Segment from Man vs. the Machine

Bring Back the Blue Laws?

Writer Judith Shulevitz tells Ed about the centrality of the Sabbath in Early American life, the blue laws that emerged to preserve Sabbath observance and the fierce cultural battles fought over these restrictive laws. Today, Shulevitz reflects on whether a new kind of Sabbath observance is needed to give us some reprieve from our technological lives.

Galoshes by Podington Bear

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Brian Balogh: As a young journalist in New York City, Judith Shulevitz was always on the go, always on the move, always on.

J Shulevitz: Everything seemed to be about work, one way or another. I worked often on weekends, when I socialized, I socialized with people from work, because I was in New York. You know if you live in a small town, you probably have a wider range of acquaintances, when you are new to New York, you know your work friends. So when we had brunch, we had brunch and we talked about work and we gossiped about our work colleagues and who was up and who was down.

J Shulevitz: And there was something missing in my life, and one year I had a roommate who had been a friend of mine in high school, I went to boarding school, and she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister and she went to church. And I said to her, Jane, can I go to church with you? And she said, actually, no. I don’t think you’d like it, and I would feel uncomfortable having you there, but there is a really cool shul, it’s very architecturally, it’s really beautiful and it’s right down the street. Shul is Yiddish for synagogue. And why don’t you go there?

J Shulevitz: So I went there, and it just aroused all these feelings, and I sat in the back and I would cry. It was as if there was this sadness that was waiting for a way to come out. And from there I sort of slowly became part of what’s known as a shabbos or a Sabbath community.

Brian Balogh: Years after her moving experience in synagogue, Judith Shulevitz became interested in the history of the Sabbath, and what it might mean for us today. She says the Sabbath has a more central place in early American history than you might think.

J Shulevitz: I don’t think people realize how much of a role the question of Sunday observance played in the Puritans’ departure from England, and their voyage to America. A lot of the issue they had with King James I was over how Sunday was to be observed, for example, there was a big battle over bear baiting, which was an activity they felt should not occur on the Sabbath. So they were-

Brian Balogh: Any other day it was okay to bait bears then?

J Shulevitz: … I guess so. Elizabethan era entertainments.

Brian Balogh: That was a tough time.

J Shulevitz: Yeah, so that was one of their big theological disputes and they came to America in search of a place in which they could, as often has been stated, create a new Jerusalem, a city on a hill, and they wanted to keep their Sabbaths as they wanted to keep them. Which was very very strictly.

Brian Balogh: And what did it actually mean to be that strict? What would life have been like in Puritan America?

J Shulevitz: Well, you would’ve been required to go to church. You would’ve spent several hours in church. There was no heating in church, and there was actually somebody who went up and down the rows of the pews and would sort of tap you on the head if you weren’t paying attention. There was no work allowed, there was no play allowed. There were no fires allowed, so your food would be cold. If you had servants, you would read from the Bible to them and they were required to go to church too. So it was incredibly strict.

J Shulevitz: The Puritan style of observance really influenced Sunday laws in America for quite a long time. Ultimately there were more people keeping the Sabbath in a stricter way than there ever had been, I believe, in the history of the world.

Brian Balogh: But, as new technologies emerge that start splitting up daily life, the Sabbath and the Sabbath laws come under increased scrutiny and protest.

J Shulevitz: In the 19th century, there were these battles over Sabbatarianism that were really surprisingly politically charged. I think not in the book but in my own mind, I compare it to the battles over abortion. That’s how seriously people took them. The first of these great battles was over post offices, whether post offices would be open on Sunday or not. That was just this huge sort of kulturkampf, you know, cultural battle.

J Shulevitz: We wanted our communiques communicated quickly, and those who believed that they should be and that that would improve society, it would pick up the pace of industrialization and commerce and just simply make people’s lives better, wanted the post offices open on Sunday. And those who feared that technology would overtake their lives argued against it. And overtake their lives and of course weaken their religion.

Brian Balogh: On both sides of the Sabbatarian debate, arguments were framed in terms of bringing the country together and protecting worker and immigrant interests in a rapidly changing industrializing society.

