Illustrated Essay
February 21, 2023

The Fight for the Sabbath

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

Avi Garelick Illustrated by Solomon Brager

The torrent of Jewish immigrants that poured onto US shores in the late 19th century encountered an environment singularly inhospitable to the observance of Shabbos. Many were forced into a six-day workweek, toiling up to 18 hours a day, memories of old-world political oppression fading before a new world of economic exploitation. Amidst the fast paced of modern industry, taking time to observe Shabbos or learn Torah was a sign of indolence, clogging the engine of production with the residues of culture
and religion.

The American Jewish establishment of the time, dominated by the bourgeois Reform movement, was not inclined to question the prevailing schedule of the US economy. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which codified the movement’s tenets, acknowledged the “very large number of Jews who, owing to economic and industrial conditions, are not able to attend services.” But instead of challenging these conditions, the platform conceded the point: “Resolved, That in the judgment of this Conference there is nothing in the spirit of Judaism to prevent the holding of divine services on Sunday, or any other day of the week.” Many congregations did hold services on Sunday, though initially as supplements rather than replacements for the Saturday service; the transfer remained controversial in a population that resisted Christianity even despite its ambivalence about tradition. Reform rabbi Isaac Wise of Cincinnati, for instance, called the Sunday Sabbath “a bare faced and downright hypocrisy and lie.” “You can desecrate the Sabbath,” he wrote, “but you cannot consecrate the Sunday.”

The wavering position of Reform leadership could have remained the status quo, if not for an intervention by a group of rabbis calling themselves the Jewish Sabbath Alliance, led by Rabbi Bernard Drachman. Drachman was no warrior for the cause of labor. He was just a New York rabbi in an uncomfortable position: As he put it in his memoirs, “there was no room, no demand in America, for an American-born, English-speaking rabbi who insisted on maintaining the laws and usages of Traditional Judaism.” Unlike the traditionalists who were educated in the yeshiva system and focused on Talmud study, Drachman had been educated in public schools in Jersey City while learning Torah from a private tutor. After beginning his studies at Columbia University he was recruited to the Reform-run Emanu-el Theological Seminary. Only after graduating from Columbia did he break with Reform Judaism, seeking to harmonize traditional Judaism and modernity. He found himself looking for balance between two extremes: While the Reform rabbis adjusted their service schedule to accommodate Sunday attendance, the approach of the yeshiva-educated rabbis was principally to identify and attack Jewish-owned businesses that violated Shabbos.

But Drachman wanted people to go to shul on Shabbos, and he thought it could be done—not by haranguing wayward congregants but by changing US laws. Christians enjoyed a day of rest, often enforced by “blue laws,” which forbade business activity on Sunday even by minority religions. Drachman thought these laws were transparently against the American value of religious freedom. “How can an American state say to its citizens of Hebrew faith: ‘You must revere and observe the day consecrated to the memorial of the resurrection of the Nazarene’? Yet this is exactly what it is doing when it compels the observance of Sunday by Jews,” he told an audience of Christian clergy in 1915. “If this is not religious tyranny, what is?”

Drachman wanted people to come to shul on Shabbos, and he thought it could be done—not by haranguing wayward congregants but by changing US laws.

Drachman became president of the Jewish Sabbath Alliance, a cross between a religious organization and a social reform club that advocated for Shabbos as a right. As educated members of the middle class, the traditionalist rabbis who led the Sabbath Alliance turned first to legislatures and courts to press their case, hoping for fair redress on a matter of religious discrimination. These efforts invariably failed, meeting with opposition from a growing movement of Christian Sabbatarians, who pressed for an observance of the Sunday Sabbath not just through church attendance but by the enforced cessation of work, commerce, and leisure activities like movies and sports. The Sabbath Alliance also petitioned employers to make exceptions for their Jewish workers, allowing them a different day off—a request that even Jewish factory managers, charged with overseeing the lockstep rhythms of industry, turned down. Individual appeals couldn’t get far. They were up against the evolution of large-scale, mass production.

