``Those who did not live before the Revolution never tasted the sweetness of life," the great French diplomat Talleyrand once remarked. Many English-speaking immigrants to Israel have experienced similar feelings about the lack of a two-day weekend in Israel: Those who have never experienced Sunday as a day of leisure have not tasted the sweetness of life.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the push for a two-day weekend in Israel is being led by English-speaking immigrants within Yisrael B’Aliya.
The two-day weekend proposal provides a classic win-win opportunity. The beauty of the idea is that it appeals to different groups and individuals for varied reasons. The attraction of the law for ba’al teshuva professional soccer players or Betar Yerushalayim fans, who feel guilty about attending soccer games after shul on Shabbos, has nothing to do with the attraction to another group.
Secular, national religious, and chareidi Jews would all benefit from the law, though not for the same reasons. That search for consensus solutions, without striving for agreement over the ultimate purposes of life, is typical of Yisrael B’Aliya’s leader Natan Sharansky. More than any other Israeli politician, Sharansky views the search for consensus as a desideratum. Compromise, for him, is not something to be ashamed of, but a goal to be pursued.
The most obvious benefit of the law is that it would provide all of us with more respite from the sometimes unbearable pressures of day-to-day life in Israel – the threat of war, suicide bombers, the lack of water. The citizens of no other Western country live with such pressure, and yet no other Western country is without a five-day workweek.
If we had more opportunities to forget the pressures of every day life, we might treat one another with a bit more civility. Maybe we would even stop killing ourselves on our roads, in record numbers, rushing to get from here to there.
Sunday off would encourage leisure activities that today often do not seem worth the effort. At present, couples and families have little reason to take a short vacation within Israel. After packing up and driving there and back by Sunday morning, there is not enough time left to make the effort worthwhile. For religious couples and families, the disincentives are even greater: Why shlep somewhere and pay a lot of money to sit around in a hotel lobby rather than stay at home with one’s books and one’s familiar minyan. Israeli hoteliers take note.
My guess is that the positive effects of a two-day weekend would be greater than even proponents realize. A five-day school week, for instance, would require a longer school day. At present, the combination of a short school day and two-working parents has created an entire culture of latchkey children who spend the majority of their day without any adult supervision either glued to the TV or hanging around in the malls. That problem is exacerbated by the general absence of school-sponsored extracurricular activities – sports, debate, theater. Two extra hours of school and the greater congruity between parental free time and that of their children would go a long way to alleviating this unhealthy situation.
At first glance, it might be thought that a shorter workweek would have relatively little impact on the haredi world. The study of Torah in yeshivos has never been guided by the secular calendar. Even at the elementary school level, it is unlikely that the five-day week would be fully adopted by haredi schools.
But over time, haredi schools might well move to a half day on Sunday (by dropping the afternoon secular studies), as is common in America and Europe. That would be a boon to haredi families. An acquaintance in England once remarked to me that haredi families in England experienced fewer problems of youthful rebellion than in Israel because of the tradition of Sunday excursions with the whole family. I suspect that there is something to that claim. An ever increasing percentage of the haredi men go to work, especially as their children grow older, and they could take advantage of Sunday afternoon for family leisure activities.
A real weekend, as in America, would also make it easier for haredi men to enter the job market. With two days a week in which to learn Torah for many uninterrupted hours, the transition from full-time learning to work would constitute a far less radical break.
Most important, the Sunday law would prevent the rapid slide of Israel into 24/7 commercialization. Each kibbutz mall that opens up on Shabbat pressures the storeowners in surrounding cities to open as well. And each city center that opens for business on Shabbos causes other cities to follow suit.
Thus the people that gave the world the idea of a day of rest, of contemplation, of connection to the spiritual aspects of life has created the most frenetic society in the world. We will soon reach a situation where tens of thousands of those from the poorer sectors of society have to work on Shabbos to serve the wealthy.
For all the good intentions of those sponsoring the so-called Shabbos-bill, which would ban commercial activity on Shabbos, they have no chance of success, unless their bill is linked to the proposal for a two-day weekend. Rather than alleviating tensions between religious and non-religious, as they hope, their bill will only exacerbate them.
Demagogues from the anti-religious parties – Meretz, Shinui, and a wide swath of One Israel – eager to find any issue that will return them to popular favor, after the failure of their nostrums for peace, rushed to denounce the Shabbos law before it was even introduced. They portrayed the law as a further example of religious coercion, designed to deprive secular Israelis of their ``divine right" to shop on Shabbos.
Those appeals will resonate only as long as Saturday is the only day available for shopping without the time pressures of work. Few Israelis, however, will insist on shopping davka on Shabbos, if there is a Sunday alternative.
My guess is that there are many Israelis today who would be interested in exploring more aspects of a traditional Shabbos, if it did not mean giving up their favorite leisure pursuits, just as there are many religious Jews who would enjoy activities that are currently inaccessible to them because they take place only on Shabbos.
A two-day weekend, then, would be at least one step toward some form of national culture in our increasingly balkanized society.