Jerusalem on a summer Saturday can stun you with its sweetness—its taste of the world to come, the rabbis liked to say—or leave you sweaty and bored. It depends on how you spend it. If you follow the flow of foot traffic to some gorgeous old synagogue packed with enthusiastic young Jews, then get yourself invited to a leisurely luncheon underneath a spreading tree—and if you like that sort of thing—then you may thank the God who invented the Sabbath and the rabbis who made it the law of the land. If you’re stuck with two sick children in a guesthouse that serves no meals on Saturday, as I was a few weeks ago, you’ll be less grateful.
Keeping the Israeli Sabbath is hard work, even if you aren’t a tourist, particularly if you’re unmoved by its pleasures. Hence the dislike of many secular Israelis for Saturday—the streets cleared of buses, the shuttered grocery stores, the understaffed hospitals—as well as for the black-hatted men in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods who stone Sabbath-breakers and who have in Israel’s half-century of existence twice brought down governments for violating Sabbath laws. And hence my surprise when I learned that other secular Israelis have begun treating the Sabbath as a national treasure in need of preservation.
In a column in the Jerusalem Post two years ago, the nonreligiously-observant writer Hillel Halkin noted that so many Israelis now shop at malls on Saturday it seemed silly to complain about it—and then he complained about it. (Hundreds of stores at Israel’s 45 malls violate Saturday closing laws, and Saturday has become the biggest shopping day of the week.) As a struggling writer and father of two, he said, he used to take solace from the ban on getting and spending, especially on Friday nights—the only night of the week he failed to wake up in a panic “because the next day was a day on which you could not do anything about money anyway.” A week without a break from acquisitiveness, he added, rather grandly, “is bad for the human spirit and it is bad for Israeli society.”
Several prominent secular Israeli intellectuals have lately expressed the same thought. Like Halkin, and like American adherents to the back-to-simplicity movement, these secular Israeli Sabbatarians want to save the Sabbath from consumerism. They also want to remove it from the exclusive control of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis. Ruth Gavison, a Hebrew University law professor who has been working with a prominent Orthodox rabbi to draft a proposal for a less stringent Sabbath, told me that devising a Sabbath that even the nonpious could enjoy was part of a larger effort to rescue Israeli society. From what? I asked. From the widening chasm between secular and religious Israelis, and also from those who no longer see a rationale for a Jewish state, she explained. What does the Sabbath have to do with the legitimacy of Israel? I asked, somewhat surprised. A viable Jewish state must have an authentically Jewish public culture, she replied.
At the legal level, Gavison’s idea is simple. She would codify permission for much of the noncommercial activity that already goes on and enforce the pause in commercial activity and industry already prescribed by law. Restaurants, concert halls, art galleries, and movie theaters would stay open—not just in cities and towns that have made special arrangements to do so, but throughout the country. Buses would run, which they do not do now. Malls would be closed.
Gavison’s vision of a unifying Jewish public culture is less clear. She herself isn’t sure what she means. Like many Israeli intellectuals, who model themselves on their European, not their American, counterparts, Gavison takes a high-minded approach to culture. She imagines bigger audiences for music, art, and theater; more meetings of affinity groups; more salons devoted to Jewish texts. One Jewish holiday celebrated in a semisecular way that might serve as an example is Shavuot, which commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to Moses at Sinai. It’s an occasion marked by all-night study sessions held not just at synagogues, but also at theaters and conference centers and other public venues. My stay in Jerusalem coincided with Shavuot this year, and I saw the streets come alive at 11 p.m. with the rather astonishing apparition of Israelis of all kinds, not just the religious, roaming from lecture to lecture in small groups under the Jerusalem moon, seeking enlightenment on subjects as varied as the Bible and politics.
Underlying Gavison’s dream are the revived ideas of Ahad Ha’am, the late 19th-century Zionist who argued for a cultural, rather than political, Zionism—an Israel based on a positive Jewishness rather than on ethnic nationalism and anti-anti-Semitism. What he was calling for isn’t clear either, though anyone who has ever found himself on a synagogue mailing list will be familiar with his sociological aperçu on the Sabbath: “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”
Can a day of rest really strengthen the bonds of a nation, or is that just grandiloquence? Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, Americans debated the merits of the Sabbath with the same passion that Israelis bring to it today, and on largely the same grounds. The discussion turned on the question of whether there was anything about Sunday that warranted preservation once the old Puritan rigor had lost its appeal. (The early American Sabbath, probably the most ascetic in Christian history, required contemplation and prayer and banned recreation, from chamber music to sports to sex.) The Sabbatarian answer was that the American Sunday had become indispensable to the task of fostering America’s exceptional qualities—its egalitarianism and melting-pot pluralism.
