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SA chief rabbi urges Knesset to make Sunday part of Israel’s weekend

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South African Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein may well sway the decision-making process in Israel’s Knesset over whether Israel should change to a five-day working week, and which day would change.

Goldstein was called up to address an official Knesset committee on Tuesday, 10 May, about why he believed Sunday should be made a non-workday in Israel.

Naama Lazimi, a member of Knesset for the Labor Party who convened and chaired this parliamentary committee, called people – mostly in Israel – to give input on different options for shortening the work week.

“MK Lazimi invited me because I met her a number of weeks ago to discuss this option,” says Goldstein, the founder of the Shabbat Project (or Shabbat Olamit as it is known in Israel).

Goldstein discussed with her an independent survey he commissioned and its findings because he had heard that she was working on issues it covered. “Then, when she convened this committee meeting, she invited me to share it from a kind of global Jewish perspective,” he says. He did this via Zoom from South Africa.

The option the chief rabbi proposed is to shorten working hours and make Sundays in Israel part of the weekend, much like in South Africa.

Goldstein commissioned a survey in Israel recently to gauge public attitudes not only towards the idea of creating a shorter work week, but also Shabbat in general.

“The survey particularly looked at this question about whether making Sundays a non-workday would help to reduce tension around Shabbat,” he says.

Tension arises, Goldstein says, “when there is only one day of the weekend and that one day is Shabbat”.

He explained that preserving the identity and sanctity of Shabbat in the public domain means that shopping and sport – which people don’t have time for during the week – can’t happen on a weekend.

“If people want to get things done that you can’t do during the work week and things are closed because of Shabbat, this leads to the conflict of choosing between giving people options on the weekend,” he says.

“For example, all sport has to take place on a Shabbat. It’s the only day of the weekend. Families who may not even be so religiously observant don’t want their kids to play sport on Shabbat because of the holiness of the day,” Goldstein says.

“So, the idea of a two-day weekend is that a lot of these things could happen on a Sunday and then the holiness of Shabbat will be preserved without reducing people’s choices or imposing hardship on society,” he says. “You can then preserve Shabbat and at the same time, release the tension and all the fighting because now there’s a two-day weekend, so all needs can be taken care of in that context.”

The survey’s findings, which were released on 10 May 2022, demonstrated widespread support for a shorter work week, with 76% in favour of making Sunday part of the weekend.

The survey indicated that should Sunday become part of the weekend, more than 50% of self-described chilonim (secular Jews) would spend more time at home resting and connecting with family on Shabbat.

The survey also shows that introducing Sunday as an extra weekend day would reduce tension and divisions within Israeli society around Shabbat. More than 90% of respondents were concerned that tension around state and religion was undermining the unity of Israeli society, with 83% saying that establishing a Sunday weekend would reduce these tensions.

Presently, Israel has a five-and-a-half-day work week – from Sunday to Friday afternoon. The reason why the weekend in Israel is observed on Friday afternoon and Saturday is that Shabbat lasts from sunset on Friday to the fall of full darkness on Saturday.

Goldstein proposes that the work week becomes four-and-a-half days, with Sunday forming part of the weekend.

He’s calling for this option, he says, because “Shabbat needs to have an important place and role in Israeli society. I’ve seen through the Shabbos Project in Israel how people have a real yearning for Shabbos. But in Israel, often politics and division get in the way. What I’ve seen from this survey, and what I’ve seen through the activities of the Shabbos Project in Israel is that actually part of the problem is the practicality of having a weekend of only one day. Then, everyone’s fighting over the same time.”

So, he believes the best solution would be to give Israelis time to have Shabbat and then on Sundays, time to do other things that people in South Africa and Western countries would do on a weekend.

Goldstein, who also addressed the Knesset committee several months ago regarding the blocking of flights from the diaspora into Israel, says most of the other people addressing the Knesset during the meeting about shortening the work week were in parliament.

“All the other submissions that I heard were from a point of view of the economy, labour, and productivity, the trends globally towards a four-day work week, especially post COVID-19,” he says. “I came from the point of view of unity within the society and making the space for Judaism and Shabbat in a way that won’t cause division.”

Goldstein says there’s now going to be a process of choosing the most suitable option and formulating legislation for it. “In the past in Israel, there have been various unsuccessful attempts to do this,” he says.

“Hopefully, this attempt will be successful. I made it clear in this meeting that I’m not an economist and I can’t pronounce on matters of the economy, productivity, and all of that. I’m just talking from a point of view of cohesion of society and making a space for Jewish values.”

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