Open or Closed on Thanksgiving? America’s 'Shabbat-style' Dilemma

The way in which many secular Israelis treasure the peaceful 'Shabbat atmosphere' is similar to the feeling that Americans feel knowing that stores are closed on holidays. We need a periodic 'time out.'

Black Friday shoppers pour into the Valley River Center mall for the Midnight Madness sale on Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 in Eugene, Oregon.
Black Friday shoppers pour into the Valley River Center mall for the Midnight Madness sale on Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 in Eugene, Oregon.Credit: AP

How is this Thanksgiving different from previous Thanksgivings?

On previous Thanksgivings, stores were almost uniformly closed across the United States, in order to give their workers a chance to enjoy turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce with their families.

But this year, it seems, things are different. Many major retailers, including Sears, Kmart, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Gap can’t resist the urge to get a jump on “Black Friday” - the famous opening bell of the pre-Christmas shopping orgy. What started as the trend of opening doors at the crack of dawn on the Friday after Thanksgiving has evolved into midnight madness sales, with store openings that began while the holiday meal was still being digested, has now crossed the line into Thanksgiving itself, with increasing numbers opening their doors on the holiday itself - some in the evening, which would presumably allow for an uninterrupted afternoon family meal, though you can picture family members checking their watches, eager to get away.

Others are unabashedly opening their doors from the morning, offering shopaholics the option of ditching their family gatherings altogether in favor of being the first to grab sale items off the shelves.

The incremental move towards opening stores on Thanksgiving that has been dubbed “Black Friday creep” isn’t totally new - it has been gradually building over the past few years, but has reached a critical mass this year, prompting a major social media backlash against stores who have, in their estimation, prioritizes sales over family values by forcing employees to workon Thanksgiving.

One Facebook page called Boycott Black Thursday has garnered more than 100,000 likes, tells shoppers to stay away from stores that choose to open on Thanksgiving since “employees will be forced to work the majority of the day and evening in preparation for the huge sale. We believe this is an unethical decision that does not consider the families of the men and women who work at these stores, so we're boycotting Black Thursday. Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday that is meant as a day for giving thanks for what you already have, not as a day for shopping for material items that you probably don't need.”

Another offers this handy “Naughty or Nice” list of stores to help guide boycotters in their choices. In the wake of the protests, the retailers who are choosing to close aremaking sure everyone knows that they are giving their employees the opportunity to spend the holiday with their families and burnishing their reputation for family-friendly company values.

This is all rather fascinating to watch from Israel, where it seems we are continually battling with the question of whether to allow or not to allow store openings on Shabbat. While the primary concern here is religion - as it was in the old days in the U.S. when “blue laws” kept stores closed every Sunday - the discussion also often touches on the same issues that are at stake in the great Turkey Day debate.

On one hand, the consumer demand on any given Saturday in Israel is just as strong as the desire by Americans to hit the stores on Thanksgiving. In the modern age, leisure time is shopping time. Check out busy “Tiv Ta’am” supermarkets which are open on Shabbat and holidays or one of the few and crowded shopping malls open on Saturdays in Israel - and you see the tremendous hunger by Israelis to hit the stores, even in an age where online shopping means that you can pretty much buy anything you want at any time.

And still, many of those who are not Orthodox Jews whose religious beliefs forbid them to shop on a Saturday, oppose the idea of a shopping free-for-all. In a country with a six-day school week - and for many, a six-day work week - the closed doors on Saturday enforce “family time” in the same way Thanksgiving closings do. When the large chains open their doors on Friday nights and Saturdays it puts tremendous pressure on “Mom and Pop” business to do the same in order to compete, meaning that Mom and Pop and their kids don’t get much of a break or a family holiday celebration - this has been the crux of the battle of Saturday openings in Israel. My home state of Rhode Island, along with its New England neighbors in Massachusetts and Maine are standing tough Israeli-style - their laws forbid stores to open on Thanksgiving at all.

The way in which many non-Orthodox Israelis treasure the peaceful “Shabbat atmosphere” is similar to the feeling that Americans feel knowing that stores are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Whether or not we celebrate the holiday - and even those of us who don’t like “thou shalt not” pronouncements of what we can and can’t do - we have a soft spot for the idea of living in a society that supports a periodic “time out” that involves spending time with your loved ones and away from the big box stores and the mall.

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