Jewish Shabbat rules are tested by Gaza war in Israel

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When Israeli forces rescued four hostages held by Hamas in Gaza this month, it dominated the news that Saturday, but Jerusalem resident Eliana Gurfinkiel, an observant Jew, didn’t find out until nightfall.

The French-Israeli was following the rules of Shabbat and not using her phone. Hearing the news after everyone else “made no difference”, she said.

In Israel, life typically slows down on the weekly day of rest, but since Hamas’s October 7 attack and with the ongoing war in Gaza, some Shabbat rules have been turned upside down.

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The Shabbat begins Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday at nightfall. During that time, strict adherents to Jewish law avoid work or any actions that require energy, such as turning on lights or driving.

While Gurfinkiel waited, others couldn’t, with posts on social media showing some Israelis passing handwritten messages to their practising neighbours to tell them of the rescue.

Not everyone approved, with an ultra-Orthodox website reporting that one man wrote back to his neighbours thanking them but asking them not to repeat what he believed was a sacrilegious act.

While the rescue brought great joy in Israel, according to the health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza the operation killed at least 274 Palestinians and wounded around 700 others.

‘Bit of stress’

Gurfinkiel said that ever since the Hamas attack on October 7, “there has been a little bit of stress at the end of every Shabbat when we turn our phones back on”.

The unprecedented attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants abducted 251 hostages to Gaza, of whom 116 remain there, including 42 the military says are dead.

Israel’s withering retaliatory campaign since then has killed at least 37,718 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data from Hamas-run Gaza’s health ministry.

In the early hours of October 7, rocket sirens rang out warning of the attack, which started with a missile barrage.

Some Israelis switched on their phones to learn whether they or their loved ones were in danger, while others jumped into their cars to fight the militants.

The Jewish concept of “pikuach nefesh” -- “saving a soul” in Hebrew -- allows Jews to break the rules of the Shabbat when a life is in danger, according to Yonathan Seror, a rabbi in Tel Aviv.

“If there’s a chance to save a life, we’d rather save it than keep the Shabbat,” he told AFP.

Silent radio

Exact interpretations of Shabbat rules differ, but many ultra-Orthodox families leave their radios switched on and tuned to a station that remains silent except for major alerts.

In the weeks following October 7, Seror advised his congregants to keep their phones on during the Shabbat, but those were “temporary permissions” and no longer apply, he said.

Nevertheless, exceptions to the Shabbat that are not “pikuach nefesh” are happening as the war drags on, said Nitzan Perelman, a sociology doctoral student at Paris Cite University.

Efi, a mother of two soldiers on the frontlines in Gaza who declined to give her last name, said the day of rest had become nerve-racking due to the lack of news.

“Saturdays are the most stressful,” she said. “We don’t use the phone and don’t know what’s going on, but I leave the device on.”

If the device stays mostly silent, she said, “I know everything is fine. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to live on Shabbat.”

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For many in Israel, the Shabbat also provides a much-needed break from politics as lawmakers and state officials of all stripes avoid making announcements.

On October 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video at midday announcing that his country was “at war”, a message that did not provoke complaints.

Yet when Netanyahu visited the hostages freed on June 8 without waiting for the end of the Shabbat, he drew sharp criticism from the ultra-Orthodox daily newspaper Hamevasser.

The previous Saturday, Netanyahu’s office had sent a statement in response to a declaration by US President Joe Biden about a ceasefire proposal.

In contrast, his far-right and religious allies, ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, waited until nightfall to criticise the plans.

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