When Sunday is No Longer Sabbath

Our fractured communities could benefit from a return to a shared day of rest.

This article appeared in the July 13 print issue of CC under the title “A Shared Sabbath”

During a visit to Jerusalem 25 years ago, I had an interesting experience that highlighted the importance of Sabbath for observant Jews. Our group was visiting the Western Wall, the sole remaining portion of Herod’s Temple following its destruction by the Romans in AD 70. As a long-time personal journal keeper, I sat down near the wall and began to record the experience. No sooner had I brought out my pen than a young man – an Orthodox Jew – walked over to tell me that it was prohibited to write in the presence of the wall on the Sabbath. It was Friday evening, and the sun was setting. So I put away my pen and waited until later to record my impressions.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. One of those click bait stories that pops up online drew my attention: “Manhattan surrounded by hidden wire 18 miles long.” It seems that Orthodox Jews have constructed an eruv around much of the principal borough of New York City to demarcate a rabbinically approved private space. As Jews are not allowed to carry anything in a public space on the Sabbath, the eruv is declared a private space, permitting them to carry books, purses, backpacks and even small children on the seventh day. Maintaining this eruv is an expensive proposition, with rabbis inspecting it weekly for possible breaks.

Both of these stories point to the significance of the Sabbath to observant Jews. Yet even Christians, who long ago moved Sabbath observance to the first day of the week, follow practices that the larger world may find peculiar. When I was growing up, we were not allowed to listen to certain phonograph records on Sunday, and some games were reserved for the weekdays. My parents “lightened up,” so to speak, as my siblings and I grew older, yet there is much to be said for putting aside a day for an entire community to rest, whatever concrete practices are associated with it.

Countercultural rest

When I first arrived in Ontario in the late 1980s, the province still had laws on the books mandating the closure of most stores on Sundays. But during Bob Rae’s NDP government a few years later, these laws were repealed, despite the opposition of many people, including one of the larger grocery chains. A man in my church congregation asked me whether I would join his effort to oppose the government’s plans, but I declined, reasoning that it was not the role of the government to enforce the Christian Sabbath. Sphere sovereignty and all that.

I can’t exactly say that I’ve changed my mind, but in the years since I’ve come to wonder whether we didn’t lose something by acquiescing in what sounded right at the time. Virtually no one is compelled to work seven days a week, and all full-time workers take the equivalent of a weekend off. But now the weekend is movable, refusing to stay put at the traditional Saturday and Sunday. Some people take two days off in the middle of the week, needing to work Saturdays and Sundays. The principle of Sabbath rest continues, but it has become radically individualized over the past nearly three decades. Everyone is plugged into the market as individuals, subject to the relentless 24/7 urgency of the market. Our society’s individualism, already carried to the nth degree in what I have labelled the “choice-enhancement state,” has eroded community, opening us to the impersonal workings of both market and state.

We cannot turn back the clock. Yet even at this late stage, Christians would do well to recover a communal understanding of Sabbath rest, something at once profoundly countercultural and honouring to the God into whose rest we will one day enter.

  • David Koyzis is a retired political science professor living in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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