In a famous 1872 speech pleading for the opening of libraries and for public transportation on Sundays, minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher argued that only the liberalization of the Sabbath would conserve its character as a “a day peculiarly American” in its serendipitous neighborliness, family-minded “household love,” moral uplift, and “poetic element.” (Beecher was not above mixing chauvinistic xenophobia into his praise for the American Sunday.) In 1906, an Episcopalian minister in Boston claimed, portentously, that Sunday had given the American character its “moral earnestness … that utters itself in every grand institution of freedom” and allowed “eighty million persons, the refugees of every land” to unite into a single people.
In 1961, Supreme Court justices Earl Warren and Felix Frankfurter issued separate but concurring opinions in defense of Sunday closing (or “blue”) laws that wrote into legal history the bond between the Sabbath and civic consciousness. It’s unsettling to remember how recently Americans couldn’t work or shop on Sunday, except when medically necessary or when certain services or stores were deemed essential to fun on days off. (Tackle shops and beach burger shacks stayed open. Downtown department stores didn’t.) What was wrong with letting people shop? Frankfurter glossed over the obvious point that it forced everyone in the retail sector to work and emphasized instead something less tangible: The bustling, humming feel of a street open for business that, he said, had the power to destroy “a cultural asset of importance: a release from the daily grind, a preserve of mental peace, an opportunity for self‑disposition.” Warren and Frankfurter maintained that the Protestant Sunday had evolved into a secular day of recuperation, a public good that promoted the health of the American people and the orderliness of its society. Therefore, they ruled, blue laws did not violate the First Amendment’s stricture against the establishment of religion.
Nowadays, these sentiments sound quaint, even stuffy. America’s blue laws have vanished. Sunday, when it is set aside, is set aside for home improvement, soccer tournaments, shopping marathons, and supercommercialized or gear-heavy recreational activities, not for poetry, or moral uplift, or anything else that would engender the fellow feeling Beecher was so fond of. The justices’ (and Gavison’s) distinction between shopping and recreation also seems outdated, as shopping evolves into a kind of entertainment and entertainment devolves into a series of long-form commercials for worldwide celebrity brands.
A national day of rest in the global era—even for Israelis—is probably a fantasy. But it’s a strangely inspiring one. Who talks of “public culture” anymore? Everybody talks about popular culture, but ours is the era of segmented markets, when hip-hop fans share no common ground with, say, OC addicts. Communitarians talk of civil society, but the voluntarism and community activity they demand is (and ought to be) local, not national; there’s no obvious way to bring all those Knights of Columbus councils and bowling teams in contact with each other.
What’s useful about the Israeli Sabbath is not that we can have it in the United States. We can’t and shouldn’t. It’s that the Israeli debate about Saturday evokes a memory of Sunday. The secular Sabbath once gave Americans an experience that was national in scope, personal in character, and religiously neutral. As soon as religion was disestablished, no one had to go to church, or anywhere else for that matter. As for the Sabbath falling on Sunday, Frankfurter, an active Jew, pointed out that to have a common day of rest, you had to pick one, and it might as well be the one that most people already observed. The benefit of having a majority of Americans share a day off, he argued, outweighed the harm done to religious minorities who might have to shut their stores or miss work on other days.
The texture of that day off is hard to conjure up now, because contemporary life offers little like it. For 24 hours, we stayed home and ate huge family dinners, or went to church, or set off on afternoon drives, and we not only did these things with members of our inner circle, but did them in the knowledge that everyone else in the nation was doing them, too. At any rate, they weren’t doing the things they spent the rest of the week caught up in, and that gave us permission not to do them either. We had fewer choices, but that lack of choice may have been more liberating than we realized, because having the option of working or shopping often brings with it the nagging sense that if you’re not working, you should be—and if you’re not shopping, you need to be. One day a week, the country honored life beyond duty and beyond the imperatives of the marketplace. Americans embraced laziness, goofiness, random reading, desultory conversation, neighbors and relatives both pleasant and unpleasant—the kinds of things that knit them together even as they made them more themselves. We can’t have those days back, of course, but we can try to remember what disappeared when they did.