The American Shabbat

Editorial

Published November 25, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Macy’s flagship store in New York’s Herald Square and the more than 800 branches around the country opened just after the clock struck midnight on Black Friday. So did Target and Best Buy. Wal-Mart got a jump on its competitors by opening at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, but Toys R Us beat them all by starting its Christmas sales that day at 9 p.m., three hours before Black Friday even officially began.

Eager shoppers barely had time to put away the turkey leftovers before heading to the mall to buy, oh, an iPad for a two-year-old.

But it’s not the shoppers who are of concern here. It’s the workers in those stores who were asked, or in some cases forced, to curtail their Thanksgiving holiday to serve the insatiable American appetite for a bargain (real or perceived). Facing another challenging holiday season, many retailers evidently decided that they had no choice but to keep up with or surpass their competitors by accelerating the race for the almighty Black Friday customer, the one who lifts the yearly margin from red to black and helps save the American economy.

It’s time to ask: at what cost? When does commercialism without borders or restraints go beyond a momentary boost to quarterly profits and damage the national soul? We may be perilously close to that point if the unspoken agreement to keep Thanksgiving as the American Shabbat is broken.

There was a time when most colonial Americans were forced to honor the Puritan Sabbath — under the so-called “blue laws” of the 1700s, severe punishment could be rendered for even a simple misdeed. Sunday restrictions lasted well into the 20th century, and especially hurt Jewish shopkeepers who observed their own Sabbath on Saturday, and had to forego a weekend’s worth of commerce or risk heavy fines for opening on a Sunday. Bit by bit, states dropped their prohibitions, to increase tax revenues more than anything else, although there still are places where one cannot purchase alcohol on a Sunday (Mississippi), buy a car (Illinois), or hunt (most of West Virginia).

When then-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts relaxed his state’s ban on Sunday liquor sales in 2003, some religious leaders bemoaned the move. “We see an unfortunate slippage into every day being the same,” the head of the Massachusetts Council of Churches told the Christian Science Monitor. “Consumerism…is in danger of becoming an idolatry.”

Now that unfortunate slippage has seeped into Thanksgiving. Unlike the Sabbath, unlike Christmas and Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan, this is the one holiday welcome to all Americans, its rituals pliable enough to be adopted by any tradition. Of course, hospitals and newsrooms and gas stations and even the stray coffee shop stay open, as a service to the public, but the overall quiet of the day creates a national calmness, like Jerusalem on Shabbat or New England after a mighty snowfall.

Happily, resistance to this commercial move is gaining momentum. Anthony Hardwick from Omaha, Neb., a Target parking attendant, began an online petition after learning he was required to report to work at 11 p.m. Thanksgiving Day for a 10-hour shift. “A full holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation — all Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night’s rest on Thanksgiving!” he wrote, and nearly 200,000 signatures agree.

It’s not that Hardwick was making an outrageous request. His petition merely asked that Target return to its original Black Friday opening hour, at 5 a.m.

So that’s what it has come to for American workers: a plea to start the day after midnight but well before dawn. Surely, the self-restraint and communal values that once shaped the marketplace could make a modest return one day a year. Dial down the commercialism on Thanksgiving. There will still be plenty of shopping days left.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.