March 1, 2003


Bring Back the Sabbath (JUDITH SHULEVITZ, March 2, 2003, NY Times Magazine)
It can be startling to realize just how integral the Sabbath once was to American time. When we tell our children stories about the first pilgrims landing on our shores, we talk rather vaguely about their quest for religious freedom. We leave out that this freedom was needed in large part so that the Puritans could obey the Fourth Commandment -- ''Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy'' -- with a zealotry that had deeply alienated their countrymen back home. We all have heard of the Puritan ''blue laws,'' named, supposedly, for the color of paper they were printed on. They required attendance at church but punished anyone who got there with unseemly haste or on too showy a horse. They forbade unnecessary visiting, except in emergencies, and smoking and sports. Unlike Orthodox Jews, who though strict about the Sabbath are nonetheless encouraged to drink and have marital sex on Friday night, the ascetic Puritans frowned on any kind of drinking or sex on Sunday. In at least one documented instance, the ''lewd and unseemly behavior'' of kissing your wife on your doorstep upon returning home from a journey of three years was punished by a spell in the stocks. From sunset Saturday to sunset Sunday, the most pious Sabbatarians (usually clergymen) wouldn't shave, have their rooms swept or beds made or allow food to be prepared or dishes washed. They ate only what had been cooked in advance and devoted all time not spent in church to reading Scripture.

Even after Puritanism lost its hold on American culture, the American Sunday was observed with unusual strictness. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed with some surprise that few Americans were ''permitted to go on a hunt, to dance or even to play an instrument on Sunday.'' As recently as 125 years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a museum or library open on Sunday. Eighty years ago, football was considered too vulgar to be played on Sunday. Oldsters remember standing in line at the bank on Fridays to get cash for the weekend; youngsters assume they can withdraw at will. Anyone older than 30 can remember living with the expectation that most stores would be closed on Sunday; the expectation now is that they will be open, and we're miffed when they aren't. [...]

The eclipse of the Sabbath is just one small part of the larger erosion of social time, with its former generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose. ''After hours'' has become a strictly personal concept, since the 24-hour convenience store, gas station, pharmacy, supermarket, movie theater, diner, factory and bar all allow us to work, shop, dine and be entertained at any time of day or night. We greet each shift of an activity from weekday to evening or weekend as proof of American cultural superiority; we knock over the barriers between us and the perpetual motion machine that is the marketplace with the glee you might expect of insomniacs who had been chained for too long to their beds.

The lingering traces of Sabbatarianism seem comically vestigial, like the fetal tail: the New York blue law that won't let you buy beer till after noon on Sunday; Broadway stages that go dark on Sunday nights; work rules requiring us to show up at our offices Monday through Friday, even though many of us do our best work at night or on weekends (and, as you know if you've seen the movie ''Office Space,'' putting in face time at the office is often a cover for doing less).

Customs exist because they answer a need; when they disappear, that need must be met in some other way. There is ample evidence that our relationship to work is out of whack. Economists, psychologists and sociologists have charted our ballooning work hours; the increase in time devoted to competitive shopping; the commercialization of leisure that turns fun into work and requires military-scale budgeting and logistics and emotionally draining interactions with service personnel. Personally, I think the alarm about these matters is often overblown. Most people, with the possible exception of parents of 13-year-olds, have the wherewithal to avoid the mall if they want to, and anyone who seeks to relax in a theme park or on a packaged tour deserves what he gets. So I won't weary you with cautionary tales about what our work-addicted culture can do to you, psychologically and physiologically, because, for one thing, it's completely within your power to hold it at bay, and for another, you don't want to anyway. Ours is a society that pegs status to overachievement; we can't help admiring workaholics. Let me argue, instead, on behalf of an institution that has kept workaholism in reasonable check for thousands of years.

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily, the way you might slip into bed at the end of a long day. As the Cat in the Hat says, ''It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.'' This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional, requiring extensive advance preparation -- at the very least a scrubbed house, a full larder and a bath. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.

Amazing, isn't it, how much better this essay is than anything that they ran in their big Ten Commandments series?

When we were growing up in NJ there were blue laws, but then the malls came and you couldn't deprive them of a day of shopping. And our father's father was a sabbatarian, though there's an unconfirmed rumor that he attended a Brooklyn Dodger/ New York Yankee World Series game on a Sunday...once. And on the weekend before he died he had took the Other Brother on board the USS Forrestal for Operation Sail on Sunday--so he (a Baptist) went to Catholic Mass on Saturday night, the only Sunday I ever recall him missing church. But those were the extraordinarily rare exceptions. The rule was that he would be available to us all day--after church, of course--to play games or go to the park or whatever and dinner would be a reasonably elaborate affair. This made Sundays very much different and very much better than the rest of the week. Because he kept his time for worship and family inviolable, it somehow made the enormous amount of time he devoted to his court and to faith-based organizations (though we didn't call them that then) easier to accept. Thus did a seemingly antiquated custom serve important, indeed timeless, purposes.

Folks are fond of pooh-poohing the longing for such earlier eras and claim that we can never go back. But when we realize how much we've lost and how little gained through such forms of "progress", why not turn back the clock? Why not, at a minimum, ban liquor sales on Sunday, or maybe bring back blue laws altogether? I know, I know, there'd be all kinds of lost economic activity...blah, blah, blah. Isn't that a loss we can more easily afford as a society?

