Shabbos – Attempt to Replace with Sunday

One of the lesser known crimes of the Reform movement was the attempt of many of its adherents to oust the Shabbos and replace it with Sunday, the non-Jewish day of rest. The reasons for this move were various. Halfway through the 19th century, a radical German reformer shifted Shabbos services to Sunday in order to sync his congregation with German society. At the same time, reformers transferred the idea to the United States, less for ideological rationales than for the simple reason that few people were showing up for Shabbos services in an era when people worked six days a week.


The attempt to abolish Shabbos was part of the Reform movement’s policy of abolishing almost everything.

Describing the early German Reform movement, the Jewish Encyclopedia printed in 1906 writes:

“In the winter of 1844, Dr. Sigismund Stern delivered before the Culture Society of Berlin a course of eight lectures on the subject ‘The Mission of Judaism and the Jew in the Present.’ In these lectures he pleaded for some action that would stem the tide of indifference and bring back to the Synagogue the great number who had drifted away because its religious practices and ceremonies had ceased to satisfy them. The outcome of these lectures was the formation of the Genossenschaft für Reform im Judenthum (The Society for Reform in Judaism).”

This led to an 1845 circular titled “Appeal to Our German Coreligionists,” which called upon the Jews of Germany to cooperate with them in efforts to set up a synod to establish Judaism in a new form. However, Berlin reformers were impatient to wait until a synod could be convened and instituted a Reform service in modern style on the Yomim Noroim of 1845.

A committee suggested many radical measures which were carried into effect. These included services almost entirely in German, worship with uncovered heads, no shofar blowing, no talleisim, Birkas Kohanim recited by the preacher and the choir instead of by kohanim, and no differentiation between men and women in seating arrangements or in ritual.

The following month, the Jewish Encyclopedia continues, the battle against Shabbos erupted with a resolution that steps be taken toward holding services regularly twice every week, on Shabbos and Sunday. Apparently, regular weekday prayers no longer existed. Shabbos services were discontinued altogether in 1849 and since then, the 1906 encyclopedia reports, “services have been conducted on Sunday only.”

Head of the Berlin Reform congregations was Samuel Holdheim (1806-60), whose saw no reason to discourage marriage between Jews and non-Jews. He also had a weird idea, at odds with learning and logic, that the concept of dina demalchusa dina applied not only to taxes and monetary issues, but to halachic issues as well.

The idea of switching over to Sunday had already been raised earlier at the 1846 Breslau Rabbinical Conference, where delegates argued that Shabbos needed to be destroyed to save it; only by transferring it to Sunday would Jews be able to solve the problem of how to make a livelihood and observe a day of rest. The Frankfurter Journal published a series of debates about the issue with some arguing that emancipation and acceptance by the Western world would only be possible if Jews accepted the general day of rest, and the majority opining that the traditional day of rest was inviolate. Ultimately, the absolute abolishment of Shabbos services was adopted by only a handful of Reform institutions in Germany.


In the United States, reformers advocated Sunday services not so much for ideological reasons as for the purpose of attracting larger crowds and younger people. First to introduce special Sunday services was Baltimore’s Hebrew Reform Association in 1854. The first community to abrogate Shabbos services altogether was The Chicago Sinai Congregation which began having special Sunday services in 1885 and halted Shabbos services completely in 1887.

Kaufman Kohler, rabbi of the Chicago Sinai Congregation, was a major proponent of abolishing Shabbos, but later changed his mind, arguing that a Divinely instituted day could not be replaced by human beings.

Some theorized that the real reason for his change of mind was prosaic. Kohler was a very poor public speaker, they argued, and disappointed with the small audiences attending his temple on Shabbos. This led him to think that more people might attend his sermons if they took place on Sunday. Kohler changed his mind, the theorists maintained, after discovering that few people were interested in listening to him even after he began speaking at a more convenient time.

