Sunday rest laws

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.

Long Weekends
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.)

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