Before the advent of capitalism, agricultural workers typically labored in the field from sunrise to sunset. Workers in preindustrial America had more freedom to set their own work rhythms, often working hard for short periods, broken up by lax periods throughout the year. But capitalism enforced a rigid clock time that eroded the ebb and flow of seasonal time. Industrial machinery worked on its own schedule—the boss’s schedule—and physically pulled workers along with it. “Without machines, the workman stops here a minute, there a minute; goes slower now and then, and is careful not to overwork himself,” the 19th-century labor organizer Michael Schwab wrote in his autobiography. “The machine alters this. It does not stop for a minute, or run a little slower; it takes no consideration whatever.”

Throughout the 19th century, workers fought for their time against the implacable resistance of their bosses and a bedrock Puritan ethic that aimed to keep the rabble working and away from vices and indolence. Workers banded together, fighting and sometimes dying for the ten-hour day. In the summer of 1835, for example, 2,000 factory children in Paterson, New Jersey, went on strike to reduce their daily hours from 13.5 to 11, with a shorter nine-hour day on Saturdays. The strike lasted for two months, and resulted in a compromise settlement of 12-hour days. In the process, it picked up support from organizations of skilled workers in Newark and New York; the fight for free time united the working class in a way that wage fights, easily stratified, could not.

It was only during the Civil War that a movement coalesced for the eight-hour day; the success of abolitionism gave labor a sense of possibility and a broader vision of what emancipation meant. Karl Marx wrote in 1867, “Out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation.” Two decades later, the fight for eight hours was still at the heart of the labor movement: The summer of 1886 saw a nationwide strike of more than 100,000 people, culminating in the infamous confrontation at Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The idea of a two-day weekend was not yet on the horizon of those fights.

It did turn out to be a mostly Jewish workplace that pioneered the five-day workweek in the US, but under unusual circumstances and to limited ends. Few details have been recorded, but it seems that a New England spinning mill run by both Jewish managers and Jewish workers adopted a five-day working schedule in 1908. Representatives of labor and capital both wanted to keep Shabbos, so together they made history. Unfortunately, this was no great breakthrough in the larger struggle over working time: Management insisted on maintaining the productivity levels of a six-day week, so Saturday working hours were spread throughout the rest of the week. How else could they compete?

Shabbos in one shop is like socialism in one country, hemmed in by contradiction. A broader movement, blending religious and secular elements, would have to emerge before the two-day weekend could bring a genuine decrease in working hours.

Shabbos in one shop is like socialism in one country, hemmed in by contradiction.

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.

What was the point of creating all this wealth if not to be enjoyed by those who produced it, in pursuit of life, leisure, and learning?

In adopting the cause of the five-day week, Drachman’s own horizons gradually broadened beyond the religious sphere to include issues of labor and economics. He came to believe that the five-day week could not only secure a right to observe the Sabbath, but could also stabilize unemployment, pose a “cure for overproduction,” as he put it in his writings, and create a sense of social and spiritual ease for American workers. His belief in the social power of the Sabbath was consonant with some arguments emerging from the labor movement. The US economy was charging ahead at ever-greater levels of productivity, capitalizing on technological advances and new “scientific” management of factory work, which increased efficiency through innovations like the assembly line. These advances created a novel problem for capital: too much production. Business leaders and the nascent advertising industry pushed to solve that problem by increasing consumption levels. But the labor movement rallied around a different solution: the progressive shortening of the hours of labor. What was the point of creating all this wealth if not to be enjoyed by those who produced it, in pursuit of life, leisure, and learning? In a time before mass culture, when social life was thick with webs of class and ethnic association, time off felt like a potent weapon for worker education and self-organization—essential for building institutions like tenant unions, cooperatives, and workers’ libraries and schools. Maybe before long, early 20th-century socialists proclaimed, we will be working as few as four hours a day, doing our part to develop and maintain a highly advanced society, enjoying the weekly sabbath of our choice, with plenty of time left over!

