See my comment at the end of this posting for an update on the actual fining of stores that opened on Shabbat.
Only in Israel would the hourly news report a storm brewing over whether book stores will indeed violate the Shabbat closing laws and open for sale late Friday night. The cause celebre is the world launching of the final Harry Potter book at 12:01 am July 21 British time, which comes out in Israel on the morning of Shabbat Hazon, at 02:01 am. Eli Yishai, the haredi Shas minister for the Ministry of Industry and Labor, “warns stores over Harry Potter book launch.”
It is within Yishai’s purview to send out non-Jewish (usually Druze) inspectors to fine, indict, and possibly imprison Jewish store owners who open on Shabbat in contravention of the law. (There is a dual prohibition: against opening stores, and against employing Jews on Shabbat).
This led me to ruminate on the subject of religious coercion, a topic treated soberly this week in the Jerusalem Post by YU mashgiach (spiritual guidance counselor) Rabbi Yosef Blau in his op ed “Separation of state and religion? A bad idea.”
I personally opt for educating people about Shabbat, but I can understand the case for “coercion” of Shabbat laws. [In democratic Switzerland, the law forbids you to hang laundry and wash your car in public on Sundays].
When we will read the “curses” in Ki Tavo a few weeks hence, the very last curse is unusual: “Aror asher lo yakim et divrey hatorah Hazot la’asot otam…” (Devarim 27:26). Artscroll: “Accursed is one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them.” One kushiya is in the term lo yakim (literally one who will not uphold) – the verse could have said lo yishmor, lo y’kayaim, lo yishma [will not keep, will not observe, will not listen to]. Why the unusual term (causitive,hif’il ) lo yakim meaning “one who does not make the law stand up”? Ramban takes this to mean to enforce or coerce study/observance. Ramban:
Due to this verse asher lo yakim, King Josiah rent his clothes [when he read this verse because since he was king, he felt it his responsibility to re-institute the authority of the Law], saying, “The duty is upon me to stand up (enforce, coerce) the Law”…..Even if a person learned and taught Torah, observed and fulfilled its commandments, but had the means to enable [others to study/observe the Torah] and did not do so – he is included within the curse. Thus the Rabbis interpreted this “standing up” of the Torah as referring to the royal house and that of the Nasi who have the power to uphold the authority of the Torah over those who annul it. And even if he were a perfectly righteous man in his own deeds, but he could have strengthened the Torah against the power of the wicked ones who annul it [but failed to do so], he is accursed.
Here is another approach: rather than enforcing Shabbat observance by closing stores, Israel should pass a law in the spirit of “goy sheshavat hayav mitta” – a hyperbole expressing the idea that a non-Jew who keeps the Sabbath deserves capital punishment. See Maimonides’ formulation in Laws of the King, 10:9. Rabbi Elhanan Adler wrote a fascinating analysis of the rationale of this law in Tradition a few years ago. This concept is based on the Shabbat being a special gift to the Jewish people, an intimacy between Hashem and His people that does not suffer interlopers. So perhaps the state of Israel should forbid Sabbath observance to all, except for bona fide Jews, and should require people to shop til they drop on Shabbat.
Then Israelis who kvetch about “religious coercion” might appreciate the unique gift we have in Shabbat. They might even forego rushing to purchase Harry Potter at 2 am Shabbos morning.
P.S. It is now motzei Shabbat. See Haaretz article that reports that some stores were indeed fined.