Shabbat in Israel: a blue laws model

What should Shabbat in a Jewish democratic state look like?

The extremists on one side find it coercive that Saturday is the day of rest, as if it were any less coercive for Western countries to have Sunday as the day of rest because of its role in Christianity.

The extremists on the other side equate Jewishness with Orthodox law, and believe in their right to force their beliefs on the entire country.

This question hinges on how one defines Israel’s Jewishness, as well as the price we can expect the Jewish and non-Jewish publics to pay in order to maintain that Jewishness.

I’m not here to rehash the pros and cons of each approach, but rather, to discuss issues of the debate that I believe are largely absent from public discourse.

Jewish Unity

In a society in which stores can remain open on Saturday, Jewish retail owners who wish to observe Shabbat* might feel economic pressure to remain open. In order to combat this pressure, Shabbat-observant store-owners might ask the Shabbat-observant public to support them, in order to help them to continue to remain closed on Shabbat. This would anger the non-Orthodox public, which would be upset that the Orthodox were effectively boycotting non-Orthodox stores by choosing to solicit Shabbat-observant establishments. Therefore, the non-Orthodox public would boycott Orthodox stores, and a type of economic civil war will ensue.**

A Two-Tiered Society

The Biblical view of Shabbat is radical, in that it acknowledges every human being’s right to a day of rest, regardless of religious or ethnic background, and regardless of their economic status.

In a capitalist society***, however, those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder are often most dependent on their current jobs and have very little bargaining power with their bosses. This means they’re easily pressured -one might even say, coerced -into working shifts they don’t want to. Having Saturdays as a regular day for retail and commerce might result in a society where only middle class or rich people could afford to observe Shabbat; poor people would be afraid to say “No” to the Saturday shift, in case their boss fires them and finds someone who will say “Yes”. The thought that someone might be economically coerced into violating their religious beliefs, or fired for not violating them, is troubling from a worker’s rights perspective.

A solution to this would be to hire Arabs for jobs that require Saturdays – except that then there’d be this weird society where Arabs serve Jews one day a week, while the Jews have their day of rest – and that gives me the creeps.

It also violates the entire idea of Shabbat, which really is “in order that …. that the son of your servant and the stranger among you be refreshed”***** . I would argue that the idea of Shabbat, unlike its halachik implementation, falls under the “Jewish culture” purview of a Jewish state.


I’ve heard it argued that Sundays are a viable alternative Saturdays as the day off during which things are “normal”. Since Shabbat observers don’t drive, communicate by electronic means, or use money on Shabbat, it’s hard for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews to get together on Saturdays – but much easier on Sundays, at least in other Western countries, where Sunday is a day off. My secular relatives say if they had Sundays to go to the beach, maybe they’d even give up Saturdays and go Orthodox. My Orthodox friends ask how it would be possible to cook for Shabbat on Thursday nights and to make up the hours from leaving work early on winter Fridays – but hundreds of thousands of Jews outside of Israel manage.

Of course, Sundays off wouldn’t solve the larger issues of worker’s rights, equality, democracy, and Jewish identity that are inherent in the Shabbat question, but maybe it’s better to debate that question on a Sunday afternoon, over glasses of tea.

But the thing is, in many Western countries, Sundays aren’t quite “normal”. Often there are “blue laws” that regulate what may be open, and when – stores are open for fewer hours, transportation runs less frequently – and, I was once told, in Boston, I couldn’t buy a malt chocolate truffle from Godiva on a Sunday because their blue laws forbade selling alcohol.****

These blue laws preserve the historic role of Sunday in Christianity as a day when work was forbidden, but also allow for things to be open in order to accommodate our modern, consumerist definitions of rest and relaxation.

When it comes to Shabbat in Israel, perhaps blue law models are the way to go. Allowing stores and restaurants to be open, but only for a few hours, would lessen economic pressure on Shabbat observers and retain a memory of the day’s religious meaning throughout much of Jewish history, while also accommodating the country’s secular and non-Jewish populations and their desire to be able to have a “normal” Saturday.

This is probably the point where I should confessed that I’m biased: I’m a big fan on Sundays – French toast doesn’t work on Friday mornings because you don’t have any leftover challah!

*Using the Orthodox definition because that’s the one usually referred to in this debate and I want to address it on its own terms; I don’t mean to imply that people who aren’t Orthodox don’t observe Shabbat.

**This particular argument is based on what I read in “Letters to Talia”.

***Ideal Biblical society wasn’t purely capitalist or purely socialist -kind of like a modern social welfare state. For example, you had to leave out food for paupers, tithe crops, etc. – an ancient equivalent of social benefits for the most vulnerable.

**** Just another reason to support the Yankees

*****Exodus 23: 12

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.