When in Israel, do as the Romans do

On March 7, 321, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great officially changed the Christian Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, permanently altering the way the Christian world would schedule its church-going, and eventually mall, Home Depot, and football game-going habits. This month, 1,690 years later, Israeli Vice Prime Minister, Silvan Shalom, continued his  push to change the Israeli work week to a Monday-Friday schedule as he presented to Israeli business leaders his plan to switch the Israeli weekend to Saturday and Sunday instead of the current Friday-Saturday make-up. While a switch may not change the course of human labor and leisure history the way Constantine’s edict did, such a move “would cause a revolution in Israel,” according to Shalom. It would indeed be a revolution in how this peculiar society functions, a revolution that will result in a more relaxed and affluent Israel.
The current Israeli weekend starts on Friday out of respect to the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown that evening. Israel’s current weekend cheats the country out of a full day of leisure. Israel’s Friday is a day caught between two modes. It’s a day for errands and personal matters as the only non-work day that (some) shops are open, yet many banks and businesses are closed. It’s also a day for leisure, yet public transportation grinds to a halt at sundown, and many of those businesses that decided to open on Friday close early in the evening. As for Saturday, malls are closed and public transportation doesn’t start until the evening, giving the Israeli little time to shop or travel.
A switch to a Saturday-Sunday weekend would not just give Israelis more relaxation and family time, but the Israeli economy would also benefit. As a county with few natural resources, Israel’s economy relies upon the country’s ability to produce goods for export, as well as tourism. Although Israel’s hi-tech sector is a modern marvel, the country’s business relationships with American and European countries could continue to grow. But only working with foreign counterparts four days a week on Monday through Thursday, instead of five, hurts those connections. Israel is fortunate to be just two hours ahead of the United Kingdom and one hour ahead of Western Europe. With modern communication, Israel can be talking with its European colleagues all week if needed, but Israel’s current work week unnecessarily reduces the time Israeli companies are available to their European colleagues.
A good example of an industry that would see a direct benefit from a new Israeli weekend is the hotel industry. In 2007, the Israel Hotel Association estimated that the industry would need to increase its workforce by 6%, creating 2,000 new jobs, and hotel stays would increase by 1.5 million overnight bookings a year, or an 8% increase. This is just one industry that would grow from a normalized work week, but Israel would benefit in s many other ways as well.
A major element of Israel’s growth and national survival is its ability to absorb Jewish immigrants from across the world. Of all the cultural differences between Israel and other countries, the one thing that so many olim “can just never get used to,” as I hear time and again from my fellow North Americans, is their lack of a free Sunday. This problem for potential olim has been recognized by others in addition to Shalom. The weekend switch was part of Yisrael B’Aliyah’s platform before they merged with Likud in 2003. Giving Israelis Sunday will remove one more obstacle for hesitant American and European Jews, an educated and wealthier demographic that is vital for Israel’s future.
Supporters of this bill fear the religious sector may reject the change because religious families need Fridays to prepare for Sabbath. However, according to Globes, Shalom has already presented the bill to the haredim and they do not plan to object. Some religious Israelis on an individual basis may be hesitant to give up their Fridays. From personal experience, as a religious Jew who worked in the United States before living in Israel, I can say the weekend in the Diaspora is much more relaxing than the one in Israel. Sabbath preparations simply need to be done before Friday, with the two or more hours after work on Friday left for the final touches. Religious Jews outside of Israel properly maintain a professional career Monday-Friday, and still observe Sabbath. Israeli Jews can do the same, especially in a country that already has an awareness of what Sabbath is. In fact, the religious have the most to gain by switching to a Saturday-Sunday weekend because they will add a full day to relax to their week.
Israel has so much time and money to gain by switching to a Saturday-Sunday weekend. It took the Christian world almost three centuries and a powerful Roman emperor to change their weekend. All Israel needs is an unrelenting Vice Prime Minister and some courage to make a change for the better.
For more from this author, visit The Big Ben Theory.