When I first immigrated to Israel, what native Israelis told me most was, “life here is hard.”
They were referring, and continue to refer, to the relatively high cost of living and the very low salaries.
To make it without help, a negative bank balance or one of those predatory loans Israeli banks offer for holidays or vacations – Israelis have to work. Hard.
OECD figures show Israelis working 251 hours per year more than the OECD average, with a 43-hour average work week. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies’ “State of the Nation” report, while the number of work hours continues to drop in leading Western countries, for Israel, the number has roughly remained the same since the 1970s.
It’s safe to say then, that the hard working people of Israel deserve a break.
And that is why God created weekends.
But as is pointed out time and again, for at least a third of Israel’s population, the weekend is not a two-day period of relaxation. For the Shabbat-observant, Friday is fraught with errands and rushing in anticipation of Shabbat, which can begin as early as 4 p.m. This also leaves them with no full day off without the restrictions of Shabbat.
Even for the non-observant, many retail and entertainment businesses close a couple of hours before sundown on Friday and are not open throughout Shabbat.
A reorganization of the weekend schedule, by ending the workweek on Friday afternoon instead of on Thursday night, and making Sunday a day off instead of Friday – as is the case in every Western country – would solve these problems, slightly shorten the work week and allow this tense country to breathe a bit easier.
The most ardent champion of Sundays of late has been Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom, who proposed it during the tenure of the previous government.
Shalom proposed ending the Friday work-day at 1:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m., depending on the season and the corresponding Shabbat-start time. He called it the “long weekend.” To make up the lost hours, Shalom proposed adding a half-hour to each work day.
A number of trivial excuses for why Sundays could never work emerged in response to Shalom’s proposal: it would cause desecration of Shabbat; the half-day off on Friday wouldn’t give people sufficient time to prepare for Shabbat; it would force people to spend their money on family or children’s activities on Sundays, etc.
The real argument, however, was that the lost Friday work-hours could not be made up by adding a half-hour to the other days of the week, since productivity dips toward the end of the day. The make-up time would be less productive and the economy would suffer.
A study commissioned by the Manufacturers Association would later claim that “long weekends” would cost the economy NIS 13.8 billion per year. As Haaretz reported at the time, the report stated that “[t]he biggest loss...
would come from higher wage costs” to factories which would “inevitably have to pay extra to convince [employees] to work on a day off.” (Though in this way, the “long weekend” could be thought of as the equivalent of a minor hike to Israel’s nominal NIS 4,300 minimum wage).
Despite Shalom’s campaigning, the prime minister diplomatically tabled the proposal in July 2011 by referring it to Professor Eugene Kendell, head of the National Economic Council, for further study. The Council reportedly agreed with the lost-productivity argument, but was willing to consider a pilot program consisting of four “long weekends” per year with the work day ending at noon on Friday.
In the meantime, new ministers expressed support for Sundays, including Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Education Minister Shai Piron.
In February, Shalom, Bennett and Piron agreed on a compromise which they would work to implement: a once-a-month pilot program, not including the September holiday season or the summer months.
Though details are not yet final, under this scheme, Friday would remain a day off, creating a Friday-Sunday weekend nine times year. To compensate for the lost work time, nine existing school days off, such as Lag Ba’Omer or days preceding certain holidays, would be canceled.
Which days would be canceled and which Sundays would become days off might also change from year to year.
If approved, this proposal would be an extremely disappointing end to Shalom’s Sundays push. While it may create additional days off, it has little to do with restructuring the weekend to allow for an appropriate weekly rest period. As a pilot, it will fail to demonstrate the actual effects of the shift to Sundays. The four-day work weeks will yield lower productivity without demonstrating how the lost work hours could be made up on a weekly basis, if at all. The once-a-month three-day weekends will also tell us little of how businesses and consumers would act on a two-day Shabbat-Sunday weekend over a long period.
A better and more relevant pilot program would allow for a number of consecutive two-day Shabbat-Sunday weekends, even if only for a limited period. Happily, there is a period of the year which is ideal for such a pilot program: summer.
In the summer, schools and daycare are already closed for long periods and employees take off from work. More significantly, in the summer, Shabbat starts the latest it does all year. This year, for example, on Friday, May 31, candle-lighting for Shabbat is approximately 7:10 p.m., even later over the next few weeks until it dips below 7:00 p.m. in mid-August, though it remains at 6:30 p.m. or later, depending on the location, through August 30.
Making Sundays the day off during this 15-week period (May 31-August, 30) would mean that the Friday workday could end at 4:00 p.m. or later for the bulk of the period and still leave people approximately three hours before Shabbat. In such a scenario, only about an hour of work per week would be lost.
That gap could be easily bridged by starting work earlier, allowing for shorter lunch breaks on Fridays or by unique solutions which businesses and employees could implement as is appropriate for them.
Because most people already take off during this period, there would be even fewer total lost hours to the economy.
Aside from the other beneficial effects of having Sunday off, taking it a little easier in the heat of the Israeli summer might have other positive effects, such as on people’s health or on employers’ air conditioning bills. These would also compensate the economy for the minor number of lost work-hours.
A pilot program of Sundays in the summer would provide an accurate portrait of the effects of making Sundays a day off instead of Friday, with minimal risk to the economy.
Even if the program were never expanded to the entire year, it would still succeed in giving hard working people the break they deserve – if only for the summer.
So what’s the excuse now? The author is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.