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To Keep It Holy

Battles over Sabbath observance in America are nothing new

Jenna Weissman Joselit
December 20, 2021
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

Ever since Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, its recipients have had great difficulty in reckoning with, and honoring, the fourth one of the lot: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”

At least that’s how American Jews of the late 19th century would have it. They preferred to think of the desecration of the Sabbath as more of a millennial phenomenon than a modern one, a long-running and persistent problem rather than a contemporary challenge.

Still, knowing they were not the first generation of Jews to witness a collective “infidelity” to the Sabbath was of small comfort. Confronted by a steadily dwindling number of Jews in the pews of a Saturday morning, those who made a point of remembering the Sabbath day wondered what would become of their community and their faith at a time when more of their coreligionists took to Thanksgiving than to Shabbos. In 1880, for instance, only an estimated 1,500 New York Jews out of a population of 75,000 “observed it as it should be,” sorrowfully related the Jewish Messenger. Would their wayward behavior spell the end of Judaism as they knew it?

It certainly seemed that way. “The desecration of the Sabbath is a disease that has made severe inroads into Judaism and is weakening it daily,” cautioned one historically minded American Jew who, in a letter to the editor of an American Jewish newspaper, styled himself “Maccabean.” The time for “homeopathic medicine” has run out, cautioned another American Jew who, tellingly, also drew on medicalized language. The Sabbath and with it the fate of American Judaism hung in the balance.

So, too, did the well-being of the American Jewish family. “Complain not if your health fails, if your wisdom is blunt, your energy weak and your tact at fault; complain not if you children mock at [sic] your authority and one by one go astray,” the American Israelite witheringly observed. You have only yourself to blame: “All the misfortune that has befallen you and your house could be directly traced to the disregard of the Sabbath.”

Nearly as chilling was the belief that the Jews’ violation of the Sabbath eroded their public standing and tarnished their good name. The Christian world, it was said, did not look kindly on the Jews for disrespecting the Ten Commandments. “We earn the contempt of the Christian people for our desecration of the Sabbath, for surrendering the observance of our religious principles in a land of liberty and toleration,” lamented Dr. Mark Blumenthal who, in 1879, presided over an “associated band” of Jews whose members sought to rescue the Sabbath from its sorry state of abandonment.

The desecration of the Sabbath is a disease that has made severe inroads into Judaism and is weakening it daily.

With more than enough blame to go around, some observers, writing at the end of the 19th century, attributed the Sabbath’s waning hold to capitalism, claiming that its insistent rhythms did not accommodate a day given over entirely to a cessation of labor and commerce. Others indicted the rabbis, claiming they did not do nearly enough to rally the troops, to sing the Sabbath’s praises, to impress its meaningfulness on those in the pews or at home.

And still others, insisting the clergy “should not be made an Atlas to carry the burden,” blamed the laity whose commitment to Mammon and “greed for the dollar” constituted a “powerful foe” of the Sabbath. To top it off, modern American Jews, it was alleged, had become far too sophisticated, too knowing, for their own good. “They pretend to be too enlightened, too learned, too educated” to accept the notion that the Sabbath was a divinely inspired institution, not simply a “physical necessity.”

The stuff of sermons as well as newspaper accounts, finger-pointing was useful, but only up to a point. As an exercise in venting, in letting off steam, it might well have been satisfying, but as a remedial measure, it went nowhere. In the absence of a clear line of attack, or what the Jewish Messenger called “action, action, action,” Shabbos seemed headed for extinction.

Chastened and alarmed by that very real possibility, its stalwarts took steps at the turn of the 19th century, which have continued over the years into our own, to reverse course, to persuade members of the tribe of the value of observing the biblically mandated day of rest. Between the 1870s and the 2020s, their wide-ranging, if scattershot, efforts have encompassed the political and the promotional, behind-the-scenes lobbying, tugging at the community’s heartstrings and deploying its much-vaunted sense of humor, all the while reflecting generational differences in rhetoric, sensibility, and tactics.

During the waning years of the 19th century, a coalition of clergy and laity formed a succession of “anti-desecration” leagues, peopled by “earnest, zealous and persevering men of honor and excellence of character.” In the 1880s, the members of the Sabbath Association, taking their cue from the Abolitionists, constituted themselves a “movement” designed to influence Jewish public opinion. It sought to “induce” Jewish storekeepers to stay shut and Jewish consumers to desist from making the rounds on Saturday, while also encouraging everyone else—all those “erring Israelites”—to attend services.

More than a decade later, yet another entity composed of both laity and clergy called the Sabbath Observance Association came into being, one of whose contributions to the cause took the form of a rousing pamphlet, released in 1900, that read, in part: “Faithful adherence to religion will have the happy effect of making us:


Who could argue with that? Even so, mindful that public relations gestures like this one went only so far, the Sabbath Observance Association and its successor, the Jewish Sabbath Alliance, also trained its sights on instituting a five-day work week, the better to align rhetoric with reality. Toward that lofty goal, it worked closely in concert with the most unlikely of allies: left-wing unions, who also put their faith in the Sabbath, but only because its perceived benefits made for more productive workers and healthier citizens. Religion had nothing to do with it.

