Israeli society has been riven by deep disagreement – not about the occupied territories or Iran – but whether to extend the country’s weekend.
The latest debate was opened by the country’s Vice-Prime-Minister, Silvan Shalom, who recently proposed that Israel’s parliament enact legislation to make Sunday an official day off along with the traditional Saturday.
Like many cultures, Israel’s weekend grew out of the idea of a day of rest – the Sabbath, or seventh day – as decreed by religious scripture.
For observant Jews this has meant not only a Saturday with no work, but also a day with 38 prohibited activities – no driving, no cooking, no shopping, no swimming. In short, some would say: no fun.
Since the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) begins at sundown on Friday (and runs until sundown on Saturday) and since so many activities are forbidden on Shabbat, there are a lot of things that must be done in preparation on Fridays – such as shopping, cooking, cleaning and bathing.
This has led to Friday being recognized as a half-day of work only.
Hence, the latest argument: If Sunday is added to the weekend, what happens to Friday? And if Friday becomes the second day off instead, what happens to the fun?
And if both days are added, as many Israelis are hoping, what happens to the economy?
Mr. Shalom reportedly put forward his proposal as a way to win votes in the country’s growing religious community. He counted on them wanting a day at the beach just like the two-thirds of the country that don’t strictly observe Shabbat.
What he hadn’t counted on was the backlash from religious leaders once they found out that what the Lord giveth on Sunday, he can taketh away on Friday. Making Friday a slightly longer working half-day was also part of the Shalom plan. But this will cut into the time people need to prepare for Shabbat, the rabbis railed.
Mr. Shalom, who seeks to be the next Likud prime minister, has lots of other details in the fine print of his proposal – such as lengthening the work days of Monday to Thursday, and lengthening the school days beyond 1 p.m.
It probably was no coincidence that, earlier this week, in the midst of all the debate, Israeli archeologists announced the discovery of a rock with an ancient inscription in Hebrew of the word “Shabbat.” Scholars say the rock was a boundary marker, one of several that would have denoted the bounds within which Jews could travel without violating Sabbath rules.
More likely, some people here think, the rock was part of the same old argument about the weekend, with some people lining up behind the Shabbat-only rock and others behind the rock with another day off added.
A survey of today’s Israelis indicate that 73 per cent favour the idea of taking Sunday off.
“The public likes the idea of working less,” explained a cynical Haaretz economics columnist Nehemia Shtrasler. “If someone were to suggest lengthening the rest days to include Mondays as well, it would win 100 per cent agreement.”
In fact, Israeli society is torn about the whole thing. The manufacturers’ association is opposed to the idea of adding Sunday to the weekend, while the Chamber of Commerce likes the idea of Israel’s days off being in sync with weekends in most Western countries. The Bank of Israel shudders at the thought of lost productivity, while the country’s biggest labour organization is divided.
As the list of critics grows, it appears Mr. Shalom will have to find another election ploy, and the folks at the antiquities department can put that Shabbat stone back in the ground – along with the records of this latest weekend debate – to be uncovered by future archeologists when the debate again rages.