Shabbat Demonstrations in Israel by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


This summer of 2009 was witness to yet another series of street demonstrations protesting public Shabbat desecration in Eretz Yisrael. As always debate emerged as to the efficacy and worthiness of such protests. In this essay we shall review the debate among Rabbanim regarding the protests that took place in Petach Tikvah during the mid-1980’s when a movie theater began to screen films on Friday nights. Protests were held for no less than thirty-three consecutive weeks on Friday nights until midnight with protestors screaming “Shabbat, Shabbat” at a site near the theater. This attracted much attention with counter protests as well as intense Israeli media coverage. Police protection was necessary as tensions and emotions ran high.

Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot 1:44) announced his support for the demonstrations while the longtime Sephardic Rav of Petach Tikvah, Rav Moshe Malca voiced his disapproval in essays that appear in volumes seven and eight of Techumin. In volume seven of this Torah journal, Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, a son-in-law of Rav Eliashiv and a Rav in neighboring Bnei Brak defended Rav Eliashiv’s position regarding this issue.

Talmudic Source for Street Protests

Although street protests would appear to be a “Nochri” practice, an episode is recorded in the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 19a) which I recall being cited in the 1970’s by activists on behalf of Jews living in the Soviet Union. The Gemara relates that the Roman government issued a decree forbidding Torah study and Brit Milah. The Jews visited a certain matron who was frequently visited by all prominent Roman officials. She advised the Jews to conduct protests at night. The Jews demonstrated and proclaimed “Aren’t we brothers, aren’t we the children of one father? Why are we treated differently than all other nations that you impose oppressive decrees on us?” The demonstrations succeeded as the Romans subsequently rescinded the decrees. This passage from the Gemara shows that it is appropriate at times to conduct street demonstrations to protest oppression. The question is whether it is worthwhile or counterproductive to protest public Chillul Shabbat in Israel today.

Lifnei Iveir

Among Rav Malca’s objections is the fact that conducting demonstrations on Friday night causes journalists and police to violate Shabbat. In addition, he notes that non-observant Jews turn on their televisions on Friday night to view scenes from the latest action in Petach Tikvah. Rav Malca argues that this constitutes a violation of the prohibition to cause others to sin, Lifnei Iveir Lo Titein Michshol (Vayikra 19:18). Rav Malca even objects to the practice in certain observant neighborhoods in Israel to close the streets in honor of Shabbat. He argues that this violates Linei Iveir since as a result drivers will drive their cars further in order to avoid those neighborhoods. He notes that every time a driver presses on the accelerator he violates the prohibition to create fire (Havarah) on Shabbat.

Rav Eliashiv in response cites Teshuvot Maharil Diskin (number 145 in the Kuntress Acharon) to prove that Lifnei Iveir is not violated by such demonstrations. Maharil Diskin writes that one who is being unjustly coerced to give of his money is not required to part with his money simply in order to spare the aggressor from violating the prohibition to steal. Rav Zilberstein writes about demonstrations:

This issue is similar to the problem of one who is accosted by a thief [on Shabbat] and he screams for help. Is he required to refrain on Shabbat to yell for help in order that the police not violate Shabbat? It appears that it is permissible for him to do so and he is not obligated to remain silent. The fact the police arrive in automobiles – he did not invite them and therefore it is not a sin to scream. The victim is not required to acquiesce to the theft only due to concern for the sins of the police that he did not order to come.

Rav Yisrael Rozen (Techumin 7:139-143), while not endorsing the Shabbat demonstrations and street closings, notes that one violates Lifnei Iveir only if there is a direct connection between the one who causes the sin and the one who sins. Indeed, the classic examples (Pesachim 22a) of Lifnei Iveir in the Gemara are one who brings wine to a Nazir or a limb from a living animal (Eiver Min Hachai) to a Nochri.

Rav Rozen cites a number of Teshuvot which support his argument. He cites Rav Moshe Feinstein’s permission (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:72) to rent out a catering hall to a couple who will conduct a wedding celebration that includes mixed dancing. Rav Moshe reasons “if this is forbidden then it should be forbidden to sell cooking utensils to non-observant Jews since they will cook non-kosher food with them and cook on Shabbat”. Rav Rozen cites Teshuvot Maharsham (2:184) who permits renting a store to a non-observant barber who will open his business on Shabbat. Finally, he cites Rav Shmuel Eliazri (HaTorah Vehamedinah 7-8:141) who permits a Beit Din to release a Get certificate to a woman who will use the certificate to marry someone she is forbidden to marry.

Rav Rozen concludes, therefore, that closing streets for Shabbat does not violate Lifnei Iveir and

“If the protest organizers have no connection to the police action and would certainly accept the police not being present, and they are not pleased by the police presence, and on the other hand there is good reason in the opinion of the protestors to demonstrate on Shabbat, then in my opinion there is no concern for Lifnei Iveir and Mesayei’ah (the possible rabbinic prohibition to assist another to sin, even in situations where Lifnei Iveir is not violated).

Rav Malca – Why Such Demonstrations are Counterproductive

Rav Malca notes that the purpose of demonstrations in Israel is the fulfillment of the Mitzvah of offering words of reproof (Tochachah) to one who sins (Vayikra 19:17) and that the parameters of this Mitzvah must be explored to arrive at a proper decision regarding public protests. Rav Malca marshals three points in the Rema and Biur Halacha to argue against demonstrations in Israel today, since they most likely will have little effect and serve only to heighten tensions between religious and observant Jews.

