American Jews’ Many Efforts to Save Shabbat

December 22, 2021 | Jenna Weissman Joselit
About the author:

Today, it can safely be said that most American Jews don’t observe the Sabbath in any manner, but it seems that complaining about declining Shabbat observance is itself a longstanding American Jewish tradition. Jenna Weissman Joselit writes:

During the waning years of the 19th century, a coalition of clergy and laity formed a succession of “anti-desecration” leagues, peopled by “earnest, zealous, and persevering men of honor and excellence of character.” In the 1880s, the members of the Sabbath Association, taking their cue from the abolitionists, constituted themselves a “movement” designed to influence Jewish public opinion. It sought to “induce” Jewish storekeepers to stay shut and Jewish consumers to desist from making the rounds on Saturday, while also encouraging everyone else—all those “erring Israelites”—to attend services.

When doubts about the viability and relevance of the Sabbath persisted [after World War II], the Conservative movement, then American Jewry’s fastest-growing denomination, decided after much internal to-ing and fro-ing to abolish some of the Sabbath’s traditional interdictions. It sanctioned the use of electricity, cars, and other appurtenances of modernity on the Sabbath, hoping these remedial measures might alter the course of things. They did not. Postwar American Jews remained as inattentive to Shabbos’s charms as their predecessors, leaving the newly built pews of the suburban synagogue just as empty as those of their urban predecessors.

For a brief spell in the early 1950s, the traditional day of rest received a momentary boost in popularity, spurred on by the publication of A.J. Heschel’s The Sabbath in 1951. A lyrical embrace of and salute to tradition, its emotional approach to the Sabbath, to the sanctity of time, momentarily won over many more adherents than technological access, especially after the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue made a point of distributing the text to its members as a part of its National Sabbath Observance Effort, a national campaign to highlight the Sabbath’s importance and, concomitantly, to supply young suburban Jews with the “know-how and know-why.”

Read more on Tablet: