American weekends were once ruled by strict Sunday laws. They governed what to do – attend church with risk of decapitation for non-compliance – and what was forbidden – work or travel. Even George Washington was once halted during a journey and warned that he was violating a Connecticut statute that forbade Sunday jaunts. Tragically, such laws caused many Jews to desert shemiras Shabbos in favor of a healthier wallet.
For Jews, the problem would never have existed had Christians clung to their original day of rest . Saturday. But as they went about creating a new religion, Christians dropped Jewish practices. They got rid of Shabbos and promoted Sunday as a holy day. This tendency was translated into law by Constantine the Great, the monarch who appointed Christianity as official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire. “On the venerable day of the Sun,” Constantine’s law read, “let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for gain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.” (Lex Constantini a. 321).
Many Christians were reluctant to desert Saturday observance while others observed both Saturday and Sunday. This prompted the Church Council of Ladodicea to issue an injunction in about 364 c.e. that, “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring [Sunday]; and, if they can, resting then as Christians.”
In some locales dual observance of Saturday and Sunday persisted for centuries. The practice existed in 12th Century Wales, was suppressed in Norway during the 15th Century, and survived in Ethiopia until modern times. But in general, Saturday observance became an anomaly among Christians.
It is fascinating to note that in at least one instance early Christians passed legislation protecting the right of Saturday rest. This was in the year 409 when the Eastern Roman Empire decreed that “on the Sabbath and other day during which the Jews pay respect to their own mode of worship, we enjoin that no one shall do anything or ought to be sued in any way with regard to public taxes and private litigations. It is plain that the rest of the days can suffice.”
Strict Sunday laws became common throughout Europe and moved to America. One example is an early 1650 Sunday law of Massachusetts that declaimed in archaic English: “Further be it enacted that whosoever shall prophane [Sunday] be doeing any servill worke or any such like abuses, shall forfeite for every such default tenn shillings or be whipte.”
Sunday legislation had a very negative effect on Jewish observance. Two centuries ago, the wealthy Joseph Marx of Richmond complained that “nothing has so seriously caused us to reject our religion as the Christian policy of adopting a different Sabbath, the force of example at least, would carry Jews to the Synagogue when Christians mass to the Churches, nay there would not be the same clashing of interests, nor a day of labor lost.”
The Shabbos Clash When shomrei Shabbos Jews complained against the unfairness of penalizing them with two workless days, American courts had mixed reactions. The first such case was in 1816 when a Jew contended that as a staunch Shabbos observer he should be exempt from the double indemnity of resting on Sunday and Shabbos. For the court this was a non sequitur and his claim was rejected.
In 1833, Alexander Marks and another Jew argued in a Columbia, Ohio court that the first amendment should guarantee free conscience for all and no one should have to rest on another man’s holy day. But the bug of misfortune bit again. The court countered that Sunday laws were for the benefit of society and not religion.
Other courts were more egalitarian. In about 1845 a court in Hamilton County, Ohio, let off some Jews who had been fined for doing business on Sunday. The Sunday laws were unconstitutional, the court argued, and a Jew who observes Shabbos could practice his avocation on another day so long as he was not a nuisance to the public.
In 1849 the State of Virginia amended its Sunday laws and granted shomrei Shabbos Jews the right to open their businesses. “And the said forfeiture [of paying two dollars for each offence of working on Sunday],” read the amendment, “shall not be incurred by any person who conscientiously believes that the seventh day of the week ought to be observed as a Sabbath, and actually refrains from all secular business and labor on that day, provided he does not compel a slave, apprentice, or servant not of his belief to do secular work or business on Sunday, and does not on that day disturb any other person.” Isaac Leeser’s Occident newspaper exulted: “At length we see daylight; reason and true liberty have triumphed in Virginia over the narrow-sighted bigotry which can only see right on its own side of the question. We rejoice at this enlightened legislation, not that we wish the Jews to open their shops in large Christian communities, and invite persons to come and deal with them in violation of their principles; but wish them to be at liberty to act at their pleasure, to open or close their places of business as they may see fit.”
