What are you doing this weekend? Actually, most people take their weekends for granted and forget that the five day work week was a victory won by the labor movement of the early twentieth century, with rabbinical organizations as their partners.

Jews in America at the turn of the 20th century were, more often than not, forced to work on Shabbat. The threat of unemployment was frequently far stronger than the call of the synagogue. In addition to the Saturday work, Jewish life was greatly affected by “Blue Laws” that forbade commerce and industry on Sundays. Thus, even if a Jewish businessman wished to start a business of his own, his competitive ability was greatly hindered.

One of the earliest Jewish organizations that sought to remedy the Saturday situation was the Jewish Sabbath Alliance. They advocated for a staggering of the work week to allow Jews to work on Sunday. The resistance they met was overwhelming, to the point that the Jews were accused of trying to gain unfair advantages. The Alliance tried to fight the Blue Laws from a Constitutional standpoint, claiming that such laws forced Jews to observe a Christian sabbath, but the courts regarded Blue Laws as a civil necessity rather than a religious one.

As the labor movement grew, one of the primary desired reforms was a shortening of the work week, a movement supported by rabbinic associations affiliated with the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. The backing they gave the labor movements on this issue turned into a relationship in which organizations, such as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis actually preached in the language of the unions. For instance, Rabbi Bernard Drachman of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis advocated the creation of weekends as a means of improving the workers’ bargaining position for wages and a way to discourage over-production.

By 1924, a 40-hour/5-day a week schedule was well established and no longer considered negotiable. Surprisingly, one of the earliest industrialists to institute weekend closures was Henry Ford, a known anti-Semite. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act that established an official five day, 40-hour work week.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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