During my first ten years in Israel, when asked what I miss most from the old country the answer required little thought: my parents, baseball, and laid-back Sundays…but not necessarily in that order. Well, much has changed in the last quarter of a century. My parents have both passed away, and while I still miss them very much, the context is no longer the same. The Internet has made baseball no further than a click or two away, so although I can’t spend sultry summer evenings in the grandstand section of Yankee Stadium, I can still follow the game throughout the season in near real time. Which leaves Sunday. And here the issue is somewhat more complicated.
A discussion has again been initiated as to whether Sunday should be made an official part of the Israeli weekend. This subject rises to the top of the public agenda every so often, but doesn’t stay there very long. The economics and logistics of such a change have always been considered too challenging to take the matter very seriously. And while the current discussion has a different level of energy than previous ones – including significant input from abroad – it’s highly unlikely that anyone in Israel will be lazily cruising down a river on a Sunday afternoon any time soon.
The benefits of a weekend that includes Sunday, to be sure, are significant and not much imagination is required to realize the advantages of a day off without the time pressure of short Fridays or the restrictions and closures of Shabbat, for both the religious and secular population. Extended day trips, family gatherings, leisurely shopping, and the opportunity to run errands or do household projects without the need to continually check the time are just some of the Sunday activities many expats in Israel fondly remember. Although undeniably selfish, the repeated occurrences of an Election Day holiday over the last several years provided a welcome secular day off. But it would be a mistake to forget that this is Israel and not Canada, Argentina, or Australia. There are way too many historical and cultural factors that prevent making Sundays here the laid-back end of the week that is enjoyed elsewhere in the world.
Let’s for a moment set aside the debate of the two main options for workweek models based on a weekend that includes Sunday: Monday-Thursday, with a three-day weekend or; Monday-Friday with the Friday hours adjusted for Shabbat errands and preparations. Nobody, though, is entirely clear as to how either of those models would actually work. Productivity levels would have to be carefully monitored and overtime compensation and union provisions would have to be sorted out. Those issues, though, are by no means insurmountable. The real risk of making Sunday an official part of the weekend is how to ensure that Shabbat does not turn into Saturday.
Throughout the Jewish world and particularly in Israel, Shabbat is characterized in its relation to the other six days of the week. Sunday to Friday is when fire is used, work is performed, travel is permitted, and monetary transactions are undertaken. What makes Shabbat special is that just as G-d rested on the seventh day after spending the first six creating the world, so are his living creations – human and animal – commanded to do likewise. Throughout the history of this country – both before and after independence – the special significance of Shabbat was always respected if not meticulously observed. Sunday was defined as just another day of the week, thereby highlighting the sanctity of Shabbat as well as the special place it holds in Jewish culture and tradition. Removing that relationship diminishes Shabbat’s importance and centrality. Shabbat has indeed, as Ahad Ha’am put it, kept the Jews.
The debate, though, goes well beyond culture and tradition. Advocates for making Sunday part of the weekend offer a seemingly compelling but misleading argument regarding the advantage of synchronizing Israel with most of the world. If anything, the facts make the argument somewhat less than persuasive.
If, for example, Israel were to adopt a four-day workweek, it would join with only seven other countries that have thus far changed over to this specific model. The other major markets throughout North America, South America and the Far East (with the exception of Japan) have not yet revised their five day workweek structure. If anything, a four-day workweek would seriously misalign Israel with many if not most of its international partners, clients and suppliers.
In addition, a modified Monday-Friday workweek would make a marginal difference at best. By early afternoon on Friday Israeli businesses and government offices would be empty, its inhabitants at home preparing for Shabbat sanctity or Friday evening revelry. With time differences ranging between ten hours earlier and twelve hours later than local time, routine corporate activities on Fridays such as contractual confirmations, telephone conferences and status inquiries would still have to wait for Monday. Granted, the time difference between Israel and most of Europe is considerably less dramatic, but by the time someone in London or Frankfort settled behind their desk, had their morning coffee and checked their messages and emails, Israel’s high tech and financial communities would be approaching the end of the week. Progress on Fridays would be minimal at best.
Nor should it be forgotten that Saturday, elsewhere in the world, is not entirely closed for business. In a number of locations banks are open for at least part of the day and mail is routinely delivered. Government offices operate throughout the entire day on Friday during both the summer and winter seasons, and public museums and libraries are open and fully operational on Saturday. It’s unrealistic, in other words, to provide a paradigm in Israel based on what is the standard throughout most of the world. Proponents for a weekend Sunday are not suggesting that Israel’s identity as a Jewish State be in any way altered, yet by modifying the current status quo with regard to Shabbat and Sunday that is precisely what can be expected. Indeed, from there we’d be no more than a small step from declaring December 25 as a national holiday.
There is, however, a viable alternative to the Saturday-Sunday weekend. Rather than adopt a complicated four-day or modified five-day workweek, a compressed workweek could very well work, particularly since employees in many high tech, legal and financial companies are now working from home for at least part of the week. Under such a model, employees work an extra hour for nine days with every other Sunday or Thursday off. That extra hour of work might, for some, be somewhat burdensome, but then again, no reward comes without a price.
In addition to the advantages related to an improved work/life balance, such a model will bring about reduced commuting time and costs, which, in turn, lessens the burden on the road and highway system as well as improving the efficiency of public transportation. Workplaces can benefit from a longer number of hours and an increase in the number of total staff hours during high peak workloads can easily be accommodated by overlapping schedules. The cake, in other words, can be both had and eaten.
The attraction of a relaxing Sunday, admittedly, is one not easily resisted, but it would be foolish to recklessly embrace such a major change without ensuring that more harm than good will not be the result. The trouble is, there is no way to adopt a modified weekend incrementally; once done it would be virtually impossible to undo. Best, then, to leave the status quo untouched and adjust the existing workweek, where applicable, to provide a bimonthly weekday off. Complemented by, of course, a lox-and-bagels breakfast.