Bringing Sundays to Israel can protect Shabbat - opinion

The simple legislative maneuver of extending the weekend can establish Shabbat as a key value of the Jewish state, which is a matter of vital strategic national importance.

 A HAVDALAH concert is held in Johannesburg as part of the Shabbat Project, in 2016. (photo credit: SHABBAT PROJECT)
A HAVDALAH concert is held in Johannesburg as part of the Shabbat Project, in 2016.
(photo credit: SHABBAT PROJECT)

Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Avi Mayer’s recent column about extending the weekend in Israel to include Sunday – harnessing this highly influential, widely respected and far-reaching publication to make the case for this vital issue – is timely and important.

Over the past two years, in discussions with diverse opinion-makers and politicians, I’ve encountered widespread support for the idea, and at the same time, the feeling that it is far down the list of national priorities, a luxury item Israel doesn’t currently have the time for.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is coming to a head. Tensions that could spark war with Hamas or Hezbollah are pervasive. Terrorist attacks are increasing in frequency and brutality. And this year has seen deep-seated divisions laid bare by the bitter conflict surrounding the coalition’s judicial reform proposals.

In the context of existential threats and social upheaval, extending the weekend seems almost trivial. So why is this idea important? And why now?

I believe that this proposal touches on the foundations of the State of Israel. It is not a luxury issue. Extending the weekend to Sunday can preserve Shabbat as a pillar of the Jewish state.

 Shabbat (Illustrative). (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
Shabbat (Illustrative). (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

Tragically, Shabbat has been drawn into the crosshairs of the culture wars engulfing Israel – a touch-point in the tensions between religious and secular Israelis. The good news is, it doesn’t need to be. I write this as the founder of the Shabbat Project, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary. Over the past decade, I have seen how, in Jewish communities in more than 1,500 cities and 100 countries, Shabbat can bring us together in unity; how it fosters celebration and joy, and inspires a positive Jewish identity.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Israel, which has become the hub of this global project, warmly embraced by Jews from all backgrounds. In recent years, the Shabbat Project has partnered with more than 100 Israeli municipalities, and been championed by mayors of all stripes – traditional, devoutly religious, devoutly secular.

I have watched Shabbat walk through doors which are already wide open, and be warmly embraced by Israelis of all backgrounds. I’ve seen how Israelis are naturally open to and drawn to Shabbat – and that the obstacles are not ideological but practical.

Many of the fierce arguments about Shabbat are, for many Israelis, because there is only one full day of the weekend to play sports or visit family or go to the beach or go shopping – to do whatever it is people don’t have time for during the workweek.

And because the antagonism towards Shabbat is not, in the main, intrinsic or ideological, but practical, the solution is also practical. Expanding the weekend to a Sunday will release the pressure valve around this issue, and allow space for the country to breathe – to devote Sunday to relaxation and recreation, and all of the things people attend to on weekends – while, at the same time, preserving Shabbat as a sacred day at the heart of the Jewish state. In doing so, the division and resentment around Shabbat can be relieved.

This is borne out by the results of a survey I commissioned 18 months ago (which Avi Mayer referred to in his article) demonstrating that the vast majority of Israelis not only support the idea of a Sunday weekend, but see it as a way to reduce tension around state and religion. Most strikingly, with Sunday freed up, more than half of self-described chilonim (secular Israeli Jews) indicated they would keep more of Shabbat.

How can Sundays help Israelis keep Shabbat?

The simple legislative maneuver of extending the weekend can establish Shabbat as a key value of the Jewish state, which is a matter of vital strategic national importance. As the world’s only Jewish state, Israel’s reason for existence is its Jewish identity. And at the heart of that identity is Shabbat, a God-given gift we received more than 3,300 years ago at the birth of our nation. It reminds us that Jewish nationhood is different from any other; that to be a Jew, and a Zionist, is not a simple nationalistic identity; that our connection to the land of Israel and to our people is rooted in eternal values.

Shabbat has within it – as I set out in my new book Shabbat – A Day to Create Yourself – the ‘why’ of being Jewish, framing the moral and spiritual vision of the Jewish people. It contains the Divine values and perspectives that have guided generations of Jews across continents and historical eras.

And we need it now more than ever, as a matter of national renewal and strength. In order for the country to confront the external threat from Iran and other hateful enemies, we need our Jewish values to unite us and hold us together, and remind us of our reason for existence. 

Shabbat also offers healing to a society that is overworked and frazzled by daily life. It replenishes emotionally and spiritually; a Divine formula for happiness, and for curating the kind of life we yearn for. Shabbat is a sacred space in time to nurture family, and to reconnect with each other, with ourselves and with God, holding us together, providing comfort and strength, faith and fortitude, joy and peace.

Now, precisely when the internal divisions and external threats are at their height, is the time to strengthen Shabbat. After months of wrenching disputes and political turmoil in Israel, extending the weekend to include Sunday could be the unifying cause that the country needs to heal. Amazingly, it’s something almost every political party can get behind, as I discovered in my meetings with many MKs from parties across the political spectrum – right to left, religious to secular, and everyone in between.

Shabbat has been pulled into politics. By establishing Sunday as a day off, we can free Shabbat from politics – and give it pride of place at the heart of the Jewish state.

The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder of the Shabbat Project, this year taking place on 3-4 November. His new book, Shabbat – A Day to Create Yourself, is available on Amazon and at Steimatzky stores nationwide.