Anticipation of the weekend for many North Americans and others living in western countries can often be a preoccupation. Canadian pop singers have written a number of different anthems. 1980’s band “Loverboy” topped the charts with its hit “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend.” Hard rock band “Triumph” was less successful with its 1970’s song “I live for the Weekend,” but still captured the idea. There have been many other examples.
There is no doubt that not everyone in these countries enjoys the benefits of the weekend. In Canada, retail activity has grown dramatically over the past twenty years after Canadian Provinces eliminated Sunday closure laws. Many people continue to work in a range of industries on Saturday or Sunday or sometimes both. Many professionals and others work one or both weekend days. But there are still a significant number of people who enjoy a five day work week with Saturdays and Sundays off. There are many others with two days off, even if those days are two other days.
For observant Jews, a two day weekend in the diaspora has generally been a blessing. Saturday, as Shabbat, has meant attendance at Synagogue, family time, no travel, no commercial activity and a real day of rest. Observance of Shabbat in many areas has helped build a sense of community and synagogues have often played a central role.
Sunday, has been generally set aside for almost everything else that people might want to do but don’t have time to do in a busy week. Shopping, kids’ sports activities, family outings, leisurely brunches, weddings, unveilings, the list goes on and on. For North Americans and other westerners, it’s hard to imagine moving to a six day work week instead of a five day week. In fact, in the late 20th century, some writers began to speculate about a utopian future of shorter and shorter work weeks, perhaps even three or four days.
In contrast to the rest of the western world, Israel does not have a two day weekend. Sure there is a Hebrew word “sof shavua,” meaning weekend - but really it just means Friday night and Saturday.
Israeli students go to school six days a week. Although younger kids often finish by 1:30 p.m., the fact is that there are still six days of waking up early to be on time for school. Many people in Israel work six days a week. Although many leave work early on Fridays and a growing number don’t work at all that day, Friday is not seen as a universal day of rest. For those parents who have the day off, their kids are still in school so it is not a family day.
A six day week is one of the most difficult adjustments for immigrants who are often used to enjoying a two day weekend (and a number of three day long weekends throughout the year). But it is also difficult for Israelis, even if they have never had the opportunity to enjoy the rhythm of a five day week rather than one that stretches over six.
Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Sivan Shalom, proposed a legislative change to turn Israel into a five day work week society. The initiative met with significant opposition and is currently being “studied.”
Many observant Jews are opposed to the idea of turning Sunday into a second day of rest, arguing that it would not suit a Jewish country to adopt a Christian day of rest. But a legislatively mandated weekend would not turn Sunday into another Sabbath in a religious sense. In Israel today, in many areas, buses do not run on Saturday; restaurants and stores are closed; many activities are viewed as religiously prohibited. Turning Sunday into at least a partial day of rest would not mean adopting all of these measures in relation to Sunday. In fact, observant Jewish families would be among the major beneficiaries of a two day weekend. They could spend Saturday observing Shabbat; and then spend Sunday enjoying so many other activities. Many of these other activities would be defined as “work” under Jewish law and prohibited on Shabbat, even if they are, in fact, leisure activities. But this “work” would certainly permissible and even encouraged on Sundays.
Some people argue that Friday is already a shortened day due to the need to prepare for Shabbat, especially in the fall and winter. If Sunday becomes a weekend day, they maintain that Israel will effectively be transferring to a four-day work week rather than a five day week. But although some people work short days or have Fridays off, kids are in school and everything is opened. In Israel currently, the weekend does not really begin on Fridays for most people, or at least not until Friday evenings.
There has also been some opposition to including Sunday in the weekend from Israel’s significant Muslim population, who argue that Israel should make Friday a second weekend day if it is to make this kind of change. Other countries in the Middle East have a Friday-Saturday weekend. However, Israel’s principal trading and commerce partners are Europe and the United States as well as, increasingly, countries in the far-east rather than the other Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps this might change one day but that does not seem too likely in the short term, despite the current “Arab Spring” (which so far, seems more like the start of a long winter…) So a commercial synchronization with the west would probably be a better step for Israel.
Others have put forward arguments about the potential effect on productivity in Israel society. What will happen if the country reduces its six day work week? Won’t this dramatically affect commercial output? Well, some have cynically responded that Israel would be lucky to get four days of productivity from its workers even under the current six day system…
After all, it is worth reviewing, less cynically, but more realistically, some actual highlights of the Sunday to Friday “work week.” Post offices, banks, government offices, conveniences stores all close certain mornings or afternoons during the week – and not even at the same time! In many industries, workers take ½ hour breaks, all together from 10 a.m. to 10:30 every day. Some stores still close from 1 to 4 p.m. or from 2 to 5 p.m. for an afternoon siesta. Much of this would probably have to change to ensure the proper use of a two day weekend. But Israeli commerce would benefit from the certainty of having almost everything open, universally, on a regular schedule.
Whether it is Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday, it seems to me that Israeli society would benefit greatly from switching to a five day week. Kids should be in school normal hours, from 8:30 to 3:30 p.m. or 8 to 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday and perhaps until 12:30 or 1 p.m. on Fridays. Government offices should be open five full days a week from 8 to 4:30 or 8 to 5 p.m., as should banks, post offices and other organizations. While some workers will find it annoying to actually have to work five full days, a far greater percentage of Israelis will benefit from access to an extended weekend.
For observant Jews and for those who wish to see greater observance of Shabbat in Israeli society, a two day weekend will provide an alternate day for many people to do their errands, their shopping and to travel. Saturday night could become a great night for pubs, restaurants, movie theatres and many other places offering public entertainment.
For all Israelis, whether Sabbath observant or not, a two day weekend is likely to help reduce stress levels and slow down the hectic pace of Israeli society. This can only be a good thing – even if it will be a Herculean challenge to bring Sivan Shalom’s proposal into effect.