Light rail operations during Sabbath pose issues for Israeli leaders

Jewish religious law forbids all work from sunset on Friday until Saturday night

After more than six years of work, a successful test run was completed this week on the first line of Tel Aviv’s light rail network, but the question of whether to operate the system on the Jewish Sabbath is again posing a difficult religion and state dilemma for Israel’s leaders.

The red line is the first of three that will traverse the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area – home to almost a half of Israel’s population – together with three underground metro lines, in the country’s biggest-ever transport project. It is not due to start running until a year from now but is already causing controversy.

This week Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai made it clear that the system should run on Saturdays and Jewish holidays even though public transport throughout Israel stops on the Sabbath.

“This is an 18 billion shekel [€4.9 billion] project, and obviously we need to allow passengers to use it every day of the week. There is no question that it is vital,” he declared.


Under Jewish religious law all work is forbidden on the Sabbath, from sunset on Friday until Saturday night. It is forbidden to use electricity or drive a car. However, rabbis have permitted some creative compromises, such as the use of Shabbat (Sabbath) elevators in apartment towers and hotels, which stop automatically at every floor to satisfy the religious law requiring Jews to abstain from operating electrical switches.


Mr Huldai compared the light rail system to Shabbat elevators, arguing that the same leniency applied in Jewish law to automatic lifts could be applied to the light rail.

It is “like a horizontal Shabbat elevator”, Mr Huldai explained, “which stops automatically at every station”.

His comments were rejected out of hand by Orthodox leaders who noted that the light rail would move passengers between different locations and that tickets would have to be purchased.

"The Sabbath is an inalienable asset of the Jewish people throughout the ages and is not anybody's political tool," said Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

But Mr Huldai insisted the Sabbath status quo was no longer relevant. “The world has changed and concept of the status quo doesn’t exist anymore in public life.”

Even though Naftali Bennett is Israel’s first religiously observant prime minister and there are also a number of religious ministers, the current coalition is one of the few in Israel’s history without ultra-Orthodox parties. This fact has been seized upon by liberal commentators who want a decision now to operate the light rail seven days a week, noting that setting a precedent for the inaugural red line will likely be followed in the coming years when the network is expanded.