On January 18, 1874, Reform Chicago Sinai Congregation held, for the first time in the United States, a Shabbat worship service – on a Sunday. That is, the synagogue – and its leader at the time, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler – responded to the overwhelming U.S. tradition of Sunday as the day of rest by transferring the Jewish Sabbath from Saturday.
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The movement to turn Sunday into Shabbat had its origins in Germany, where the Reform movement was born. According to a 1982 essay by Kerry Olitzky in The American Jewish Archives Journal, the idea had been raised in 1837 in the Frankfurter Journal; advocates argued that a Sunday Sabbath would be the Jews’ final step toward full emancipation.
Seven years later, the Berlin Reform Congregation actually instituted the idea, which then spread to other Reform synagogues on the Continent.
In the United States, the motivation was based more on economics. “America,” writes Olitzky, “guaranteed complete freedom to the Jew, but its six-day work week was designed to accommodate the worship pattern of the non-Jew.” If you were a rabbi and you wanted congregants to come to shul to pray – and hear your sermon – you had to do it on a day and at a time when they were capable of showing up.
To traditional Jews of all stripes, the idea of “moving” Shabbat was heretical, and even within the Reform movement, which took the liberty in its early decades of dispensing wholesale with many aspects of Jewish law and ritual, it was a subject of controversy.
The movement never formally accepted the change as policy. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, for example, the leading Reform Jew of the late 19th century, proclaimed the idea of moving Shabbat “barefaced and downright hypocrisy,” not to mention a lie.
Nonetheless, some of the largest and most influential Reform synagogues at the time, including Kenesseth Israel in Philadelphia, and Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, adopted the seemingly radical practice. Both Hannah Solomon and Sadie American, respectively the president and the secretary of the National Council of Jewish Women, also endorsed the elimination of Saturday as the Jewish Sabbath.
The initiative to hold Sunday services almost always originated with the rabbi. According to Olitzky, it often seemed connected to a rabbi’s desire to have more congregants present for his sermons. In some cases, the synagogue would hold a full-fledged Sabbath service, replete with Shabbat liturgy and the Torah service, on Sunday.
But there were also synagogues that combined a Sunday worship service with a lecture, and others that skipped the prayers altogether but offered an educational program — just to get the congregants into the synagogue
Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, speaking at Sinai Temple in January 1899 as it celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first Sabbath-Sunday, talked about the spiritual agenda of those who originated the idea. One of them had been his father, the German Reform rabbi Samuel Hirsch, whom Emil quoted expressing the hope that Sunday would become more than just a day to hear a lecture.
“If Sunday is merely the pedestal from which I will tell the congregation that I have read Victor Hugo and Dante,” the elder Hirsch had said, “or make them believe that I have read Plutarch and Thucydides and Themistocles, and am at home in the literature of the cuneiform or the hieroglyphics; if it offers me nothing but the opportunity to show them that thanks to the encyclopedia, I, too, have a smattering of astronomical erudition and botanical information then good God, give me the old Sabbath, ruin though it be, and preserve me from the blandishments of the new that outrages the old Jewish spirit of truth and of truthfulness.”
The pendulum, however, eventually swung back to the “old Sabbath.” For many Reform synagogues, the Friday-night service became the big draw of the week, with others placing the emphasis on Shabbat morning prayer. Sunday never really took off as the new Jewish Sabbath.