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What Happens When Laws Enforce the Sabbath?

Albeit unknowingly, Israelis today echo the position of early American evangelicals when it comes to protecting the day of rest.

July 2019 marks a year since the Israeli Knesset voted 62–55 in favor of a controversial “nation-state law” on July 19, 2018. Following years of debate over what is right for Israel and who gets to decide, the new law states that Israel belongs to the Jewish people and diaspora, Hebrew is their official language, and “Saturday and the Jewish Holidays are the official days of rest in the state.”

The Old Testament says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” No singular Sabbath day is universal. Generally, Christians recognize Sunday as the Sabbath, while Seventh Day Christians and Jewish people observe Saturday. Sabbath represents an opportunity for worship, sacred rest, and transcendence from space and time. Governments have occasionally dictated when to observe the Sabbath. In Israel, now an officially Jewish nation-state, the government recognizes Sabbath on Saturdays. Meanwhile, in the United States — a nation often considered to be an experiment in religious freedom — laws regulating Sunday practices have been ever-changing. Juxtaposing America’s history of Sunday laws with Israel’s current Saturday laws can enhance our understanding of both.

The United States and Israel’s approaches to religion and state might at first seem opposite from each other. Israel is a Jewish state and increasingly privileges Jews above other Israelis. For example, Israeli Sabbath laws require Muslim calls for prayer to literally lower their volumeMuslims comprise approximately a fifth of Israel’s population. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution proclaims, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is called the Establishment Clause or Free Exercise Clause. President Thomas Jefferson reinforced the idea of American religious freedom when he penned the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in 1802. But comparison of America’s Sunday laws and Israel’s Saturday laws shows that either fusing religion and state — or separating them completely — compromises the integrity of both.

The history of Sunday laws in the United States reveals that increasing regulation of Sunday practices will decrease religious freedom. In the eighteen-forties, Seventh Day Baptists operated a farming commune called Snow Hill in central Pennsylvania. They believed that the seventh day of their week, Saturday, was sacred, requiring rest and worship. While the Seventh Day Baptists’ faith told them to rest on Saturdays, their government prohibited them from working on Sundays. This posed a serious economic disadvantage in an era of new markets and a time before the modern idea of weekends. So, the community kept their farms operating on Sundays. But in 1845, young men from towns surrounding Snow Hill rioted against the Sunday labor, resulting in 30-day prison sentences for eleven youths. These men were neither employed on the farm nor part of the Seventh Day Baptist community. But the rioters achieved their aim of drawing attention to the Seventh Day Baptists, who were subsequently fined by a local magistrate for Sunday labor.

The case of Jacob Specht, a Seventh Day Baptist man who lived and worked at Snow Hill, reached the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1848. One judge belittled Specht and his community’s “incidental worldly disadvantage.” Another judge described the United States as a “Christian nation.” Specht lost his case. Although America is not officially a Christian state like Israel is a Jewish one, influential judges, politicians, and policymakers have claimed otherwise.

Similarly, early nineteenth-century petitioners to end Sunday mail delivery in the United States argued that Sunday mail desecrated their Christian nation’s Sabbath. Mail arrived on Sundays in the United States from 1810 through 1912. Early American observers of Saturday Sabbath, therefore, were able to write and send letters, even if their local governments prohibited their businesses from opening. We can assume that not caving to cease mail on the Christian Sabbath increased equality for religious minorities. Nevertheless, the evangelical Protestants of the early United States continued to feel that that the noise of the literal bells and whistles of mail delivery breached their free exercise of religion. For these Sunday observers, their own religious freedom could not be realized without inflicting their preferences on everyone else.

Albeit unknowingly, Israelis today echo the position of early American evangelicals: citizens should follow the preferences of the majority religion in the nation. In May 2019, for instance, Orthodox protesters from the capital city of Jerusalem traveled to Tel Aviv to oppose the Eurovision contest that took place on Shabbat. Tel Aviv is one of the least religiously observant city in Israel. These Orthodox men also opposed public nudity, so women who supported the contest happening stripped down to their bras to help police disperse the Orthodox protesters. Prior to these women’s “immodest dress,” a mob of Orthodox male youth clashed with police. These same Orthodox men supported the 2018 “Supermarkets Bill” or “Minimarket Law” to prevent businesses in Israel from opening on Saturdays. In January 2018, the Knesset voted 58–57 to prevent all stores from operating on Saturdays. Since the bill did not apply retroactively, less religiously observant municipalities rushed to enact bylaws. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted for the legislation, and the law to close all business on Saturdays went into effect.

The resemblance between the Orthodox youth who clashed with Israeli police and the central Pennsylvanian youth who tormented the Seventh Day Baptists is uncanny. Centuries apart, both gatherings aimed to reassert moral authority, national identity, and even political-economic interests. Clearly, observing any Sabbath leads to economic disadvantages if the governing authority declines to support it. At the same time, no singular Sabbath day is universal. Sabbath laws can be a real conundrum.

An early American Jewish woman, Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia, modeled one solution. Since the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania considered Sunday to be Sabbath, Gratz took advantage of this day of rest to invent the first-ever Hebrew Sunday school, in which she taught Jewish children about their culture, heritage, history, and religion. The custom of Hebrew Sunday school rapidly spread internationally. But as an affluent socialite, Gratz enjoyed the privilege of spending the Sunday day off as she saw fit, even if she used it to promote Judaism.

Alas, acknowledging the disadvantages that Sabbath laws inflict on populations of religious minorities is crucial. By considering Israeli Sabbath laws beside the history of American ones, we recognize that both Christian Sunday– and Jewish Saturday–Sabbatarians are capable of enforcing their Sabbath on everyone else. This commonality reinforces my theory that while the Sabbath is about promoting rest and worship, Sabbath laws are about asserting oneself and one’s religious community: their authority, identity, and ultimately power.

Rebecca Brenner Graham is a PhD candidate in history at American University, where she is writing a dissertation on Sunday mail delivery from 1810 through 1912, focusing on the perspectives of religious minorities and disenfranchised persons.

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