This is the kind of dilemma that true conservatism eventually finds itself faced with:

In any era the problem of conservatism is to find the way to restore the tradition of the civilization and apply it in a new situation. But this means that conservatism is by its nature two-sided. It must at one and the same time be reactionary and presentist. It cannot content itself with appealing to the past. The very circumstances that call conscious conservatism into being create an irrevocable break with the past. The many complex aspects of the past had been held together in tension by the unity of the civilization, but that particular tension, that particular suspension in unity, can never be recreated after a revolutionary break. To attempt to recreate it would be pure unthinking reaction (what Toynbee calls "archaism") and would be bound to fail; nor could any reaction truly restore the civilizational tradition to the recovery of which it was putatively directed. But while conservatism is not and cannot be naked reaction, neither can its concern with contemporary circumstances lead it, if it is to be true to itself, to be content with the status quo, with serving as the "moderating wing" within the existing situation. For that situation is the result of a revolutionary break with the tradition of the civilization, and to "conserve" it is to accept the radical break with tradition that conservatism exists to overcome.
-Frank S. Meyer, Recrudescent American Conservatism

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2003 11:25 PM

As a perpetually-overworked corporate lawyer and an Anglican, I couldn't agree more with the idea of bringing back Sunday closing laws. (Sadly, closing liquor stores won't do it -- in Delaware, where I live, liquor stores are closed by law on Sunday and folks just drive to Maryland to buy their Sunday rum. In northwest Indiana, where I lived 1999-2001, folks drove to Illinois. Aversion to work on Sunday seems like a cultural thing for the "little platoons," which the laws can support but not cause.)

The problem I always encounter is that everybody realizes the reason for Sunday laws is the Fourth Commandment as interpreted by Christians. So they say to me, "But why not Saturday (for the Jews) or Friday (for the Muslims) or Tuesday (for the non-religious who just want to be different and don't like going to work on Tuesdays)? And why a seven-day cycle instead of six or ten or some other number?" Any answer that isn't couched in Christian terms (and hence unacceptable to non-Christians and modern Supreme Court justices alike) is either arbitrary or an obvious dodge -- not that there's anything wrong with either of those, both having long traditions in the law...

Posted by: J. Hendershot at March 2, 2003 12:30 AM


Sounds like a storm in a teacup to me. You can still devote time to your family and leisure if you want to. You just have to order your priorities. Having laws to enforce what should be a personal decision is disgusting.

Posted by: John Ray at March 2, 2003 2:23 AM


Yes, this is the one place where government should not interfere at all. The entire panoply of laws and actions that have attrited family can remain though. What color is the sky down there?

Posted by: oj at March 2, 2003 5:39 AM

I agree with John, legislating behavior is to be avoided. Now if we could only get the liberal left to realize that...

Posted by: at March 2, 2003 9:01 AM

I forgot to sign my comment below.

Posted by: Bart Rhodes at March 2, 2003 9:02 AM

Mr. Rhodes:

We live in the real world, not an idealized libertarian world. The question is not whether our behavior will be influenced by laws but whether conservatives will maintain an artificial purity while those laws are written by the Left.

Posted by: oj at March 2, 2003 9:14 AM


I'm too old to be idealistic. I merely meant that often times the Left tends to try to "fix" society with too much unnecessary legislation. They seem to have no confidence in the American people's ability to live and function in a democratic society. Also I am not a libertarian, but a lifelong member of the GOP.

Posted by: Bart Rhodes at March 2, 2003 11:38 AM

Mr. rhodes:

I didn't mean any offense by "libertarian" just that the idea that if Republicans don't legislate behavior it won't be legislated is badly wrong.

Posted by: oj at March 2, 2003 12:17 PM

The thought on the "conservative dilemma" inspires me to bring forth this definition of conservatism:

Conservatives seek to discover the traditional in what is new, and to make new the traditional.

Posted by: pj at March 2, 2003 12:51 PM

One problem would be that I live on an island

with 120,000 residents and about 40,000

tourists. The tourists have not been polled,

but I doubt they want to fast one day a week

while on holiday. Foolish leftists, but even

leftists gotta eat.

My brother, the Mormon bishop, reserves

Wednesday evenings as family hour (I believe

this is general practice among Mormons) and

has for over 30 years. People clamor for his

attention, but they can't get it on Wednesday


I've lived under a sabbatarian regime, and

besides the fact that it was tyrannical, like all

religious precepts, it was unpleasant.

Posted by: Harry at March 2, 2003 3:40 PM

As I recall, blue laws did not close restaurants, merely forbade their selling liquor.

Posted by: oj at March 2, 2003 5:29 PM


Your brother, the Mormon Bishop? I assume there's a story there. Is he the white sheep of the family?

Posted by: David Cohen at March 2, 2003 7:26 PM

Yes, there is a story there. But a reunions, we follow the rules of the Baltimore Fish & Chowder Society. We do not discuss religion.

The blue laws where I lived, as late as 1976, did not close restaurants, but they did close stores, except gas stations.

Posted by: Harry at March 3, 2003 7:58 PM