Another important supporter of Sunday services in the States was Joseph Krauskopf of Kansas City, Missouri, who originally opposed the idea but later regarded Sunday services a “remedy that promises to cure religious apathy in Israel.” Thanks to his gift of the gab, ever increasing crowds came to his supplementary Sunday services and the Knesseth Israel Temple in Philadelphia where he served became one of the largest Reform congregations in the United States.

American reformers debated the pros and cons involved in abolishing Shabbos for years. The Pittsburgh Rabbinical Conference of 1885 favored the idea, writing in its resolutions:

“It cannot be denied that there is a very large number of Jews who, owing to economic and industrial conditions, are not able to attend services on our sacred day of rest; be it 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, where the necessity of such services is felt.”

A later Reform organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, did not sanction the novel idea, but acknowledged the right of individual rabbis or congregations to do as they saw fit. A popular rationale stated in all seriousness in those days was that celebrating Shabbos on Sunday was similar to the concept of Pesach Sheini, observed by people who were unable to bring a korbon on Pesach proper. In similar vein, reformers argued, Sunday services were effectively a Shabbos Sheini to compensate for people too busy to make it to temple a day earlier.

The National Council of Jewish Women also debated the issue of ousting Shabbos. Its secretary, Sadie American, denounced the maintenance of Shabbos, saying this indicated a lack of progressiveness and was a manifestation of narrow mindedness. Likewise, President of the National Council of Jewish Women Hannah Solomon advocated the total abolishment of the traditional Shabbos day.

Outside the mainstream community, a single Jew, Louis Jackson of Chicago, campaigned to hijack Shabbos worldwide. In 1886, United States papers reported that he was proposing the formation of a World’s Day of Rest League to advocate the universal adoption of Sunday as a day of rest.

“He has already proposed to his Jewish brethren, on the broad claims of humanity, from prudential motives, and in the interest of Jewish artisans, that at a convention of representative Jews from all parts of the world, to be held in Paris in the year 1900, the Jewish Sabbath be transferred to the National Day of Rest by authoritative edict,” The Marlborough Express reported, concluding that “It is intended to form an international committee in the above interest as soon as possible.” Nothing seems to have resulted from Jackson’s grandiose farce.

Since many feared that monkeying around with day of rest would be a prelude to assimilation, the idea of moving Shabbos or sharing Shabbos with Sunday spread to only about 15% of United States Reform temples, and even among these, only two held services exclusively on Sunday.


Growing anti-Semitism cured many reformers of the notion that imitating non-Jews was the key to acceptance to a universal brotherhood, although some American assimilationists stubbornly clung to the notion that Sunday services would help “prove” that Reform Jews were the same as non-Jews.

After Orthodox Jews and trade unions achieved the instating of a five day week (a war which deserves an article of its own), the Reform preference for Sunday became unjustified and the pendulum swung back in favor of Shabbos services. By the 1920s, attempts to displace Shabbos were almost non-existent.

One of the last survivors was the Chicago Sinai Congregation. The Chicago Sinai Congregation had persisted with its Sunday services, publishing in 1899 a 100 page document titled, Report of the Services of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Introduction of Sunday Services in Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Until recently, Chicago Sinai Congregation was still advertising, “The Sunday Service was first instituted at Sinai in 1874 as a supplement to the Saturday Sabbath Service. However, it became so popular and evidently filled such a need, that by the early 20th Century it had become the major service of the week. Frequently, hundreds and thousands of people gathered in the congregation for the services, music and sermon. Today, Sunday services have the additional advantage allowing parents of Sunday school students an opportunity to worship while their children are in class.”

Eventually, even this temple gave up. According to its present publicized schedule, Saturday services are now held weekly while the Sunday service has been cut down to once a month.

(Sources include: American Jewish Archives Journal 1982, Kerry M. Olitxky, The Sunday-Sabbath Movement in American Reform Judaism: Strategy or Evolution?)

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