On the Lost Justice of the "Sabbath Rest"

032615Some of us who are older remember that Sundays were once quiet in downtown; in shopping areas, parking lots were empty. Most businesses were closed and few people had to work on Sundays. Surely there were exceptions, such as medical personnel, emergency workers, and those who ran essential services like power plants. But for most, Sunday was a day off. And although the biblical Sabbath was Saturday, in a largely Christian nation Sunday was the “Sabbath” day of rest.

In those days, Church was in the morning and then it was home to a family brunch or mid-afternoon meal. I remember back in the ’60s that after Mass our family returned home and we kids got out of our “Church  clothes” to go and play—in the yard in warm months and in the basement on cold or inclement days. Mom and Dad announced the “parent hour,” making the living room off limits to us kids so they could sip coffee, read the paper, and catch up with each other. Dinner was at four or five in the afternoon; often our grandparents would join us or we went to their house. Evening featured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (a nature show) followed by Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color/The Wonderful World of Disney. And then came The Lawrence Welk Show, which we hated but Mom and Dad liked (we went off to play again as soon as Disney was over).

It was the end of an era. By the mid 1970s many “Blue laws” or “Sunday laws,” which prohibited the sale of certain products or the conducting of certain types of business on Sundays were on their way out. To heck with family, we were off the shopping mall!

It is a loss. To be fair, most of us who are well off can still observe the Sabbath (Sunday) rest if we choose. However, the poor and younger people just entering the workforce usually have little choice as to whether or not they work on Sundays. And we who are well off ought not forget that as we tramp out to the malls and restaurants on Sundays. We have choices; but in exercising those choices, in our “worship” of convenient shopping and the pleasure of movies and restaurants, we create a climate in which others have to work.

Last week I was reading from a book written by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, who reflected on the justice of the Sabbath rest. Prior to presenting an excerpt from the book, I remind you of the text of the Second Commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns (Ex 20:8-10).

Here is a brief excerpt of the remarks by Pope Emeritus Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger):

The Sabbath [among other things] is the day of God’s freedom and the day of man’s participation in God’s freedom. Reflecting on Israel’s liberation from slavery is central to the Sabbath theme, which is, however, much more than a commemoration. The Sabbath is not simply remembrance of what has passed, but an active exercise of freedom. This fundamental content is the reason why the Sabbath should be a day of rest  to an equal degree for men and animals, for masters and servants … all the forms of subjugation that have been built up … come to an end … It is an anticipation of the society free from domination, a foretaste of the city to come. On the Sabbath there are no masters and no servants; there is only the freedom of the children of God, and creation’s release from anxiety (Quoted in Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, pp. 198-199).

This is a remarkable vision of justice that has been largely lost.

Almost no one I know links the Sabbath rest to justice. But as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, the Sabbath rest both bound and blessed everyone. No one could be compelled to work that day in the household of any Jew; master and servant were equal and free.

Here, then, is something to consider as we plan our Sundays. I do not write this in order to make lots of personal rules for you that the Church does not. But consider that the loss of the Sabbath rest happened not that long ago. And while the modern age perhaps requires more essential workers to be in place every day of the week than in the past, the honest truth is that most people who have to work on Sundays are required to do so for the mere convenience of others. If perchance you do go to a restaurant on a Sunday, why not consider leaving a much higher tip for the waitstaff? And if you absolutely must go to the store on Sunday, consider the need for greater esteem and charity for the poor and the young who are compelled to work for your convenience.

Perhaps the libertarians and economic conservatives will balk at my concerns for “justice” and tell me that many of the poor are glad to have any job at all, and that soon enough they will move up the ladder and have the choice to work on Sundays or not. I hear you.

But think about it; think about it a lot. There was a time not so long ago when we really thought that everyone deserved a day of rest together. Sunday was a day when most people could gather with their families (for what good is a day off on a Tuesday when no one else can rest and rejoice with you?). And we all made allowances for this; we respected the just needs of others for a day of joy, a day of family, a day of worship, a day of justice when everyone was equal in a real sense.

Not so long ago …

43 Replies to “On the Lost Justice of the "Sabbath Rest"”

  1. All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste, it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.” 2 Chron 36:21

  2. Recently my wife and I have made a concerted effort to honor the Sabbath. We are already experiencing the benefits on many levels. I had to smile at your comment Monsignor regarding your family ritual as ours was very similar right down to the same television shows. My sister and I sure did struggle with The Lawrence Welk Show too!

