On May 3, 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin hobbled into a crowded Knesset chamber, tense with expectancy. He was in pain, recovering from a severe hip injury, and it was with heavy, purposeful steps that he arrived to deliver his El Al speech. He began quietly, factually, declaring that the government had finally decided to halt all El Al flights on Shabbos and festivals – a revelation that sent leftist eyes glaring and hatred flashing in the public gallery where the El Al union men sat.
A sudden restlessness seized the opposition benches, erupting in spasms of heckling: “What about football (soccer) matches on Shabbat?” bawled one man. “Are you going to stop all Jewish merchant ships at sea, too?” shouted another. The derision did not faze the premier one bit. On the contrary, it supplied him with new inspirations of vitriolic wit.
“Shout as much as you will,” he ribbed, his bespectacled eyes scanning the opposition faces. “I have nothing to say to you and your kind, Mr. (Yossi) Sarid,” he said, with a glance that could wither. But then, Begin, who believed in oratory as the supreme artful weapon, changed his tone. “Forty years ago I returned from exile to Eretz Yisrael,” he said. “Engraved in my memory are the lives of millions of Jews, simple, ordinary folk, eking out a livelihood in that forlorn Diaspora where the storms of anti-Semitism raged. They were not permitted to work on the Christian day of rest, and they refused to work on their day of rest. For they lived by the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’ Each week they forswore two whole days of hard-won bread. This meant destitution for many. But they would not desecrate the Sabbath day.”
The hissing and jeering began anew, but Begin, to the delight of his supporters, applied his power of mimicry to full use by calmly raising his right hand as if to catch a ball, toss it back, and resume his rhetorical flow. “Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity,” he said, his voice husky with emotion. “It originated with us. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew of a day of rest. Ancient Egypt had a great culture whose treasures are on view to this day, yet the Egypt of antiquity did not know of a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and the arts, yet they did not know of a day of rest. Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law still relevant to this day, yet they did not know of a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China – none of them knew of a day of rest.”
“So, put on a yarmulke,” sneered Sarid. “CHUTZPAH!” boomed Begin, bristling. “I speak of our people’s most hallowed values, and you dare stoop to mockery! Shame on you!” Then, arms up, fists balled, he thundered with the devotion of a disciple and the fire of a champion. “One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai. Ours was the nation that enthroned Shabbat as our sovereign Queen.”
A crescendo of approval from the government benches sent the rafters rattling, muffling every last vestige of dissent. And he, the Great Commoner, caught up on the wave of his own sense of mission, rose to a pitch of almost uncontrollable fervor, and thundered on. “So, are we, in our own Jewish state, to allow our blue-and-white El Al planes to fly about broadcasting to the world that there is no Shabbat in Israel? Should we now deliver a message to all through our blue-and-white El Al planes – ‘No, don’t remember the Sabbath day. Forget the Sabbath day! Desecrate the Sabbath day.’ I shudder at the thought.”
The ensuing ruckus was terrific. The Knesset speaker vainly banged his gavel, until Begin himself raised his palms and then lowered them gently, once, twice, thrice, until the furor quieted down. “Know this,” he told the crowd, “We cannot assess the religious, national, social, historical, and ethical values of the Sabbath day by the yardstick of financial loss or gain. In our revived Jewish state we cannot engage in such calculations when dealing with an eternal and cardinal value of the Jewish people – Shabbat – for which our ancestors were ready to give their lives.” He was about to sit down when he turned back and concluded, “One thing more. One need not be a pious Jew to accept this principle. One need only be a proud Jew.”
The Speaker bellowed that he was putting the prime minister’s statement to a vote, and instructed the tellers to start counting. The tally was 58 in favor and 54 against, and Menachem Begin exhaled a long sigh of relief as he limped his way out of the Knesset hall.