Tel Aviv ordered to ensure businesses are closed on Shabbat

Until it changes its own laws, Supreme Court judges say, municipality must properly enforce them, not issue trifling fines for offenders

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Illustrative: A man shops at a Rami Levy supermarket. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: A man shops at a Rami Levy supermarket. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the Tel Aviv Municipality to take action against businesses operating on Shabbat. In their verdict in a lawsuit filed by small businesses, the judges said the symbolic fines issued to those breaking the law weren’t enough and demanded the municipality “enforce the law.”

Tel Aviv, often known as “The City that Never Sleeps,” is famous for being Israel’s most cosmopolitan city and residents boast that it is the only city where you can go shopping 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Since it is against the law in Israel to operate retail businesses starting sunset on Friday and throughout the Jewish Sabbath, businesses that remain open are frequently forced to pay a small fine of several hundred shekels.

Supreme Court President Justice Asher Grunis, his deputy Miriam Naor and justice Elyakim Rubinstein, on Tuesday, overturned a ruling by the Tel Aviv magistrate’s court following an appeal by small businesses and the local merchants union, who argued that the fines issued to offenders put smaller businesses at a disadvantage.

While large co-ops like Tiv-Ta’am and AM:PM could afford to pay the fines, they become exorbitant for private mini-marts, the plaintiffs claimed.

The magistrate’s court had ruled it was up to the city to determine its policies.

Naor wrote that the municipal law was clear, as it required businesses that wished to open on Saturday to apply for a special permit. In reality, she wrote, “the municipality makes do with ridiculous fines of a few hundred shekels per week, and the chains reached the conclusion they’re better off paying it and continuing to operate on Shabbat.”

Naor wrote that the municipality could decide whether it wishes to allow businesses to open on the day of rest, but then it “must change the municipal law.” It was unacceptable, she said, to conduct a policy which meant the city was essentially ignoring its own regulations.

Tel Aviv City Hall issued a statement in response, saying it would study the ruling but would ensure the city remained “free.” “We will find a solution that will balance Shabbat rest with the freedom the city has always offered,” read the statement.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who’s running for Tel Aviv’s mayoralty, said the court exposed “the problematic policy” of the city, which “milked the residents and small businesses using fines and taxes.”

“The current situation, in which the municipality doesn’t enforce its own laws, and also makes a profit from it, can’t continue,” Horowitz wrote on Facebook. It was time to amend the municipal laws so that some businesses could operate lawfully on the weekend, he said, noting he “wanted to safeguard” Saturday as a day of rest, while taking into consideration those who wished to use the day for shopping, hiking or other activities.

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