  3. Champagne bubbles… I for one am spending Sunday afternoon sewing some extra material to my swimsuit.

  4. I took your advice, Monsignor, and for the past two weeks have been going to vespers, on Sunday, at the cathedral, at the undisclosed location where I live. So, far it has been a positive experience for me and has helped me also to keep my Sunday evenings in a Sunday perspective. Thanks.

  5. Orthodox Jews still “rest” completely on the Sabbath. We don’t drive, handle money, discuss business matters, look at television, computers or cellphones, cook or clean. (OK, we’ve got a little OCD, but it’s worked for us so far). We spend the day in study & prayer, food and drink, and relaxing with our families & friends. The Jews’ greatest contribution to world culture wasn’t monotheism (obvious enough that it would have eventually occurred to someone else), but the idea that NO ONE exists just to work. Even a horse deserves, simply because he is God’s creation, to lay undisturbed in the grass without a saddle on his back one day in seven. I can assure you that it is the best day of the week.

    1. Seth, I ask this question with the utmost sincerity to help me understand the reasoning or justification for the Shabes goy. For those who do not know…. a shabes goy is a non-Jewish person who is employed to do work for a Jewish person on the Sabbath. SOMEONE has to cook, do the dishes and turn the light on and off. Isn’t that like asking someone to break the law for you? I don’t get it. How is that helping to keep holy the Sabbath and aren’t they your “servant” so to speak that is mentioned in the scriptures? I thought it was supposed to be the “supreme equalizer”. No one (human or animal) is to work.

      1. Seven Jewish children died in a house fire in Brooklyn a few days ago. The cause was a unattended hot plate that was keeping the food for the Sabbath warm all during the night. Such a tragedy could have been prevented with a bit less rigidity in Sabbath prohibitions. We should all be guided by God’s word interpreted with common sense.

        1. Anne, don’t do this. I am willing to critique Jewish legalism when it comes to the Sabbath, but lets not use a tragedy like this to blame Jewish faith and say they lack common sense. This is too strong. Sometimes things just happen. I suppose if we didn’t use electricity the tragedy could have been avoided too and frankly, living in homes and having children in the first place is all dangerous stuff. Correlation is not causation. The problem was inadvertence not the Sabbath

          1. I am not blaming Jewish faith or saying Jewish people lack common sense. To be fair, discussions of how to interpret the prohibition against Sabbath “work” such as turning on a switch to reheat food in a safe manner rather than using unsafe methods is a wide ranging and current discussion throughout the Jewish press, the community, and the blogosphere with many opinions being expressed. TheNew York Fire Department, the secular press and all of my fellow New Yorkers are also discussing this. The issue of common sense safety measures vs. God’s commands is a legitimate and important topic and no disrespect is intended.
            As Catholics, we too need to seek God’s will for the way we honor Him on Sunday.
            Thank You for your article, and I am sorry my reply was seen as “using a tragedy” to bash Jewish faith. That was something of which I am sad to be accused.

      2. Jews have never seen Jewish law as legally binding on non-Jews. This has been a strength in that we have never felt that non-Jews are sinners with no “share in the world to come”; we have never had a religious war to force any one to become Jewish, etc. It is a weakness in that we don’t use our Law to enforce our understanding of morals on others. Perhaps this was just an accommodation to our reality as a small powerless minority. At any rate, since non-Jews ARE permitted to work on the Sabbath (since the Law is only binding on Jews), one can arrange for a non-Jew to work on the Sabbath, provided such arrangements are made prior to the onset of the day. Even in that case, it is only permissible if the non-Jew decides on his own to work that day. Thus, my housekeeper knows that my kitchen will be a mess this friday night (25 people over for the Seder!). I pay her weekly to keep the house clean in general, she decides on her own what needs to be done when, and therefor she will almost certainly come over Fri eve rather than let the mess sit until Monday. However, I can’t tell her specifically to come and clean on the Sabbath. I know that seems like a legalism, but like i said, the OCD thing seems to be working for us so far. And I would NEVER ask her to work Sunday (HER Sabbath).

  6. My work requires 50-60 hour weeks for months at a time, and it is a temptation to work some on Sundays. This would mean a 7 day work week. I have found that unless I take the time off for Sunday, I am unable to maintain strength to continue on at a meaningful level. Could God have known that we need the rest? Could he have been that smart? I think so! I stop work on the Sabbath, and refrain from shopping, etc., in obedience, and somehow, all my work gets done on the 6 days allotted for it. Just an aside – Lawrence Welk was on Saturday evening, but the Ed Sullivan show was on Sunday evening!

