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Shabbos and Sunday: How Americans Got a Two-day Weekend

Shabbos and Sunday: How Americans Got a Two-day Weekend

An article this month in Jewish Currents, “an award-winning magazine of politics, culture, and ideas,” gives a fascinating account of how the two-day weekend, which most Americans take for granted, arose in North America.

Though many factors were involved, central to this innovation—and that’s what the two-day weekend in those days could be called without exaggeration—was the challenge that Sabbath-keeping Jews, many of them new immigrants, faced in a “Christian” nation that was thoroughly wedded, often by strict laws, to Sunday-keeping.

What happened?

Keeping Shabbos in a Nation that Kept the “Lord’s Day”

Both in antiquity and the modern world, few things set Jews apart from their Gentile neighbors more than did their keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath, the day first set apart in Eden (Genesis 2:1–3) and then reiterated in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8–11; Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Whether in the Greco-Roman world of the first-century AD or the 19th-century AD United States, Jews who keep Shabbos, Yiddish for the Sabbath, stood out precisely because they adhered to the biblical command.

However, standing out was hardly their only problem, especially in 19th century America, when hundreds of thousands of Jews—fleeing antisemitism, which at times exploded in riots against them, called pogroms—came to America, which was for many, non-Zionists at least, the new Promised Land.

Yet this Promised Land wasn’t a utopia, especially for poor workers who were easily exploited. According to the article, “the torrent of Jewish immigrants that poured onto US shores in the late 19th century encountered an environment singularly inhospitable to the observance of Shabbos. Many were forced into a six-day workweek, toiling up to 18 hours a day, memories of old-world political oppression fading before a new world of economic exploitation.”

And, of course, in Christian America, the six-day workweek included the seventh-day Sabbath because most people didn’t work on Sunday, a rest often enforced by law, some on the books since the 1700s. These were Sunday-closing laws—everything from state laws, county laws, to local town laws—that forced businesses to close on Sunday, with the idea, often mistaken, that people would go to church instead. Though an attempt was made in 1888 to make Sunday closing a federal law, it didn’t pass.

Sunday Shabbos Services?

At this time in American history, Reform Judaism, a liberal wing of the faith—not the black-clothed Orthodox seen praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem—sought every way possible to assimilate Jews into the prevailing culture. As such, they were not very sympathetic to the plight of their Sabbath-keeping brothers and sisters. 

In 1885, though acknowledging the problems that a six-day workweek brought to those who wanted to go to Shabbos services, these reform Jews stated that “there is nothing in the spirit of Judaism to prevent the holding of divine services on Sunday, or any other day of the week.”

Jews should keep Sunday, a day that not even the New Testament sanctions, instead of the biblical Sabbath? 

Many Jews were outraged by the expectation and determined to fight back. After all, was not America supposed to be a land of religious liberty? How could free people be forced, by law, to violate one of the Ten Commandments? 

A Five-day Workweek?

At first, some Jews sought to battle against these Sunday laws. But what could a small and often despised minority do against powerfully entrenched Protestant and Catholic majority forces, which agreed on keeping Sunday “sacred”?

Not much.

Instead, a Rabbi named Bernard Drachman became president of the Jewish Sabbath Alliance, which advocated for the right of Jews to keep Shabbos. By 1910, Drachman advocated for a kind of ecumenical two-day “Sabbath” observed both by Jews and Christians—Jews on Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, and Christians on Sunday, the first day of the week. 

In 1915, Drachman traveled to a Lord’s Day Alliance meeting in Oakland, California. The Lord’s Day Alliance “is the one national organization whose sole purpose it is to maintain and cultivate the first day of the week as a time for rest, worship, Christian education and spiritual renewal.”

At their meeting, he argued for a five-day workweek with a two-day “Sabbath,” saying that the seventh-day Sabbath was part of God’s Holy Law; it was one of the Ten Commandments and, thus, was inviolable and non-negotiable. The Christians, meanwhile, could have their Sunday.

No deal, however.

Some of the more fair-minded clergymen were interested, but many Christians thought they smelled a rat around this Jewish sophistry. Surely there was some angle in it, some new way to violate the Lord’s Day and gain another business advantage. Harry Bowlby, president of the Lord’s Day Alliance, a prominent Sabbatarian [meaning Sunday] advocacy group, attacked the ‘sordid, soulless, Godless worldlings’ who controlled Jewish Hollywood, disrespecting the Christian Sabbath and undermining Christian morality through entertainments that profited them and detracted from the Lord’s Day.”

Antisemitism surely had a role in resistance to helping the Jews, and by default Gentile Sabbath-keepers, whose ranks were growing, keep the seventh-day holy.

Economic Issues

Yes, there was great resistance to a five-day workweek, especially from big business. But then, over time, with workers fighting against not only the six-day workweeks but, in some cases, against 18-hour workdays, dangerous working conditions, and low wages, the idea started to catch on. 

None other than business tycoon Henry Ford, no friend of the Jews, or of organized labor for that matter, began a five-day workweek at his plants, if for no other reason than to stifle labor unrest. Ford’s influence was immense.

Whatever role played by Jews who wanted to keep Shabbos, by labor trends, by Henry Ford, or by all three components together, it finally took the shock of the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal to make the five-day workweek the norm in America. Thanks to this change, those who want to keep the seventh-day Sabbath can, and those who want to keep Sunday can do that, even though there is no biblical evidence for keeping Sunday holy.

To learn more about the biblical Sabbath, as opposed to Sunday, and why the day really matters, read “The Lost Day of History.” It uncovers truths that millions still don’t understand.

You can also read “The Mark of the Beast” to see how Sunday worship and the true Sabbath will play a part in the last days.

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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