But the workers’ movement was not the only social force with an interest in shorter work hours. In fact, the cause had a great pioneer in the capitalist camp as well: none other than the infamous Henry Ford. Ford looms large in bourgeois histories of the weekend, and for good reason. In 1914, a year before Drachman’s address to the Lord’s Day Congress, Ford rolled out a groundbreaking work program that included eight-hour days for married male workers at an eye-popping five dollars a day (twice the average factory wage of the time). In 1926, he went further and instituted the two-day weekend. By the eve of the Great Depression, a solid majority of US workers on the five-day workweek—40–80%, depending on the source—were Ford’s employees.

Though his vision became hegemonic in the ensuing decades, at the time Ford was pilloried as a class traitor by his fellow bosses. The Wall Street Journal called his policy an “economic crime,” and an “intrusion of Biblical principles . . . where they do not belong.” He withdrew from the Employers’ Association of Detroit, of which he was a founding member, arguably because of the fallout from his reforms. Meanwhile, he drew praise from labor organizers and the Michigan Socialist Party. But Henry Ford was no socialist. He won his war against the workers’ movement by giving them part of what they wanted—demobilizing militant organizers who would otherwise target his workers for indoctrination, while reversing a persistent labor scarcity plaguing his revolutionary new “assembly line” regime.

Ford also had a third, more insidious reason for giving workers the weekend: It helped him better control his workers’ lives outside of work. Ford offered these attractive hours and wages only to family men whose wives didn’t work outside the home. He investigated workers’ off-the-clock vices like drinking, smoking, and incurring debts. He ran night and weekend classes to teach his workers English and American culture and proper living, culminating in the infamous “melting pot ceremony,” wherein immigrants would descend into a giant cauldron and shed the costumes of their native country.

Ford also had a more insidious reason for giving workers the weekend: It helped him better control his workers’ lives outside of work.

His company’s powerful influence over home and community life intensified the attention bosses paid to nonwork life—and profoundly scrambled the workers movement’s basic assumption that time off meant time for worker power. Those that did not comply with Ford’s plans faced serious consequences: On the very week that Ford introduced the five-dollar, eight-hour day, he also quickly fired 1,000 workers who had taken time off to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas. News of the open jobs brought a throng of 15,000 workers to the gates of the plant, ready to take their place. Leisure time and religious observance in Ford’s Highland Park were to be had at the sole discretion of the Ford Motor Company.

The power of Shabbos
, despite its promise, has never been free from the realities of power.

The people of Israel were given Shabbos by God, according to tradition, to remind them of the liberation from Egypt. But before that, it was given to them by Pharaoh. As the midrash has it, Moses was still living as a young royal in Pharaoh’s palace when he became concerned about the Israelites’ working conditions. He obtained an audience with his adopted father and said, My Lord, these workers might just die of exhaustion if they don’t get a day a week to rest.

Sounds good to me, said Pharaoh. I need my slaves ready to work. Thus the Pharaoh’s Sabbath was born, to refresh an enslaved people for another week of slavery.

When I taught this legend to my students, one of them asked me: What did they do on their day of rest? The power of the question was implied: If you exist in a state of total subjugation, if every hour is owned by Pharaoh, how can you rest on your day off? On such a day of rest, you would need to work, either to perpetuate your own survival, or to prepare for further slavery. The concept of Shabbos is structured by contradictions. Wherever there is a Pharaoh, observance of the Shabbos threatens to serve him as much as it promises to recall liberation. And of course, a Sabbath observed by oppressors is no more than the leisure enjoyed by slavers, with no divine character to it whatsoever.