  7. Another casualty of our secular society. I remember not to long ago empty parking lots at the stores. I was able to use the lots for drivers ed training for my kids. We should stress the importance of the Holy Sabbath Day to our children. What’s important to God should be our top priority. Sadly we have made what’s important to us our 1st concern. Let us get back to giving honor to the Sabbath as God has told us and reap the benefits.

  8. It’s not entirely the fault of consumers. It’s also corporate greed. We need more companies to follow the example of Chick Fil A and stay closed on Sundays. But, yes, we can all do a better job of avoiding convenience shopping on Sunday.

    1. I can’t entirely disagree. Corporations with their power do have undue influence. But if there were no consumers the stores wouldn’t be open. The people could change things through personal discipline. But man being weak we probably need some authority (religious, social, or secular) to force this on us.

  9. Chick-fil-A restaurant chain, 1850 outlets in 41 states, observes the Sabbath, and is not open on Sundays. I believe the founder is a Southern Baptist.

  10. We began a concerted effort to keep the sabbath when our children were little. It has had huge benefits, both direct and indirect for our family. It’s not as hard as it seems at the beginning, though it may take a bit of planning. The hardest thing has been sports. Where we are, all the CYO sports teams practice and have meets/games on Sundays. What’s up with that? It makes it hard to keep calm, restful traditions when you’re racing around to games.

  11. What if I enjoy cleaning my house? I find it stress relieving. (Actually it may be a compulsion.) It causes me more stress to leave things messy than it does to clean it up. I love the feeling after everything is cleaned. I home school my kids during the week and we take a day trip to town on Saturday for groceries, appointments and Mass. Sunday is usually the only day I have that isn’t already packed with other stuff to do. So is that a sin? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know.

  12. JESUS is the LORD of the Sabbath. We as poor employees who are compelled to work on Saturdays and Sundays and are given the weekdays for our rest days do observe the Sabbath too. We give the LORD HIS due respect and attend Holy Masses on our rest days and take time to read the Holy Scriptures and rest our bodies to do contemplation about how good The LORD has been the week that passed or watch family oriented movies and eat out. You see JESUS is The LORD of the Sabbath, therefore, any day is a Sabbath day as long as we put HIM first in our lives and recognize that HE is My LORD and My GOD. As for the well-to-do who treats us bad, well, we just pray that more blessings come to them so that in time they may realize that GOD gave them their riches and acknowledge GOD as their Provider. YHWH TSIDKENU!

  13. I have tried to make Sunday a day of rest, but much of our family time is actually on Saturday, eating together, catching up on the week, maybe watching some sports. After all that I have no time to grocery shop and gather fresh food for the coming week (work and school lunches) and sadly have found my Sunday grocery trip to be extremely difficult to give up. Also, Sunday seems to be the day my teenagers’ memories return and I have to run around grabbing various supplies for school projects and the like.

    Someday with Gods help I will get it right and no longer contribute to retail-mania of the masses, but rather just the Mass. Pray for me, please.

  14. Great article, Monsignor. I have preached on this from time to time and have made a few “converts” or “reverts” to the Sabbath rest. Our family routine was pretty much the same as your experience in the ’50’s and ’60’s, except for the “parents hour” . We also watched the same shows. (Welk was on Saturday evening, but for some reason I also thought it was a Sunday program. At any rate, my siblings and I thought it was hopelessly corny, but my parents begged to differ) Newpapers were sold in front of our parish church after all Sunday Masses and my dad usually bought 2 Detroit rags, 2 Chicago ones and the local paper for our Michigan town. Sunday was Mass, afternoon big meal, Disney, Sullivan and and wall-to-wall newspapers instead of carpet in the living room. This weekly Sabbath experience was tainted, sorry to say, by the panicky finishing of homework and the knowledge that all good things come to an end and school would begin as usual the next morning.

  15. LOL! Those Sunday Sabbaths of old we wax so eloquently about? Yes, they were days of rest for al the menfolk but who do you think cooked that great big dinner you recall? And cleaned up the mess after?
    while the menfolk smoked their cigars as they leisurely took their Sabbath rest? Hah!
    I learned to drive in the parking lots of a nearby GE plant when they were empty on the Sabbath. Today
    I would get killed just walking in one on the Sabbath…just another day of the week in our time and culture.

