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When American Jews Considered Changing the Sabbath

When American Jews Considered Changing the Sabbath

Did American Jews really once think about changing the Sabbath?

The short answer is yes—134 years ago, some Jews in America discussed the idea of changing the day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

First, it’s important to set the scene so that we can understand why this thought even came about in the first place.

This public discussion took place in 1884. Around that time, roughly 250,000 Jewish people were living in the United States—a number that was to increase dramatically over the next 20 years. But at the start of the so-called “Gilded Age,” many of the Jews in America were highly secular and not always observant of their religious traditions.

Finding a newspaper article headlined “HEBREWS — The Agitation on the Question of Changing the Jewish Sabbath,” as you might imagine, stirred interest in the circumstances of that discussion. It turns out that less-observant members of the Jewish community were taking what they saw as a “practical” view of things.

“We are all businessmen, and as Saturday is the busiest day in the week, we cannot close our shops to attend services,” a shop owner identified as Mr. Liebman told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper in May 1884. “I can’t do it because I can’t afford to hire a man in my place,” he added.

The newspaper, at the time one of the country’s largest and most influential dailies, took an interest in the situation of people they called “Hebrews” because a reader had noticed a consistent lack of attendance at a congregation called Temple Israel, which was then part of the nascent reform movement in American Judaism. “Of late I have visited it Saturday after Saturday and at no time have found any attendance of men, women, or children,” a reader named A. Fleeschhauer wrote to the paper. “What is the reason?”

The Eagle dispatched a reporter to investigate, and back came a survey of Jewish thought about the Sabbath in late nineteenth-century Brooklyn. From what the reporter could find, members of local congregations were happy to financially support these bodies but were less enthused about attending Sabbath services. Mr. Liebman, the merchant, said he found it depressing to find only a handful of worshipers on a given Sabbath.

Other members of Temple Israel were less resistant to change. The Eagle reporter visited with a “Mr. Abraham,” believed to be Abraham Abraham—founder of the dry goods store that became the Abraham & Strauss department store chain popular in twentieth-century New York—who endorsed a switch.

“I am a reformed Jew and am in favor of worshiping on Sunday. It makes little difference on what day we hold our religious services so long as we set apart at least one day in the week for that purpose,” Mr. Abraham said. “We are living in a Christian community and of course cannot expect the Christians to change from Sunday to Saturday, so all we can do is conform to their customs.”

Interestingly, Joseph Wechsler, Abraham’s original business partner, opposed the notion: “Our Sabbath can never be changed from Saturday to Sunday. Besides, we have a prayer which is read at the Saturday morning service, in which reference is made to the first day of the week. How could we pray this on the first day?”

The newspaper also quoted a gentleman described as “one of the more prominent members” of an area congregation by the name of Moses May. Mr. May was adamant against changing the day of worship, the paper noted.

“What would you think of a Christian who allowed his business to interfere with his religion and change his day of worship to suit his own convenience,” May asked the newspaper reporter. “You would not consider him much of a Christian, and I don’t consider a man much of a Jew who will make the excuse of business for not attending to his religious duties.”

By the end of the newspaper article, readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle could easily conclude that while changing the day of worship might have been discussed in some circles, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for formalizing a shift. The less observant among the Jewish people of that moment in time would largely continue to do business on the Sabbath but attend worship services on the faith’s main holy days.

That picture would soon change. As pogroms—coordinated campaigns to harass and persecute Jews in parts of Eastern Europe, even driving them out of their homes and countries—spread, millions of Jews fled from the region and began to emigrate to the United States and other nations. Those who came to the United States during this time were often more religiously observant than those already here, and many formed and supported vibrant, observant Jewish congregations—many of which are still in existence today.

Interestingly, it was the persecution of the Jews in Eastern Europe that led to a reinforcement of Sabbath worship among Jews in the United States. But the Bible tells us about a time when those who do observe the Sabbath will suffer even greater tribulation. Pastor Doug details this in his presentation Bowing to Babylon, and you’ll want to learn what the future holds!

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