Here is a story I wasn’t sure my sister would ever let me tell. I come from a churchgoing family, but one Sunday my sister did not go to worship, even though the rest of us did. She wasn’t sick. In fact, she was the opposite of sick: recently confirmed, she had simply decided to exercise one of the rights she understood to be hers through confirmation, namely staying home for no reason other than that she wanted to do so. I must have found this shocking—not only her decision but the willingness of our parents to abide—though I can’t really summon a memory of how I felt before worship because of what happened after.
Back then, the sanctuary of our little country church was divided from the fellowship hall by a single doorway. Pitched high on the left and low on the right, the door is uneven, a fact I’ve loved ever since someone told me an apocryphal story about Christ the carpenter helping his father, Joseph, correct a crooked doorframe. I looked at that door every week during worship. For a long time, it was right behind the pulpit, so I would watch it during the entire sermon, waiting expectantly for a similar miracle, for the right corner to rise to meet the left or for the left to fall to meet the right. Whenever I walked through, I dragged my fingers up and down its slanted frame; eventually, I was tall enough to touch its crooked corners.
Some of my earliest memories are of that doorway: stumbling through it with a me-size stuffed donkey for the pageant one Christmas Eve when I was seven; crying as I crossed its threshold toward my godmother’s casket that sat open before the altar; ducking through it as acolyte to light candles in the hopeful silence of the congregation. I rarely enter another sanctuary that I don’t first think of that door. A wonderful thing about the recent renovation of our more-than-hundred-year-old church is that they chose not to right the door, so that even today during worship, I find myself staring at it, although now the pulpit is on its lefthand side.
When you walk through that crooked doorway into the fellowship hall, you find a sacristy and bathrooms and a kitchen and Sunday-school rooms and a small office. When I was little, there were always two folding chairs in that office for the tellers who counted the offering and a tiny footstool for children like me who liked to sit while their parents sorted checks and stacked cash and added all the figures on an adding machine; if we were lucky, there were loose coins to be sorted into envelopes, or, if we were really lucky, enough for a paper roll. The church had the first photocopier I ever used, and a paper cutter that looked like a machete. Those three pieces of technology—the copier, the calculator, and the cutter—lived in the office beside a telephone, which my father used to call my sister the day that she stayed home.
My father was only checking on my sister, but, on hearing his side of their conversation, the pastor asked him for the telephone. I was there beside them and I could only imagine how she felt when she suddenly found herself talking not with our father but with our pastor. He had only one question for her: “Do you remember the third commandment?”
If you are not Catholic or Lutheran, then the commandment in question is actually the fourth. The tablet with the Ten Commandments wasn’t numbered, so the order is of some dispute; at any rate, our pastor was talking about the matter of the Sabbath and how to observe it. That is also the subject of a documentary by the American filmmaker Martin Doblmeier that, in the past few months, has been airing on public television stations and streaming online. Doblmeier has made more than a dozen documentaries about religion, including biographical films devoted to theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Howard Thurman; a trilogy about Seventh-day Adventists; and interfaith explorations like “The Power of Forgiveness” and “Chaplains.” Those thematic films survey contemporary spirituality across traditions, looking at forgiveness in the Amish, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim faiths or interviewing chaplains of all kinds who work in prisons, meat-processing plants, and war zones.
In “Sabbath,” Doblmeier moves swiftly about the country, consulting with thoughtful sociologists and theologians, capturing the beauty and delight of summer camps and community gardens, talking with the clergy and parishioners at places such as LIFE Adventist Church of Berkeley; the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, in Manhattan; South Jackson Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Mississippi; the Islamic Center at New York University; and La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina, in Los Angeles. Viewers can compare b’nai mitzvah, baptisms, Jumuah prayers, congregational potlucks and Shabbat meals, while watching college students figure out their own Sabbath disciplines for the first time away from their families, and pastors with decades of experience change their views on sabbaticals.
The documentary can sometimes feel like a whirlwind tour, but whirlwinds have been known to produce wisdom. “Sabbath” begins by observing the hurried exhaustion and omnipresent stress of modern life—our digital addictions, our burnout culture, our depression—and then summons the scriptural roots of the film’s core idea, presenting the Sabbath as a possible remedy for our cultural distress. In Genesis, God rests after creating the world; in Exodus, God commands the Israelites to rest: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.” Ammiel Hirsch, a reform rabbi who appears in the film, argues that the fourth commandment was “a revolutionary concept” that “changed human history,” because it is believed to be the first time a religious or political authority, instead of requiring work, had required rest.