Rav Malca cites the Rema (Orach Chaim 608:2) who writes that “If one knows that his words will not be heeded, he should not reprove a large group more than once. He should not excessively reprove them since he knows they will not listen to him”. Thus, Rav Malca argues that no more than one demonstration should be conducted not on Shabbat. He also cites the Biur Halacha (608 s.v. Aval) who states that the obligation to reprove applies only to those who sin occasionally. However, “those who have completely forsaken the Torah such as those who publicly desecrate Shabbat or eat non-kosher even when kosher food is easily obtainable are not categorized as a ‘colleague’ [whom one is obligated to reprove] and one is not obligated to criticize him”. Sadly, this applies to many Israelis today. Finally, the Biur Halacha (ad. loc. s.v. Chayav Lehochicho) cites the Sefer Chassidim (section 413) who states “One should offer words of reproof only to those with whom one enjoys a close relationship. However, if the sinner is a stranger who will hate you if you criticize him, one should refrain from reproof”.

The Necessity of Such Demonstrations

        Rav Eliashiv was shown Rav Malca’s remarks and responded as follows: “I do not understand why the Mitzvah of Tochachah is relevant, does one think demonstrations are conducted to fulfill the Mitzvah of Tochachah? I am amazed, behold the matter is obvious that had everyone excused himself with [merely] fulfilling the Mitzvah of Tochachah then the stores, public transportation etc. would operate on Shabbat as they do during the week, and there would be nothing left of Shabbat. The goal of the demonstrations is to stop the spread of the plague of the destruction of Shabbat. This is what is left for God fearing individual who tremble at His words to protest and demonstrate on behalf of the holiness of Shabbat”.

Rav Zilberstein adds “Just as it is obvious that if someone enters his private domain and desecrates Shabbat we are obligated to protest, so too we must protest on our streets lest there be ‘breaches and cries’”. Moreover, he argues that the demonstration is conducted for the benefit of the demonstrators, thus the fact that it does not prevent violation of Shabbat is irrelevant. He notes the deleterious spiritual effects of witnessing Shabbat desecration based on Bava Batra 57b and Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 156. When an editor of Techumin, Rav Uri Dasberg, commented that one should simply avoid the streets where the Chillul Shabbat occurs, Rav Zilberstein responded “Behold a third of Petach Tikvah’s residents are observant. Should they be required to stay home and not attend shuls and Batei Midrash and only those who defame Torah should be entitled to transverse the streets on Shabbat? Behold Eretz Yisrael is given to us to live a Torah life, is this proper that we should be required to remain sequestered in our homes for Shabbat?

Rav Malca responded to Rav Eliashiv by firmly standing his ground “rejecting any demonstrations on Shabbat itself that increase public Chillul Shabbat on a large scale and have no effect other than to sharpen [the divide] in the relationships between the two camps and cause the secular to fight us.”

Concluding Thoughts

Rav Malca approach reflects a typical non-confrontational Sephardic approach to non-observant Jews. The approach has been to welcome non-observant Jews to the community with the hope that either they or their children will come closer to Torah. This approach has been fairly successful in that very few non-observant Sephardic Jews are members of non-Orthodox congregations and the great majority affiliate with an Orthodox congregation. As one non-observant Sephardic Jew remarked to me “one must respect the Torah law, even if one does not fully observe it”. Moreover, the Sephardic community both in Israel and in the exile is in the midst of a significant religious resurgence in far greater numbers than Ashkenzic Jews, as most non-observant Sephardic families were never completely alienated from Torah life as rabbis and the community informally “gave them their space”.

Religious Zionists in turn, since the time of Rav Kook, have followed his call to partner with secular Jews in the task of nation building. Rav Kook advocated avoiding a confrontational relationship with non-observant Jews as this is hardly a manner to develop a partnership (see, for example, Letters of Rav Kook number 555). Thus, Religious Zionists, generally speaking do not participate in Shabbat demonstrations. Non-Zionist observant Jews (Chareidim), on the other hand, view their mission in Israel as striving to create and preserve the Jewish and Torah character of Eretz Yisrael to the greatest extent possible.


Those who protest assertively voice their objection to public Chillul Shabbat. On the other hand, those who do not participate in these demonstrations must remember that a secular lifestyle is not an acceptable alternative for a Jew. Orthodox Jews by very definition believe that the Torah is divinely revealed and that desecration of the Shabbat constitutes the grave sin of violating the covenant between us and Hashem. Although we do not demonstrate against those who drive on Shabbat we should be deeply disturbed by Chillul Shabbat. Tolerance is tantamount to acceptance and thus one should not tolerate Chillul Shabbat even if one believes that public demonstrations are counterproductive.

On the other hand, I offer the following challenge to the community that engages in such demonstrations. Rav Simcha Kook (in an essay supportive of Rav Eliashiv’s approach to demonstrations that appears in Techumin volume seven) stresses that such demonstrations must be coordinated and guided by the community leaders and should not be a grass roots movement. If demonstrators act in an overly aggressive manner, they should be subjected to severe rebuke from the leaders of the Chareidi community.

In addition, it is obvious that these demonstrations would not be held if (God forbid) the Turks or the British would still be governing Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, Chareidim do not engage in similar protests in Brooklyn, Montreal or Antwerp. The fact that they engage in such demonstrations only in Jewish-ruled Eretz Yisrael clearly demonstrates that they consider themselves to be a part of the broader Israeli community with a right and obligation to not only impact themselves but also, as Rav Eliashiv explicitly states, impact all Jewish residents of Eretz Yisrael. This would argue for greater Chareidi participation in Israeli communal life such as military service in the Nachal Chareidi for young men who do not truly devote themselves to full-time Torah study.

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