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Should your boss know that you keep the Sabbath?
Sabbath accommodation - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Even in the midst of her day of rest, Judith Shulevitz is reminded of the work she's left undone.

"I always have a stack of books I should have read by Sunday, when I start reporting again," she said, noting that she also sees text and email notifications on her phone.

Shulevitz, a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times and author of "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time," tries to set aside Saturday as a special time to reconnect with her husband, kids and Jewish faith. But life and the expectations facing modern workers often gets in the way.

Sabbath observers who work somewhere that doesn't close down on the weekend, such as a restaurant, hotel, hospital or factory, have always risked having to work on their holy day of rest. Increasingly, white-collar workers are facing similar challenges, as technological advancements like smartphones keep people connected to their employer 24/7.

More than half of Americans (54 percent) agree that "public and private organizations should try to accommodate individuals who want to observe a day of rest according to their personal religious traditions, even when it is inconvenient," according to a new Deseret News survey on Sabbath observance. But does this process become more challenging in a digital age?

"In a work environment that is Monday to Friday, you can't say for sure that it's going to be easier" to balance work demands with Sabbath-related goals, said Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive officer of Tanenbaum, a nonprofit organization that works to improve interfaith relations in workplaces, schools and other settings. "People may be officially scheduled from nine to five, but when you're working at, for example, a law firm or an accounting firm leading up to tax day, any number of concerns may come up" over the weekend.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives employees the right to ask for schedule adjustments in order to practice their religion. However, it also gives employers the right to refuse these requests if "to do so would cause undue hardship on the company," Fowler said.

Conflicts between work responsibilities and Sabbath observance loomed large in a 2013 Tanenbaum survey on American workers and religion. Among workers who experienced or witnessed religious non-accommodation in their workplaces, nearly one-in-four (24 percent) said they had seen someone forced to work on the Sabbath or a religious holiday, making it the most common form of religious non-accommodation.

Sabbath-related work requests are best handled on a case-by-case basis, Fowler said, noting that the process is an exploration of what's possible. Someone who works at a factory that operates seven days a week may have a harder time getting a Sabbath exemption than, for example, a Christian lawyer who wants to be excused from overtime work on Sunday.

"The employee can make a request and the employer, looking at the reality of the amount of work, schedule challenges and who can step-in (for that employee), can counter offer," Fowler said. Compromise is key.

The accommodation process addresses major conflicts between office life and the Sabbath, but sometimes more subtle challenges slip through the cracks, as Shulevitz's experience illustrates.

In an age of smartphones and social media, workers are expected to be plugged in all the time. It's rare to ignore a text or an email for more than a day.

"My husband is the one who most enjoys shutting off our phones and computers, unless he's under an intense deadline," Shulevitz said.

The right to rest

Modern roadblocks to Sabbath observance, such as an overflowing inbox, interfere with the holy day's long history of ensuring everyone the time to step away from workplace challenges, as Shulevitz noted in a 2003 piece for The New York Times.

"The Israelites' Sabbath institutionalized an astonishing, hitherto undreamed-of notion: that every single creature has the right to rest," she wrote.

Early Americans took this right seriously and established blue laws, which are named after the blue paper they were originally printed on. These mandates limited Sunday activities, controlling when alcohol could be sold, when businesses could open and even when people could play the fiddle, said David Hudson, an adjunct professor of law at Vanderbilt University and the ombudsman of the First Amendment Center.

Legal challenges to blue laws have criticized their Christian origin, arguing that a country that promises not to preference one faith over another should purge them from the books, he noted. But the Supreme Court defended them in 1961, ruling that these laws have become a valuable tool to guarantee access to rest.

"The present purpose and effect of most of them is to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens; the fact that this day is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the State from achieving its secular goals," wrote Justice Earl Warren in the majority opinion for McGowan v. Maryland.

More than six-in-10 U.S. adults (62 percent) agree that "it is important for society to have a day of the week set aside for spiritual rest," according to the Deseret News survey, which was conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov and based on 1,671 interviews.

The poll also found that young people are especially open to accommodations for those who wish to keep a Sabbath. Fifty-nine percent of millennials agreed with the idea and just 17 percent disagreed, compared with 29 percent who disagreed among the silent generation.

However, declining church membership and a growing sense that blue laws are outdated has led many of them to be purged from the books in the last few decades, Hudson said.

"I don't even know the current extent. A lot of them are city or county laws," he said.

Setting boundaries

When public interest in a day of rest declines, it becomes harder for Sabbath observers to spend the day as they'd like. Bosses, colleagues and friends expect you to be checking your email and responding to texts, and they may not understand the religious significance of your effort to be off the grid, Shulevitz said.

"There are cultural assumptions we make" about availability, she said. "I get a lot of emails from people that I don't respond to until Monday."

People who observe the Sabbath should meet with their bosses to discuss what the holy day entails, Fowler said. Otherwise, co-workers' confusion about unfamiliar religious practices could lead to tension.

"Someone may know that an observant Jewish employee leaves early on Friday, but they don't know why," he said. "This leads to misunderstandings between colleagues. It appears like Jewish employees are getting special treatment, when, in actuality, the employer is trying to accommodate their needs in the same way that they try to accommodate a parent that wants to be at his child's soccer game."

When your boundaries are clear and you've worked with your boss to ensure that everything will be covered in your technological absence, you can focus on shutting down the modern instinct to always be connected, Shulevitz said.

It's hard to banish thoughts of deadlines and writing projects from her mind during the Sabbath, but by the time she's curled up reading a fiction book on Saturday afternoon, it's equally difficult to imagine reclaiming the productive spirit that dominates other days of the week.

"When Saturday night comes, I have to beat myself up to get back to work," Shulevitz said.
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