In 1919, the Sabbath Alliance started to support unions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia organizing for the five-and-a-half day week. In 1920, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America passed a resolution for a five-day week; their resolution was followed by strikes in the needle trades, with clothing workers and silk workers in New York City and Paterson, New Jersey, demanding the five-and-a-half or five-day week. Labor actions for the next several years increasingly centered on the five-day, 40-hour week as a major issue. In a significant victory for the Sabbath Alliance, a 1924 convention of Orthodox Rabbis of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut endorsed the two-day weekend.

The most protracted and dramatic strike action for the 40-hour week was a 1926 strike of the New York Fur Workers’ Union led by militant Communists that lasted 17 weeks. Besides the shorter workweek, their demands included a 25% increase in wages, an unemployment fund established by employer contributions, reliable work schedules regardless of seasonal fluctuations in workload, and a May 1st holiday with full pay. The strike began on February 16th with close to 10,000 ready to walk the picket line. Facing harsh repression from the justice system, hired thugs, and the police—who drove their cars into the crowd—the union also faced red-baiting from the bosses; the socialist wing of the labor movement, which sided with bosses and the state against their Communist rivals; and the press (most prominently the socialist Jewish Daily Forward). But they held strong, and as the strike dragged on, they made the 40-hour week their central demand, citing the benefit to the unemployed, who would have a better chance at finding work with fewer hours per worker; worker health; and the needs of religious Jews who refused to work on Shabbos.

We don’t know what role members of the Sabbath Alliance played in mobilizing for this strike, whether they personally marched with the picketers or motivated Shabbos-observant furriers to organize. We do know one suggestive detail: that a mass meeting in support of the five-day week held by the Sabbath Alliance on May 10th at a high school on the Lower East Side coincided with a pivotal week for the strike, where the union withstood pressure from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to settle without the 40-hour week. Many Sabbath Alliance members surely attended the union’s mass meeting on May 22nd, which filled Madison Square Garden—the largest indoor meeting of the New York labor movement to that point. The furriers printed a call which was issued to all local labor organizations:

The strike was won in June, securing a 40-hour week and a 10% increase in wages.

While the Communists and Shabbos observers of the radical furriers’ union won their demands through the picket line, the mainstream labor movement sought to secure the weekend through the promise of labor peace and the marginalization of strike activity. In the fall of 1926, the same year as the furriers’ strike, the AFL resolved to support the five-day week. To make sure the boss didn’t lose anything in the bargain, William Green, just embarking on a 28-year tenure as AFL president, tied these reduced hours to maintenance of productivity levels and union cooperation on work rules, all while rooting out radical forces within the unions. Thus, Green’s AFL fell into the trap set by Ford, advocating for a kind of Pharaoh’s Weekend where workers could grill and chill and get ready for another numbing week on the assembly line.

By 1927, the Bureau of Labor Statistics pronounced the five-day week “practically the rule” in the clothing industry. But it was still quite rare in the American workforce overall, enjoyed by between 200,000 and 400,000 workers confined to the Ford plant, large segments of the well-organized building trades, and the Communist-inflected fur and clothing unions. It took the shock of the Great Depression and the dawn of the New Deal to bring the five-day week to a majority of US workers: The federal passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 required employers to adhere to an eight-hour day and a 40-hour week.

But utopian visions for a progressively shorter workweek have since faded away. The fight for the shortening of working hours plateaued after World War II, and today’s workers, many juggling multiple jobs, are lucky to get two full days off per week. Dawn has not broken onto an advanced society of abundance and leisure. And while many Jews today are privileged to enjoy the Sabbath, we regard our observance as a matter of personal choice, without aspiring to make it more accessible to others. Who is prepared to fight for Shabbos as a right, to join a broad workers’ coalition for more leisure and time for ourselves? Can a new Sabbath Alliance emerge?

Avi Garelick is a researcher and organizer based in Washington Heights, New York.

Solomon Brager is the author of the graphic memoir Heavyweight (William Morrow, 2024) and the director of community engagement at Jewish Currents.