    1. I dunno, my mom didn’t have your attitude. She liked having us around and seemed to enjoy cooking with sis and grandma. Also, we had our roles. Dad carved the roast and entertained if there were guests, we set the table, and did clean up. No cigar smoking, mom didn’t like it.

  16. If all the Christians could plan ahead, to finish their weekend shopping before Saturday evening, fewer people would be needed to staff those retailers who are open seven days a week.
    I’m guilty too! Must try to reform.

  17. When I was a young mother (ages ago it seemed like) the whole idea of “Sunday rest” just made me laugh. Rest? With three children under the age of three? And a drive of an hour and fifteen minutes each way to Mass? We *had* to feed them after church (usually fast food as toddlers enjoy it). We *had* to do our shopping on the way home, because we only had one car and the nearest grocery store to our house was 30 minutes away. Rest? Right.

    But I realized that “keeping the Sabbath holy” wasn’t about Mom getting to take a nap (not back then, anyway). It was about finding those extra reserves of patience, those extra bits of kindness, that forgiveness to the cranky person who glared at my children in church, that gratitude that the fast food place near the church sold chicken nuggets so cheaply that we could afford them, that happiness that after a busy week my husband could be with us and we could enjoy each others’ company even while strolling through a crowded grocery store…

    I try to keep that in mind, because Sundays are still, alas, busy, with Mass at 8:30 and choir practice at 3 p.m. (though these days I often *do* get a nap in between, especially if I’ve put dinner in the slow-cooker for later). I think that having the “Sunday attitude” comes first, and the specifics about avoiding unnecessary shopping or chores etc. comes later. And I still have to work for it. 🙂

  18. I totally agree with you Msgr. and I think your post has merit but what about all the moms that have to cook that roast? I’m the one that cooks all the food for my family and it is tiring at times-especially by Sunday I’m tired of cooking.

    1. Amanda I agree with you. In years past, a family might think a Sunday roast with a side vegetable and a pie was festive and delicious However, my family would not think that was a treat every Sunday. They are familiar with all cuisines and enjoy different dishes. The idea of hosting a dinner every Sunday afternoon for children, spouses and grandkids induces anxiety! Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays and special occasions are enjoyable but every week would be overwhelming.
      Is it a sin to eat out after attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? We are dressed up and it seems truly festive to have a lunch or early dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. I can come home to a clean kitchen and take a walk, converse, and otherwise rest.

  19. My husband and I grew up during the early time you described and were missing those quiet Sundays when family life centered on Mass and the slower pace. Family members gathered for a meal that went late in the day and there always was enough to feed anyone who happened to drop by. Msgr., thank you for reliving the memory and reminding us of how it “used to be.”

  20. I have been keeping a Sunday day of rest for almost a decade. It has not been hard. It is all about choice, priority and planning. It amazes me that in our age of comfort we think we must engage in commerce on Sunday. Hundreds of years ago when life was much harder for everyone they got by without working on Sunday. The key point you make is that many of us enjoy the convenience of commerce on Sundays by requiring others to work for us.

    As for the economic side of it I’d be labeled a conservative. But I don’t see any economic harm from not employing people on Sundays. The work would most likely shift to other days of the week. And a lot of the work is just consumption and not production or capital improvements. It is the work that makes us Americans think we are wealthy when we are really growing poorer.

    I was just talking with my wife about Sunday rest as we noticed the local grocery store announce that it would have normal hours on Easter. Why shouldn’t they? Easter is the greatest Sunday but if the average Sunday is no reason to rest why should Easter be any different? The only reason Christmas is a holiday is because it is embraced by the secular world, which really includes many ‘Christians’.

    Finally I’ll add this is one of the many things I like about the South. We have more of an appreciation of the Sunday day of rest. Migration and the federal government will probably soon win and finally destroy our culture. But it is at least better for now.

  21. I had to works regularly on weekends as a normal part of my job, especially during summer. It wasn’t so bad, but it makes me appreciate those who have no choice but to work weekends, especially cooks, dishwashers and waitstaff who serve us so well she we decide to eat out after Sunday Mass.

