The Sunday imperative

Shortening the work week will undoubtedly have the downside of hurting economic output.

School children celebrate vacation 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
School children celebrate vacation 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Admittedly, pleasant memories of leisurely Sundays have something to do with this paper’s position in favor of a five-day workweek. The editorial board, made up as it is of Anglo immigrants, shares the idiosyncrasies of the “Old Country” complete with regard for the amenities of a two-day weekend. Now the idea to make Friday a workday (until a few hours before sundown), and turn Sunday into a day of rest, which was first raised a decade ago, probably not by coincidence by fellow Diaspora Jew Natan Sharansky, is once again being proposed.
This time two Likud MKs – Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin – have submitted private “Sunday” bills and veteran fiveday- week campaigner Vice Premier Silvan Shalom is pushing for legislation as well.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has tapped his economic adviser, Prof. Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council, to look into the matter, which seems to indicate the weight Netanyahu will give to the potentially negative economic ramifications of a shorter workweek.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has already publicized his opposition to such a move, citing economic factors such as the need to pay overtime to tens of thousands of state employees – particular in health care – who will be forced to continue to work on Sundays.
Shortening the workweek will undoubtedly have the downside of hurting economic output. A study conducted in 2002 by the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce found that losing just two weekly work hours – a loss of 200 million aggregate man hours a year – would result in a 5 percent drop in output.
Israelis, however, already work many more hours on average than citizens of most other industrialized countries.
In 2008, the average Israeli worked a total of 1,943 hours, the eighth highest of 36 industrialized countries around the world.
South Korea topped the list with 2,256 work hours a year, followed by Greece. The OECD average in 2008 was 1,764, in the US it was 1,796 and in the UK it was 1,652. Productivity, not long working hours, is what guarantees economic strength and a higher standard of living. Greece is perfect example of a country whose citizens work long hours but which has nevertheless failed to avoid a major economic crisis.
In contrast, workweeks have fallen significantly in the US and even more so in Europe, since the mid-20th century, primarily due to increasing levels of productivity. By raising GDP per capita, Israel could easily accommodate a shorter workweek without suffering a drop in total output.
A two-day weekend would also be a boon for recreation industries such as sports, music and domestic tourism. And the timing of the new initiative coincides with the impact of changing demographics – increasing numbers of religiously observant Israelis thanks to relatively higher birth rates – providing a fresh economic incentive for a Sunday that would encourage this sector to spend money on cultural activities, sporting events and at the malls.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that hoteliers, the Manufacturers Association and the Chamber of Commerce have come out in favor. According to Yediot Aharonot, so has Bank of Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer, another immigrant who undoubtedly misses Sundays.
Transforming Sunday into a second day off would also alleviate religious tensions. Shabbat is now the only full day that Israelis do not work. For the more traditional-minded who adhere to the strictures of Jewish law, there is no day that can be set aside for leisurely activities – such as traveling, shopping, going to sports events – that are enjoyable but which would entail the desecration of Shabbat.
Many secular Israelis, understandably, concentrate all of their consumer activities on the one day they have off, creating in the process a 24/7 consumer culture diametrically opposed to the religious and social ideal of a true day of rest for both rich and poor. Turning Sunday into a second day off would make it easier to invest Shabbat with the meaning envisioned by the Torah, the prophets and Jewish tradition, so befitting a Jewish state.
Admittedly, Muslims, who make up about 16% of the population, might be adversely affected. Friday, their day of rest and worship, would become a regular work day. But the 1951 Rest Law already safeguards the right of Muslim workers to rest on Friday. If necessary, additional legislation could be passed to ensure that Muslims’ religious rights are protected.
It is time to take steps toward a five-day workweek, not just because a bunch of immigrants – and numerous Israelis who have lived abroad for any length of time – have brought to Israel blissful memories of leisurely Sundays spent with friends and family.
Transforming Sunday into a second day of rest is also eminently feasible from an economic standpoint and conducive to alleviating religious tensions. By all standards, Sunday off is an imperative.