Tzipi said she and her husband were surprised to receive the Ministry of Economy’s letter threatening to fine their nursery and said that the couple have decided to close on Shabbat because “we cannot afford” the potential fines.

The ministry portfolio is currently held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Closing the nursery, Tzipi Saloner told Ynet, “harms us and our loyal employees who have been with us for 20 and 30 years. It means harming the whole culture of gardening in Israel.”

Families with children spend many Saturdays at the nursery, Tzipi said. “Families teach their kids the names of flowers and plants. I respect anyone who decides to spend their Shabbat in a synagogue or in a cinema, but I don’t think the government should decide that people cannot spend time in a nursery.”

The owner of another garden center said that the Ministry of Economy is targeting a different sector every time and now it’s the turn of nurseries.

“I can open the business on Shabbat, but I’m not allowed to employ Jews, and as the owner I’m not allowed to be here,” Nir Almagor, owner of the Izraela Nursery on Kibbutz Yifat told Ynet.

“[Inspectors] came to us and checked the religion of each and every employee – it’s something we never even thought about. Afterwards, they summon the business owner for questioning in the enforcement department of the Ministry of Economy and tell them they are violating the working and resting hours law, regardless of how much money the employees were paid.”

Almagor said nurseries make a large part of their income on Saturdays.

“What saves me now is the website we set up, where people buy things on Shabbat,” he said.

Almagor’s nursery used to make 60% of its income on Saturdays alone. Now, he dares not open for fear that he be forced to pay fines that would lead to bankruptcy. Apart from a massive general fine, a business owner is also fined NIS 37,500 ($9,600) for each Jewish employee who is working on Shabbat.

The Ministry of Economy said in a statement that the law “comes to the defense of employees to allow them one day of rest per week on which they cannot be obligated by employers to work. This is socially minded legislation that existed and has been enforced for dozens of years. The law does not prohibit the opening of businesses on Shabbat but only the employment of employees on their weekly day of rest – Jews on the Shabbat and non-Jews according to their faiths.”

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