Belief  /  Origin Story

The Fight for the Sabbath

The partnership between rabbis and labor that delivered the two-day weekend.

After failed efforts to attain a special Jewish six-day week through the courts and legislatures, which consistently sided with a more powerful and aggressive blue law movement, the Sabbath Alliance decided they could only win by demanding more. As early as 1910, Drachman began to advocate within the organization for an ecumenical two-day Sabbath, observed by “Jews and Christians alike.” In 1915, he traveled to the Lord’s Day Congress in Oakland, California, an international convention of Christian Sabbatarians, and made a public address proposing a five-day week. He patiently explained that the timing of the Jewish Sabbath is sacrosanct and nonnegotiable. Just as he could not expect Christian Sabbath observance to return to Saturday, they should respect the smaller but equally valid Jewish tradition: “It is a matter of keen regret to us that this difference exists between us and the Christian world as regards the Sabbath, but it is not of our making nor is it in our power to alter it.”

Some of the more fair-minded clergymen were interested, but many Christians thought they smelled a rat around this Jewish sophistry. Surely there was some angle in it, some new way to violate the Lord’s Day and gain another business advantage. Harry Bowlby, president of the Lord’s Day Alliance, a prominent Sabbatarian advocacy group, attacked the “sordid, soulless, Godless worldlings” who controlled Jewish Hollywood, disrespecting the Christian Sabbath and undermining Christian morality through entertainments that profited them and detracted from the Lord’s Day. But Drachman had observed that the blue laws were contested even among Christians, a fact he connected to the goals of the Sabbath Alliance. Young workers, cooped up in factories during the week, rankled against sitting piously in church on their day off. Worldly amusements like shopping, theater, and public sports were all forbidden by blue laws in many states. Drachman regarded the working class with sympathy and argued that the five-day workweek would benefit “the young men and young women who have been tied down for six weary days to hard and exacting toil, who have been confined to the shop and the factory with no opportunity for the bright outdoor life which their young blood demands.” The two-day weekend could resolve this: “one [day] to be purely secular in character and devoted to physical recuperation, the other to be purely religious and devotional.”

And after all, why not two days? The utopian vision for the workweek echoed a messianic view of the Sabbath embedded deep within Jewish thought. For countless generations, students of the Jewish tradition had yearned for the time of the Messiah as the “Day that is All Shabbos,” an eclipse of the Edenic curse of hard labor. The messianic horizon had always been conceived as an expression of God’s will, not earthly effort—an unexpected intrusion of divine will into the plodding time line of human history. And yet, here the men and women of the labor movement, through a century of struggle for rest, were managing to bring into view a radical vision for a world remade by free time for workers.