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Israel turns back clock for Yom Kippur, sparking debate

By Joel Greenberg
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 10:25 PM

IN TEL AVIV Gil Leibowitz was heading down to the beach on a recent evening to "clear his head," as he put it, with a walk, a run and a sunset swim - the software engineer's after-work summer ritual.

It was about 6:30 p.m., in the last hour of light before the sun dropped into the Mediterranean.

On Sunday, Leibowitz's routine, and those of many Israelis, will be disrupted when Israel abruptly goes off daylight saving time well before summer weather ends, bringing darkness before 6 p.m. even as temperatures linger in the 80s.

"This is going to kill off my fun," Leibowitz said. "There's no point in coming here in the dark."

The earlier plunge into darkness this year is linked to the early onset of the Jewish High Holidays and the approach of the Yom Kippur fast next week. According to a five-year-old law negotiated with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Israelis must turn back their clocks one hour on the Sunday before Yom Kippur. That way, the 25-hour fast, from sundown to sundown, ends shortly before 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., creating the impression of an earlier end to a trying day.

Setting back the national clock to accommodate the faithful on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar has generated controversy in the past, but this year the argument is raging with greater intensity because of the early date of the shift, weeks ahead of Europe and the United States. Nearly 200,000 Israelis have signed an online petition urging people to resist the change and not turn back their clocks. The debate has drawn battle lines in the ongoing struggle in Israel over the role of religion in public life, highlighting the power of ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel's governing coalitions.

Critics of the early time shift argue that because of the demands of a religious minority, Israelis will rise when the sun is higher and hotter, come home from work in the dark, and spend more time with their lights turned on, costing the national economy millions of dollars. According to the Manufacturers Association of Israel, the 170 days of daylight saving time this year saved more than 26 million dollars.

The early time shift in Israel has a parallel only in the West Bank areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where the the clock was turned back last month to help people fasting from dawn to sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"At the height of summer, winter will begin here," Nehemia Shtrasler, economic editor of the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, lamented in his annual screed against the time change. "It won't happen in any other state in the world, not even Iran. Only here has the religious, ultra-Orthodox minority succeeded in imposing its will on the majority."

Shtrasler argued that daylight saving time, which matches current daylight hours in Israel more closely than does standard time, has brought lower energy consumption and higher work productivity and lowered the risk of road accidents.

On the beach with his wife and children after a day's work, Eyal Gal agreed. "This hour of light is precisely what they're about to take away from me," he said as the sun sank over the sea. Gal said that although he is not observant, he fasts on Yom Kippur, like many Israelis, but that the time change was "coercion" of an entire population.

A woman nearby chimed in to say that Jews in the United States and Europe manage to handle the Yom Kippur fast while their countries are still on daylight saving time - and the hour of sunset is later there. Clocks will be turned back in Europe at the end of October and in the United States on the first Sunday of November.

The uproar over the time change led Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the leader of Shas, to suggest this week that he might consider a temporary departure from daylight saving time during Yom Kippur, restoring it afterward. "The public at large, religious and nonreligious, fasts on Yom Kippur, thank God," he said. But Yishai's office later clarified that no change is contemplated for this year.

Nitzan Horowitz, a lawmaker from the leftist Meretz party, said he would submit a measure to parliament after its summer recess calling for daylight saving time to last until the end of October.

But Menachem Eliezer Moses, a legislator from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said the economic cost of turning the clock back to ease the Yom Kippur fast was a price worth paying to preserve Israel's Jewish character.

"This is a Jewish state, and values come at a price," Moses said in a telephone interview. "The prime minister wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. If we won't recognize that ourselves, how can we demand it of them?"

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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