J Shulevitz: Later there would be these battles over whether libraries and other cultural institutions would be open or not. Often it was the people arguing for opening them were arguing on behalf of workers having access to culture, self improvement. Workers and immigrants, I should say. The people who were arguing against any weakening of Sabbatarianism were often arguing on behalf of workers and saying, if these restrictions are loosened, then workers will lose their day of rest.

Brian Balogh: Though sporadically enforced, these Sunday closing laws or blue laws, largely remain on the books throughout much of the first half of the 20th century. As late as 1961, in McGowan vs. Maryland, the Supreme Court upheld their constitutionality.

J Shulevitz: There was a decision that was made by Earl Warren and Felix Frankfurter to uphold blue laws. And it’s interesting why Frankfurter who was Jewish argued for Sunday closing laws, which is what they were, and he said it’s because Sunday peace and Sunday rest is quote, “a cultural asset of importance”. It relieves from the daily grind, preserve of mental peace and opportunity for self disposition, and that the common good of the public overrode the First Amendment issues.

Brian Balogh: Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the blue laws finally did start to disappear.

J Shulevitz: Sort of there were two forces that led to them being challenged. One was the influx of women into the workforce. Once women were working, they needed both days of the weekend to shop and do the chores that they were, unfortunately still doing by themselves.

J Shulevitz: And the other thing was the advent of the big box store, the chain stores which had resources with which to lobby state legislatures to get these things struck from the books. Mom and pop stores needed a day off, right? Sunday was good for them, they didn’t have the resources to hire help to stay open as late as the chain stores did. So with the advent of Sunday shopping, a lot of mom and pop stores went out of business. So these were the forces that took these laws off the book even though they were only at that point being sporadically enforced.

Brian Balogh: And now in 2019 these blue laws are, for the most part, long gone. Still, Judith Shulevitz thinks we would do well to return to a kind of Sabbath. But how could we go about it in our technologically soaked environment?

J Shulevitz: With great difficulty. Obviously we’re not going to return to blue laws, nor would I want to. I think they just raise too many issues and I just think the forces of industry prevent them and technology prevent them. But you could certainly begin, in your own life, in your own community, in your own congregation, to recognize the benefits of a social time of non-work. Sort of I say it’s about structured non-work time. So everybody’s not working at the same time as you, and now it’s staying off your phone and staying off your computer. Everybody’s not doing that at the same time as you, which means that there are people around with whom to do things together.

Brian Balogh: This could be secular, then.

J Shulevitz: Yeah, it is, I mean that’s you know, Frankfurter said it’s a secular asset. It need not be religious. I mean, I found it through religion but it need not be religious. There are people who are now talking about the technological Sabbath and how important it is to have one day a week where they just put their electronics away and try to remember what it was like to read books and go outside and play sports.

Brian Balogh: So I guess the moral here is that the Sabbath is what you make it, right? Is that a day of stepping away from the usual routines and demands is a great idea, but you sort of need to do it intentionally and if possible with a sense of joy and gratitude.

J Shulevitz: With one caveat, which is that that you has to be plural. In other words, it’s not what you personally make it. It’s what you with a group of others make it and how you define a community through it, because it is, it creates a space in time in which to forge bonds, social bonds, civic bonds, communal bonds, because you know, when you’re focused on your work, you’re focused on getting ahead and maybe you’re working with a team, but it’s really not a fully social experience and not an experience in which other aspects of yourself can come out. I feel that if you try to do it by yourself, it’s going to be a very lonely experience.

Brian Balogh: Judith Shulevitz is a journalist, cultural critic and author of The Sabbath World, Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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Technophobia Lesson Set

Download the Technophobia Lesson Plan

This lesson set uses the Inquiry Design Model (IDM),  a distinctive approach to creating curriculum and instructional materials that honors teachers’ knowledge and expertise, avoids overprescription, and focuses on the main elements of the instructional design process as envisioned in the Inquiry Arc of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards (2013). Unique to the IDM is the blueprint, a one-page representation of the questions, tasks, and sources that define a curricular inquiry.

This lesson asks the compelling question How do people react to rapid technological economic change? and instructs students to write, using specific historical evidence, a response to the following questions: How did American’s respond to the rapid changes of the Market Revolution? What changed and what stayed the same?

In addition to the C3 Framework, it uses both AP US Thematic Standards and AP US Content Standards.