Week – Five Day

One of the biggest trials faced by Jews entering the United States at the turn of the last century was the difficulty of observing Shabbos in a society dominated by a six-day week. Anxious to remove these impediments from Shabbos observance, rabbonim joined the fight of socialists to introduce the present five-day week.



The six day week was doubly onerous. Jewish employees were forced to work six days. Self-employed Jews who took off on Shabbos generally could not make up the lost time on Sunday because Christian Sabbatarian movements of the 1820s and 30s had promoted blue laws, which forbade most commercial activities on Sunday. Most states instated such laws during the 1880s; by 1890, Sunday laws existed in every state except Arizona, California and Idaho.

In an extreme spirit of intolerance, Senator Henry William Blair attempted to legislate a national Sunday law, arguing: “I believe that instead of selecting and finally tolerating all so-called religions, the American people will, by constant and irresistible pressure, gradually expel from our geographical boundaries every religion except the Christian in its valid forms.”

Blair failed to realize his wish, but the existing situation was bad enough. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and other Jewish organizations warned in 1926 that “this violation of the Sabbath, if continued indefinitely, must invariably lead to the gradual disintegration of our people.”

The most active body involved in the fight for Shabbos from 1903 to 1920 was the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath Alliance (JSA), which battled against the strengthening of Sunday laws and for the introduction of a five day week. The Alliance devoted most of its early years to fighting against the blue laws which promoted Sunday as the prime day of rest. But this effort came head to head against Christian organizations such as the L-rd’s Day Alliance and the Central Sabbath Crusade Committee, which from around the beginning of 1918 attempted to make Sunday observance even stricter and eliminate not only work on the day of rest, but also leisure activities such as sports and movies.

Leaders of the L-rd’s Day Alliance accused the Jewish Sabbath Alliance of trying to weaken Sunday in order to provide Jews with an unfair business advantage. Existing blue laws were enforced and new Sunday laws were legislated.



From 1920, the JSA changed direction and stopped trying to weaken the blue laws for everyone. Instead, it argued that forcing Jews to rest on Sunday was a breach of the separation between state and religion and promoted the New York Dickstein Bill, which aimed at allowing Jews to operate businesses on Sunday. New York Senator Bernard Downing even tried to introduce legislation which would have made Saturday as strict a day of rest as Sunday, declaring that “If this bill becomes law, it will give 1,600,000 Jews… no further justification for saying that legislation designed to compel them to observe our Sunday laws involves discrimination, placing them at an economic disadvantage, …and a little more rest and leisure will do us no harm.”

These legislative efforts were unsuccessful. Courts did not regard the coercive blue laws as unconstitutional, nor did they see anything wrong with a Jew who observed Shabbos being forced to rest on Sunday as well.

The only front where JSA enjoyed success was its lobbying for the social issue of a five day week. This had been achieved on a small scale as early as 1908, when a New England spinning mill adopted a five day week to enable its Jewish workers to rest on Shabbos. One of the first to propose a large scale adoption of the idea was Rav Bernard Drachman, president of the JSA and the OU, who said in 1910, that the Shabbos issue was so entwined with American issues that only way to resolve it was to set aside two days of rest for “Christians and Jews alike.”

At a Christian convention in Oakland, California in 1915, he noted that several European countries such as England and Holland exempted Jews and other seventh day observers from Sunday laws and recommended America doing the same.

But realizing that this was impractical, he presented the idea he had published earlier in the Bulletin of the New York Sabbath Committee, namely, “The proposal of a weekly holy day and holiday, that is to say that there should be two days of rest weekly. This solution of the problem would, I believe, cope with all the difficulties, which are so keenly felt by all those interested in the question of Sabbath observance.”

From 1919, the JSA worked together with trade unions in large cities which were campaigning for a five-and-a-half day week. Although the unions that initially pressed for a shorter week were comprised mostly of Jews, Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt writes in The Jewish Sabbath Movement in the Early Twentieth Century that he was uncertain to what extent they were motivated by Shabbos observance because union leaders did not stress the religious side of the issue but pointed out its economic and social benefits.

Ironically, the first major business to begin a five day week was the Detroit car plant of the anti-Semitic Henry Ford, leading the Jewish Daily Bulletin of New York to joke that “Orthodox Jews and Henry Ford agree on one point.”

Ford said that the rationale of his five day week was to give workers more time to consume the products of industry, just as he had said when he introduced the five-dollar eight hour day 12 years earlier. But noticing that Ford introduced the five day week measure during a slump, researcher David Roediger argued that the shorter week was intended as cover for his drop in production.

Rav Drachman noted of Ford’s new measure that “Although Mr. Ford, to our sorrow, can hardly be classed as a friend of our people, we must in justice divorce his present action from his otherwise narrow-minded policy, and trust that his policy in adopting the five day week will be followed.”

Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America began advancing the five day reform in 1920 and from 1920 to 1924, a number of smaller unions began striking for the implementation of the five or five-and-a-half day week. Strikes intensified from 1924 and enjoyed such success that the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in 1927 that the five day week was “practically the rule in trade agreements in the clothing industry.”

Before World War 1 only twenty manufacturers adopted the practice; by 1929, 400,000 to 500,000 employees were working on a five day basis. In 1930, most discussion at the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention focused on the five-day week issue.

Jewish organizations including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, OU, JSA and Young Israel continued backing the new developments. In 1940, a provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act mandating a maximum 40 hour workweek went into effect and essentially, the two-day weekend was adopted nationwide. Many countries adopted the five day week over the succeeding decades in order to harmonize with international markets. During the 2000s and 2010s, a number of Persian Gulf Arab states altered the Thursday-Friday weekend they had until then with a Friday-Saturday weekend to enable more work days to coincide with the working day of international financial markets.



To justify the a five day week, some unions argued that due to the increased efficiency of modern production, workers must be paid more to buy the extra products being produced, and work shorter hours in order to create more jobs. Already then, people were asking whether machines were replacing men.

As Arthur O. Wharton, President of the American Federation of Labor’s Railroad Employees Department, put it:

“Increased production accentuates the problem of overproduction or under consumption. Increased wages and reduced hours go hand in hand with increased production… Economic balance can be maintained only if… wages advance and leisure hours increase. If some sort of balance is not maintained, we are headed straight for disaster.”

Union leaders also argued that work was becoming more dehumanizing and that more leisure time was required to counterbalance this. Lawyer and scholar Felix Cohen argued that people’s work was increasingly useless and increasingly worshipped for its own sake and that the working week could be shortened to thirty hours and even to ten hours in the near future.

Today, the proliferation of computers and robots has led some to predict that most work will become extinct and suggest a “universal basic income” plan whereby the government provides everyone with a basic paycheck even if he never does a stitch of work.

However, most businessmen and economists disagreed to the above assessments. They argued that the road forward was not to reduce production, but to stimulate increased demand through advertising, foreign markets and higher wages. U.S. President Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes noted that “Economists have long declared that consumption, the satisfaction of wants, would expand with little evidence of satiation, if we would so adjust our economic processes as to make dormant demands effective.”

“Our wants are almost insatiable,” his committee concluded. “One want satisfied makes way for another.”

Whether for social or religious reasons, the five day week became widespread and makes Shabbos observance a far easier choice than it was a hundred years ago.

(Main source: Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, The Jewish Sabbath Movement in the Early Twentieth Century, American Jewish History, Vol. 69, No. 2)

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