Despite flashes in the pan, the friction Jews endured to keep a different day of rest led extreme reform rabbis such as Samuel Hirsh (who served as a temple minister in the US from 1866-1888) to advocate changing the Jewish day of rest from Saturday to Sunday. Even reformers considered this idea grotesque and it came to nothing.
Havoc in New York
The Sunday laws wreaked havoc in New York. The massive influx of Jews between 1880 and 1890 when the Jewish population of New York leapt from about 80,000 to almost 600,000 coincided with a religious revival of Protestants who believed it was time to create a Christian state.
As one journal editor put it, “The heathen may just as well understand now as later that we are going to have a quiet and Christian Sunday in this country and if they do not like it they can emigrate to the heathen countries from which most of them came.”
A penal code with stringent Sunday amendments passed in 1881 was increasingly enforced as the years rolled on. Jewish Peddlers who didn’t want to lose a day of work paid protection money to policemen who would surreptitiously mark the carts of non-contributors with the letter c and earmark them for arrest. The number of Jews penalized for working on Sunday jumped from only 13 in 1884 to 295 in 1903, a total during those nine years of 4,712. “The struggle for a living is hard and painful,” it was reported. “The average Jew is not only unable to celebrate all the feast days; he barely preserves the sanctity of the Sabbath . in many cases he is forced to work on the Sabbath.” By World War II, twenty-four of the Union’s forty-eight states still prohibited work on Sunday, while most of the rest of the states only granted partial exemptions to shomrei Shabbos. In 1961 four legal battles in the Supreme Court strove and failed to ease the lot of Shabbos observers.
In the “Gallapher versus Crown Kosher Supermarket” case, a shomer Shabbos supermarket raised the argument that it was unconstitutional to foist Sunday as the Sabbath day of the whole country. The court countered that although the Sunday law was originally instated for religious reasons, modifications over the years such as allowing dancing and most sports indicated that the present purpose of the law was more geared towards rest than religion.
As for the argument that closing down for two days was a deprivation of religious freedom, the court rejected it on the grounds of the verdict earlier that year: “If the state regulates conduct by enacting a general law within its power, the purpose and effect of which is to advance the state’s secular goals, the statute is valid despite its indirect burden on religious observance unless the state may accomplish its purpose by means which do not impose such a burden.”
Decade by decade, the Sunday laws lost their sting. To a large extent, the beleaguered Sunday laws are now historical artifacts even where they are still on the books. This is largely due to economical pressures and a drop in old time religiosity.
But the jig isn’t up. A vestige of Sunday Law survives in Bergen County of New Jersey. Despite the state of New Jersey repealing its Blue Law in 1959, Bergen County took advantage of local jurisdictions being free to make their own restrictions and disallows the sale of clothing furniture appliances, home and office furnishings, and building and lumber supplies.
Paramus, NJ, home to several mega-malls and large stores, has even stricter rules and prohibits selling almost anything except newspapers and magazines, some foodstuffs, and a handful of other products.
This is ironic as the county is not particularly religious. Last year there was talk of repealing Bergen County’s Sunday law that is estimated to cripple 3,200 potential jobs and over $1.1 billion in annual sales. But for once the almighty dollar does not reign supreme. The Bergen county mavericks prefer peace and quiet over traffic jams and hustling in local malls.
(Sources: Paul Djupe and Laura Olson, “Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics,” New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003; David N. Laband, Deborah Hendry Heinbuch, “Blue laws: the history, economics, and politics of Sunday-closing law,” 2008; Batya Miller, “Enforcement of the Sunday closing laws on the lower east side, 1882-1903,” Albert M. Friedenberg,”.The Jews and the Sunday Laws,” American Jewish Historical Society, 11, 1903. Myron Berman,”Richmond’s Jewry, 1769-1976: Shabbat in Shockoe,. University of Virginia Press, 1979.)