Heal Israel's divisions by giving Sunday off for everyone - opinion

Declare Sunday a weekly day off for the country, a proposal that has long been discussed at various times over the last years. The majority of Israelis will support it.

 PARTICIPANTS TAKE part in a Shabbat Project event in Jerusalem – one of more than 1,400 events across Israel and 3,700 global events on November 11/12, in over 1,500 cities and 100 countries, involving an estimated one million people.  (photo credit: SHABBAT PROJECT)
PARTICIPANTS TAKE part in a Shabbat Project event in Jerusalem – one of more than 1,400 events across Israel and 3,700 global events on November 11/12, in over 1,500 cities and 100 countries, involving an estimated one million people.
(photo credit: SHABBAT PROJECT)

As the members of the Knesset begin their term of office and a new government is established, there is a historic opportunity to do something real to heal the divisions within Israeli society. At the same time, they can restore to its pride of place something that is at the very heart of the Jewish people – Shabbat.

This is a heartfelt plea to the new Knesset to seize a historic opportunity to save Jewish unity and Shabbat, which have tragically been at odds with each other. The bitter fight over whether or not the Jewish state should allow public transport, recreation and sports activities on Shabbat has led to a wider, bitter power struggle between two opposing camps fighting for the victory of their cause. 

Israel should get Sundays off

There is a real, practical solution that can ease the bitterness of this conflict: declare Sunday a weekly day off for the country, a proposal that has long been discussed at various times over the last years. The idea is to have a two-and-a-half day weekend from Friday lunchtime to Monday morning. This will free up time and space for sports, recreation and for people to visit family. And sacred time for Shabbat, our divine heritage.

This proposal, I believe, will be supported by the majority of Israelis. Indeed, a survey I commissioned a few months ago revealed widespread support for a shorter workweek, with 76% in favor of a Sunday weekend. Moreover, 91% are concerned that the tension around state and religion is undermining the unity of Israeli society. Most significantly, 83% of respondents said that making Sunday part of the weekend will reduce these tensions.

A JEWISH FAMILY gathers after lighting Shabbat candles. (credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO/MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)A JEWISH FAMILY gathers after lighting Shabbat candles. (credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO/MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

It’s important to point out that expanding the weekend – and contracting the workweek – is certainly not without global precedent. Indeed, it seems to be a major post-COVID trend, especially among developed nations. We’re seeing a number of countries testing a four-day workweek, and the early results have been very promising as far as the socioeconomic impact is concerned.

There is even reason to believe it could actually boost Israel’s economy. As things stand, Israelis who observe Shabbat don’t have a clear shopping day. Freeing up Sunday would therefore release up to 30% of the population for a day of retail shopping, for buying non-essential items. There are also many who keep Shabbat and, as a result, have no access to participate in sports or enjoy being a spectator. 

FOR THESE and other reasons, I believe that members of the new Knesset should pass legislation to declare Sunday a day off and, in the same act, officially recognize Shabbat as the national treasure and heritage of the Jewish people. This will give Shabbat the respect it deserves in the public domain as befitting a Jewish state, and grant the people of Israel the time and space of a free Sunday so that they can live their lives to the fullest.

I feel there is a deep thirst in Israeli society for a new way. More and more Israelis love and appreciate Shabbat, and want to make it a greater part of their lives. But no one wants their lifestyle opportunities infringed upon. Extending the weekend by making Sunday a day off is the answer to making Shabbat a day of unity – not division.

As the founder of the Shabbat Project, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, I have witnessed firsthand how, in Jewish communities in more than 1,500 cities and 100 countries, Shabbat can bring us together in unity, how it brings celebration and joy, and inspires a positive Jewish identity.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Israel. It is remarkable to note that during the recent Shabbat Project, Israel was the greatest source of growth of any country in the world. More than 100 municipalities threw their weight behind the project. NGOs and private citizens led from the front.

The most beautiful part of it is that everyone from across the spectrum of Israeli society was involved – religious and secular; Right, Left, North, South and Center; across all ages and demographics and levels of socioeconomic status. It shows that we don’t have to have a war of attrition, a battle to the death. Shabbat and Jewish unity are not mutually exclusive; we can have both.

From my private discussions with politicians from across the spectrum, I believe that legislation to declare Sunday a day off would enjoy support from all parties – Left, Right, secular and religious. This could be a way to nurture national healing and reconciliation after years of cyclical elections and terrible acrimony. 

The newly constituted Knesset should make this the first order of business. In order to deal with all the enormous political, financial and military threats facing Israel, a sense of unity is vital. By introducing this legislation, the Knesset can help bridge those divides, and bring Shabbat into the heart of the nation in a way that will foster love and goodwill.

This is as it should be as. Our sages teach us in the Midrash that Shabbat is the soulmate of the Jewish people. To the newly elected members of Knesset, I implore you. Heal the divisions. Work together across the political spectrum. For the sake of the Jewish people. For the sake of Shabbat. Now is the time to act.

The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.