Breaking the Sabbath is Still an Issue in Israel

Was it really a matter of life and death for Bennett to visit Putin on the divinely-appointed day of rest?

Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a religious Jew, is being criticized at home for breaking the Sabbath to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the ongoing Ukraine war.
Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a religious Jew, is being criticized at home for breaking the Sabbath to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the ongoing Ukraine war. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Two private jets took off on Saturday morning from Israel to Russia. In one sat religious Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. in the other was religious Minister of Housing Ze’ev Elkin. Their mission, so they tell us, was “life-saving,” the only reason a Jew is allowed to desecrate this holy day.

Were any lives saved as a result of Bennett’s meeting with Vladimir Putin on the Sabbath? Not as far as we know. Do we know anything about the purpose for this meeting, or who initiated it? Apart from speculations, we don’t. If we are to believe Ha’aretz reporter Yossi Melman, the official purpose of the meeting was achieving a hopeful ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. However, he notes that it’s a difficult proposition to accept that Bennett, of all leaders, would be the one to convince Putin to halt the war. Rather, suggests Melman, Bennett is just a pawn in Putin’s game.

So, why fly to Russia on the Sabbath day? Again, if we are to believe Melman, who expresses the opinion of many, the real purpose of this trip was to “save” Bennett’s sinking reputation in Israel and abroad. That there was no real urgency to this meeting can be learned from The New York Times, which reported that “there was no immediate information about any outcome from the meeting.” In other words, there is good reason to believe that Melman is probably right. The meeting was primarily an attempt to restore Bennett’s faltering image.

To put the view of Ha’aretz on this matter in different words, the “life-saving” reason for desecrating the Sabbath was a deception designed to give the appearance of urgency in order to present Bennett as a leader on par with Benjamin Netanyahu. While doing so only in a tacit manner, this left-wing newspaper thus agreed with the perspective of the right-wing Bennett – that of a deceiver willing to do whatever it takes to seize power, including breaking one of Judaism’s most important values.

Bennett’s behavior brought to mind the 1979 film The Frisco Kid. For those who haven’t see it, this is a Western about Rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder), a lowly graduate student of a Polish Yeshiva, sent to San Francisco to deliver a Torah Scroll to the synagogue of that city. Innocent Avram falls prey to robbers who leave him with nothing except the Scroll. Avram then teams up with bank robber Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford), who agrees to take him to San Francisco. The movie tells the ordeals of the two in a charming way.

After Tommy robs a bank, the two are shown fleeing from a hanging posse. But when the Sabbath eve comes, the bewildered Tommy sees Avram dismount from his horse, unsaddling the beast and set up camp. Despite the life-threatening situation, Avram refuses to desecrate the Sabbath. But in order to save his life, he must make haste. So what shall he do? As a Yeshiva graduate, Avram knows a thing or two about bending a law, so he gives a new interpretation according to which the sun has set, and thus the Sabbath ended, when he can no longer see it.

Camping at the foot of a high mountain, Avram decides that Sabbath will end when the mountain hides the sun. But the posse is nearing, and the sun is setting too slowly. To speed things up, Avram bends down, thus making the mountain higher, and behold a miracle. The sun has set and the two can resume their escape, not a moment too soon. Avram’s way of breaking the Sabbath is both courageous and charming. He at least tried to observe it as long as he could. Bennett, in this light, is a parody of Avram, a type of a religious Jew who at sunrise would have taken his neckwear, covered his eyes, and galloped straight into the abyss.

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