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Sabbath Rest

The question of Sabbath rest, also called Sunday rest, goes directly to the heart of two fundamental issues that confronted Jews in Eastern Europe as they entered the modern era: the question of relations with the non-Jews among whom they lived, and the issue of Jews’ ability to adapt to the surrounding society while maintaining their own separate sense of identity and community.

The issue of Sabbath rest was, however, not limited to the modern era. For generations, Jewish religious law and its traditional spokesmen tried to strike the proper balance between religious mandates to observe the Sabbath and individual needs to maintain both personal and business commitments that would otherwise be disrupted if the person did not work from sundown on Friday to twilight on Saturday.

Over the ages, rabbis and other communal institutions permitted the Jewish social institution of the shabes goy, the non-Jew who was paid to carry out various forbidden actions on behalf of Jews on the Sabbath. In the Polish Commonwealth, such practices were especially common as Jews often fulfilled critical economic roles as innkeepers, mill operators, workshop owners, and subcontractors of agricultural enterprises. Numerous communal enactments, beginning, it would seem, with those of Meshulam Fayvush of Kraków in 1590, specified ways in which the Sabbath could be observed without economic loss, particularly by leaseholders and taverners in the villages. While providing Jews with rabbinic writs that helped facilitate the smooth functioning of private and business affairs, these arrangements, at times, led to misunderstandings and tension between Jews and non-Jews regarding such pivotal social concepts as the division between spiritual pursuits and physical labor, masters and servants, the chosen and the damned.

Jewish communities in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were also forced to come to terms with the conflict between ruling powers’ desires to maintain the sanctity of their own Sabbath (Sunday), and the needs of individual Jews to maintain a standard of living through one of their main occupations at the time: trade. Different privileges and writs detailed the rights and responsibilities of Jewish residents and communities in regard to the Sabbath and Holy Days. In addition to the early Polish privileges of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, later writs by local and national bodies (for example the Edicts of 1576 and 1592, rulings in Poznań in 1571 and 1580, the Kraków Ordinance of 1659, and the Bychów Privilege of 1758) repeatedly recognized Jews’ right to their own Sabbath and prohibited local government officials from conducting court cases and other affairs that required the presence of Jews on Saturdays.

Other privileges, such as one from Sasów of 1727 and of Pomarzany in 1747, specifically exempted Jews from performing public service activities periodically demanded of other residents, such as the construction of public dams, on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Local rulers were also apt to grant Jews the right to conduct fairs on days other than Saturday. Such was the case in Stryj when the Privilege of 1766 established Tuesday as an alternative market day in addition to Saturday, and in Wojnia (Wohyń), where Wednesday was recognized as the market day by a ruling in 1683.

In some cases, Jewish communal leaders tried to prevent conflict and temptation by warning community members who managed local magnate estates to avoid transgressing Sabbath regulations and, as part of these steps, to grant peasants and other non-Jewish employees a day of rest on the Jewish Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. Rulings such as one mandated by a gathering of Jewish elders in Vladimir (Ludmir) in 1602 ruled that “a Jew shall release the village gentiles from work they have to do on Sabbaths and festivals. . . .”

At the same time, pressure from church officials and others led to repeated attempts to curtail Jewish trade on the Christian Sabbath, thus ensuring that Jewish businesses would be closed two days each week. Church synods in 1542 and 1589 demanded that Jews not open businesses or conduct trade on Sundays or Christian holidays. As a result, different edicts, including King Stefan Batory’s Edict of 1576 and a ruling by the Poznań municipality in 1596, forbade Jewish businesses from operating on Sundays and Christian holidays. Other rulings granted Jews the right to trade among themselves on Sundays and Christian holidays so long as such activities did not take place before or during church services. Repeated debates regarding such decrees reflect the extent to which some of these writs remained unclear and, in many cases, ineffective.

Although the mandatory Sunday Rest Law of 1919 in Poland is, perhaps, the most infamous case of an attempt to restrict trade and business on Sunday, such efforts began well before Poland became an independent, multiethnic state in 1918. Indeed, the infamous May Laws that came in the wake of the pogroms of 1881–1882 forbade Jewish trade on Sunday. While some scholars view these laws as attempts by liberal bureaucrats to modernize Russian society, others see such Sunday rest laws as being, at the very least, implicitly anti-Jewish. One local example was a drive to enforce a Sunday rest law in Warsaw in 1907 that originated with petitions submitted by Catholic Polish merchants, including wine merchants, hat sellers, and others. In this particular case, the Russian governor-general of Warsaw, Georgii Skalon, resolved the question by permitting work on Sundays so long as such activities did not take place between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., when church services were in session.

Despite the successful efforts in the case of Poland—the Jewish Sabbath was dropped from the Romanian Treaty—by Jewish politicians and intercessors at Versailles to guarantee Jewish rights to a specific day of rest as part of the Minorities Treaty of 1919, a Sunday Rest Law was passed in Poland. The Law of 1919 attracted much attention as it came on the heels of Poland’s newfound independence and helped set the tone for rather tense relations between Jews and Poles throughout the interwar period. While proponents of the law advocated the need to restrict the work week to a mere 48 hours and others extolled the rewards that an official day of rest on Sunday would give Polish Catholic workers, many Jewish politicians feared that a state-mandated day off on Sundays (in addition to the traditional Jewish day of rest on Saturday) would lend a death blow to the already precarious state of Jewish merchants and workers.

Leading Jewish opponents of the proposed law included the Zionist leader Yitsḥak Grünbaum, the Agudas Yisroel politician Moyshe Eliyahu Halpern, and the vituperative leader of the already marginal Folkist Party, Noah Pryłucki. Some of the law’s defenders also included prominent Poles of Jewish descent such as Feliks Perl of the Polish Socialist Party. Perl touted the law as a means of protecting all workers, Jewish and non-Jewish, from exploitation, and of guaranteeing them at least one day of rest, Sunday. Ultimately, it is unclear how effective the law was at changing the face of Polish society and the extent to which it really affected the fragile economic status of Poland’s 3 million Jewish citizens. Bureaucratic inefficiency, the time-honored practice of bribing officials, and the widespread custom of operating shops through the side door helped avert the economic disaster that critics feared.

Suggested Reading

Hayim Hillel Ben-Sasson, “Takanot isure-shabat shel Polin u-mashma‘utam ha-ḥevratit veha-kalkalit,” Tsiyon 21 (1956): 183–206; Frank Golczewski, Polnisch-jüdische Beziehungen, 1881–1922 (Wiesbaden, Ger., 1981); Jacob Goldberg, ed., Jewish Privileges in the Polish Commonwealth, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 1985–2001), critical edition of original Latin and Polish documents with English introductions and notes; Israel Halpern and Yisra’el Bartal, eds., Pinkas va‘ad arba‘ aratsot, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1989/90); Jacob Katz, The “Shabbes Goy”: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility, trans. Yoel Lerner (Philadelphia, 1992); Jacob Litman, The Economic Role of Jews in Medieval Poland: The Contribution of Yitzhak Schipper (Lanham, Md., 1984); Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919–1939 (Berlin and New York, 1983).