Observant plastic

jerusalem | A “kosher credit card” is scheduled to be launched sometime this month.

Intrigued by the idea of plastic money with no value on Shabbat and accepted only by merchants who agree to close for business on that holy day, the media have picked up on this novelty, providing the non-Jewish world with a peek into some of the perplexing challenges that are part of Israel’s day-to-day life.

Those stories focus on the technological hurdles and marketing forces involving this imaginative idea.

The former, everyone agrees, is no big deal. A simple chip is all it takes to turn an ordinary Visa into a shomer Shabbat card. It presents little difficulty for our creative software engineers.

The business angle, though, is a different story.

Behind this innovation is Rabbi Raphael Halperin, founder and former owner of the successful Halperin Optics. The card is being introduced as a counterbalance to shops and malls that are challenging the status quo by staying open on Shabbat.

The haredi population — larger-than-average purchasers of groceries, clothing and baby products — is the targeted user of this special card, which has more than a few business-minded individuals scratching their heads and wondering why it is needed in the first place.

Most of the stores where the haredi population spends money pose little if any problem for the religiously minded. Large supermarkets are all, for the most part, closed on Shabbat, and the contemporary, often provocative outfits displayed in upper-class fashion shops is not something you’re likely to run across in Bnei Brak or Har Nof.

Restaurants and coffee shops are not places haredim frequently patronize, and while toy or drug stores may derive a nice chunk of their proceeds from haredi customers, the numbers are not daunting enough to make the owners of these places think twice about closing on Shabbat.

Yet what wasn’t pointed out as background to what’s going on is the slow but steady emergence of the “new haredim.”

It’s no longer unusual, for example, to see black kippot or stylish wigs sharing space with shaved heads or Shuki-designed hair styles in high-tech firms.

And according to economists and sociologists, poverty is gradually losing its status as the haredi community’s red badge of courage. Earning a living will, in the near future, no longer be regarded as something dishonorable.

The astute and keen-minded Halperin, his finger on the pulse of commerce and experienced in recognizing subtle but definite shifts in consumer behavior, is readying for the coming moment when haredi buying power will no longer be regarded as something peripheral.

Halperin is very much aware that it’s going to be sooner rather than later that haredim enjoy the fruits of disposable income by expanding the scope of their spending.

The shomer Shabbat credit card will provide the means of ensuring that retailers of furniture, jewelry, domestic appliances and electronics feel the consequences of staying open on Shabbat.

Halperin’s partner in this undertaking, Bank Leumi, has something else in mind.

The creative-minded marketing experts of that bank see a situation where some of us will wind up carrying two credit cards, one that’s shomer Shabbat and a second that’s not. They want to get on the bandwagon right at the beginning.

Whether the expectations of either Halperin or Bank Leumi are realistic remain to be seen. Somewhat troubling, however, is the underlying concept behind the idea.

In the ongoing battle over Shabbat commerce, punitive measures are the norm. Fines are levied, boycotts are threatened and vandalism is carried out.

Halperin’s project is still another form of warfare.

The time has come to provide economic incentives for businesses to close on Shabbat rather than to intimidate those that don’t. A reward for observing Shabbat instead of punishment for not doing so would be the rule.