    LOVED Wild Kingdom, but always found it funny to see Marlon Perkins in the background while Jim Fowler wrestled the giant anaconda, dodged the charging rhino, or carried the tranquilized leopard. I’m sure MP got dirty in his day, but during my WK years, it was Jim in harm’s way. Made me want to be him when I grew up. Lol

  22. I heard an interesting thought for all those people that NEED to use Sunday to get ready for the rest of the week. The Jews counted a day from sunset to sunset (roughly 6 or 7 PM). So from Saturday evening to Sunday evening (24 hours) is the Sabbath. You can rest Saturday evening to Sunday late afternoon and then do last minute preparations for the week.Just a thought.

    God honors those that strive to honor Him.

  23. A thought:
    I believe that keeping the Sabbath is all about remembering where we came from and where we are going. If we don’t keep the Sabbath we forget God and what He has done and is doing for us. It is the one day out of the week that we get the privilege of tasting a bit of heaven. God calls us to pull away from our labors and enjoy the world He created and feed on the Food of Life and remember. That’s why it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday. To not keep the Sabbath is to forget God. Us human beings have short term memories. God knows that. This is all so clear when reading Old Testament. Israel falls apart when they fail to keep the Sabbath. Sooo… enjoy the Sabbath and be of good cheer… God calls us to it. Rest.

    A fact:
    My husband and I have five children. The youngest is 17. They all have had to pay their own way once in high school. None of them have ever worked on Sunday. God takes care of His obedient children.

    1. No offense meant, T Cross, but does this mean that you don’t think police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, innkeepers etc. are God’s obedient children?

      1. No, like Msgr Pope, himself, there are some “Must be done” services on Sunday.
        God bless.

  24. Born in 1949, most certainly remember many ov above recolldctions.
    we lived in southeast PAA and once Delaware dropped blue laws people went there.
    remember Life is worth living? Opposite Ed Sullivan
    We are a fallen people living in a world governed by a fallen angel.
    The Lord knows us very well.

  25. As a police officer, my husband is scheduled to work Sundays – usually 8 weeks which include weekends and then it shifts to 8 weeks of weeknights. It’s a bummer, but we have to have police working every day. Our 2-year anniversary of being received into the Catholic Church is tomorrow, and since becoming Catholic, we have made a lot of changes in our life style. One of those changes includes avoiding shopping on Sundays. Now and then, if we don’t plan well, we might have to run out to the grocery or to pick up a prescription, but that is infrequent. We make a point of not doing “recreational” shopping on Sunday. Like Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby is also closed on Sundays. These are two very successful businesses. It’s a shame that they are the only 2 that are willing to keep the Lord’s Day.

    Some of my favorite memories are of watching Lawrence Welk with my beloved grandmother. I was a little kid, but I loved that show because she loved it. There was a guy on there named Tom Netherton. We used to call him the “stick of butter.” He was tall and blonde, and when I was little that’s what he reminded me of.

  26. This brings back so many memories, Father. And of course those memories take me back, also, to SSJP and your 19 years with us. So miss those times. Thank you for going down memory lane and yes, I do still practice at least a much slower pace on a Sunday after Mass. If at a restaurant, then it is a leisurely time and not at a business or ‘driven’ pace. I like the idea of tipping more on Sunday and I will remember that. Malls are infrequent for me and almost never on a Sunday. The same with other stores. I like to think my roots of businesses closed on Sunday is where this stems. Hope you are well and I hope to see you again in the near future.

  27. Here in Bergen County, NJ, many blue laws remain in effect, particularly in Paramus, home of three big malls. The scope of the laws have been relaxed a bit over the years. My parents have confirmed my memories of closed supermarkets and gas stations on Sundays back in the 60s; they are all open today. More types of businesses are open now as well, even one bank!

    Restaurants I believe were always allowed to be open on Sunday, and that is still the main loophole. The malls used to have virtually no cars on a Sunday, but now a fair number as more restaurants open in them. Hardware stores are open on Sunday, but the sections that sell prohibited items – such as clothing and household appliances – are roped off.

    I think it is nice to be able to drive around with less traffic and be under less pressure to get things done on Sunday. I do go grocery shopping and our recycling center is open, and I try to limit my personal errands to that. My wife grew up without Blue Laws and hates them, but one doesn’t have far to go if one wants to visit a mall or do some other work.

    A funny story from about ten years ago concerned a lawyer in Paramus. The police noticed his car in the parking lot on Sunday and asked what he was doing, since apparently under the Blue Laws he could not even work alone. He told them he was reading the funny pages in the newspaper!

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