May I take Wednesday for my Sabbath? May I?

Other Jewish Sabbatarians, thinking they might enjoy considerably more success in shifting Shabbos from Saturday to Sunday than in altering the modern American work week, espoused a different, more modest form of calendrical reform. Insisting that, for one thing, God probably did not care if his mandated day of rest fell on a Saturday or a Sunday, and for another, that having all Americans, Jews and Christians, worship on the same day lessened the Jews’ marginality and situated them more comfortably within the civic square, they pushed hard for a Sunday Shabbos.

Still others, hoping to quiet the inevitable controversy that could—and did—erupt, maintained that the Sunday service was not intended as a replacement for Friday night and Saturday morning, but as a supplement: a Jewish assembly held on Sunday morning. Better yet, they suggested, why not make more of Friday night, when people could take advantage of the shuttering of shops and plants to sit quietly in the sanctuary for an hour or two, retaining Saturday morning services only “for the ladies and children?”

As word of the “perambulating Sabbath” spread, one American Jew, frustrated by too much talk of relocating the biblical Sabbath, put in a bid for Wednesday, the one day of the week when he had no pressing business obligations to attend to and could therefore devote himself fully to his religious responsibilities. His tongue firmly planted in his cheek, the gentleman wondered, “May I take Wednesday for my Sabbath? May I?”

Backsliding and indifference continued to run amok even after the five-day work week became normative in postwar America. As it became increasingly clear that a leisurely Saturday would not be the answer to their prayers, the Sabbath’s latter-day champions turned their sights inward, coming up with ways to make Sabbath observance more pleasurable and less burdensome.

In the 1940s and in the years that followed, the women of the synagogue sisterhood rose to that challenge. They assumed responsibility for emphasizing the Sabbath’s aesthetic appeal and, in the words of The Jewish Home Beautiful, at the time one of the most influential guidebooks to Jewish ritual observance, to “impress the Sabbath spirit upon her family … The elaborate preparations on Friday, the extra cooking, the special dishes, the more than usual cleanliness of the home and the beauty of the table appointments, leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that a great day is approaching.”

When doubts about the viability and relevance of the Sabbath persisted, the Conservative movement, then American Jewry’s fastest growing denomination, decided after much internal to-ing and fro-ing to abolish some of the Sabbath’s traditional interdictions. It sanctioned the use of electricity, cars, and other appurtenances of modernity on the Sabbath, hoping these remedial measures might alter the course of things. They did not. Postwar American Jews remained as inattentive to Shabbos’ charms as their predecessors, leaving the newly built pews of the suburban synagogue just as empty as those of their urban predecessors.

For a brief spell in the early 1950s, the traditional day of rest received a momentary boost in popularity, spurred on by the publication of A.J. Heschel’s The Sabbath in 1951. A lyrical embrace of and salute to tradition, its emotional approach to the Sabbath, to the sanctity of time, momentarily won over many more adherents than technological access, especially after the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue made a point of distributing the text to its members as a part of its National Sabbath Observance Effort, a national campaign to highlight the Sabbath’s importance and, concomitantly, to supply young suburban Jews with the “know-how and know-why.” When the Sabbath was properly observed, affirmed the Jewish organization, it “offers us the opportunity to cast off the chains of routine and hypertensions, to preserve our psychological, physical and spiritual equilibrium.”

And what of us? What role does Shabbos, or Shabbat, as it’s increasingly come to be known, play in our lives? To what sources do we turn for counsel and affirmation? These days, apps and websites such a Reboot’s Sabbath Manifesto or JewBelong’s Shabbat Playbook furnish contemporary American Jews with the requisite cheerleading and some helpful hints on how to enjoy a “weekly timeout.” Reboot counsels the lighting of candles, unplugging, going outside, avoiding commerce and connecting with loved ones. To which JewBelong adds, “the point of Shabbat is rest. Resting isn’t lazy; it’s restorative and gets you ready for the week to come. If you want to go big, you can follow stricter rules,” but, it hastens to add, most of us don’t want to and don’t have to, either.

Though the Sabbath’s champions were, and are, united in their determination to restore something of its luster, consensus dissolved, then, as now, in the face of conflicting notions of what constituted Sabbath observance. Did it mean a full court press, making the most of its 25 hours, or might Friday night alone suffice? Was Shabbat a matter of prayer, of attending services? Sitting down to dinner en famille? Or did it also entail a cessation of one’s ordinary routine: no shopping, no movies, no internet? Was the keeping of the Sabbath a practice, a state of mind, or a mix of both?

In December 1879, when one devout, though open-minded, American Jew eager to get all of his coreligionists onboard with keeping the Sabbath floated the idea that “half a loaf,” or perhaps even just a few “good slices” would be sufficient, he was shouted down by his fellow Sabbatarians. “You cannot compromise on principle,” he was told. “You must insist on the observance of the whole Sabbath. There can be no half way … We have had half-loaves long enough, and we are starving now.” These days, though, it’s the other way around. Those who hold out for all or nothing are in the minority. Most American Jews seem to be content with the bare minimum and with thinking of Shabbat as the “original Personal Day,” the “perfect excuse” to stay in.

You have to wonder what Moses would say.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.