Romans were contemptuous of the practice, maligning Jews as lazy, but even within Judaism interpretations of the commandment to rest varied in the ancient world, with people differing over not only what constituted appropriate worship but what constituted inappropriate work. Some of the most contentious arguments in the Gospels are between Jesus and religious leaders over what he was doing on the Sabbath, not only healing and performing miracles but one day simply gleaning grain with his hungry disciples. On that day, Christ appeals to the example of King David, who ate consecrated bread, telling the Pharisees: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
These were not trivial disagreements, and they persist into the present, even about fundamental issues, including which day is the one God intended for humanity to rest from labor. In Judaism, the Shabbat begins with sunset on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday; Muslims observe Jumuah, coming together for congregational prayer on Fridays. We know from the Book of Acts that early followers of Jesus began gathering on Sundays, and in 321 A.D. Constantine formalized Sunday as the day of rest for the Roman Empire: “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.” Christians today still mostly worship on Sundays, though Seventh-day Baptists and Adventists, for instance, observe their Sabbath on Saturdays.
Observance takes many forms even within the same faith, with those who keep the Sabbath engaging in different degrees of physical and spiritual rest, private meals or public worship, personal formation or collective service, silent prayer or active study. But a welcome corrective offered by the film is the insistence that, for the faithful, whatever happens on this consecrated day matters to all the other days of the week. “Sabbath isn’t simply a pious teaching,” the Duke University professor Norman Wirzba explains. “What’s at issue is the very meaning of life.”
That sense of the Sabbath’s profound importance is part of what brought the Puritans to America. Their strict Sabbatarian beliefs put them in conflict with the English authorities, especially after King James published “The Book of Sports,” in 1617, in which he encouraged his subjects to follow Sunday-morning worship with dancing, games, and recreation in the afternoon. For the Puritans, such encroachments clearly undermined the fourth commandment, and when they could, they passed Sabbatarian laws to protect the Lord’s Day—in Virginia, as early as 1610, it was decreed that “no man or woman shall dare to violate or break the Sabbath by any gaming, public or private abroad, or at home.”
Such prohibitions became known as “blue laws,” although no one now remembers why; perhaps because of the color of the paper on which they were printed or bound, or because of the pejorative meaning of the color in the colonial era, as in bluestockings or later variations like bluenoses—those who were prudish or proper. Laws like that proliferated and persisted for the next three centuries, regulating commerce, labor, and recreation on the Lord’s Day throughout the United States. The occasional exception, sparing certain industries or carving out certain activities, made its way through state legislatures here and there, but only during the Cold War, when school prayer and civic displays of religious iconography were challenged in the federal courts, did blue laws become a serious target, too.
Case after case argued that Sunday-closing laws violated the equal-protection clause and the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In 1961, the Supreme Court put the matter to rest, so to speak, when it found, in McGowan v. Maryland, that blue laws are not unconstitutional if they serve a secular purpose, and that choosing Sunday for a common day of rest is a practical choice, not preferential treatment of Christianity. “People of all religions and people with no religion regard Sunday as a time for family activity, for visiting friends and relatives, for late sleeping, for passive and active entertainments, for dining out, and the like,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, in a decision representative of several others on the issue. “Sunday is a day apart from all others. The cause is irrelevant; the fact exists. It would seem unrealistic for enforcement purposes and perhaps detrimental to the general welfare to require a State to choose a common day of rest other than that which most persons would select of their own accord.”
Even with that legal protection secured, Sabbatarian laws were revised and repealed around the country in the decades that followed. In some states, business owners argued successfully that these laws were applied capriciously across the same industry (say, only to stores of a certain size) or unfairly to certain industries (say, car sales but not camper sales); in other states, regulators conceded that they were overwhelmed and unable to enforce the law; almost everywhere, economic pressures prevailed, with Sabbath-law critics arguing that revenue was being lost and tax dollars were being forgone. Nonetheless, blue laws did not disappear. Some states still restrict hunting, horse racing, or the sale of alcohol on Sundays, and one segment of “Sabbath” is devoted to the last county in the country to still restrict shopping more broadly.
That county isn’t Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, or Salt Lake, in Utah. It’s Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the wealthiest counties in one of the country’s wealthiest states, home to Paramus, which boasts more retail sales than any other Zip Code in the United States. Tens of millions of people shop every year in the city’s four large malls, which bring in some six billion dollars annually. New Jersey has had statewide blue laws on the books since 1693, and Bergen County specifically chose them in 1959, when small businesses banded together with clergy and other concerned residents to bolster the county’s local prohibitions; as recently as 1993, the residents voted to preserve their blue laws, continuing to ban the Sunday sale of all sorts of items, including appliances, building materials, cars, clothing, electronics, and furniture. For some retailers, such as Costco, that means welcoming customers but allowing them to purchase only certain goods, blocking off whole aisles; for many others, it means staying closed entirely.
The Bergen County blue-laws advocates interviewed in “Sabbath” offer various nonfinancial arguments for keeping their stores closed on Sundays, from humdrum reasons like less traffic to loftier ones like strengthening community and promoting wellness. Health and longevity are integral to the interviews Martin Doblmeier conducted with Seventh-Day Adventists, too, who observe their Sabbath on Saturdays, and link spiritual well-being to physical well-being. Mostly vegetarian, they exercise regularly and abstain from alcohol and drugs, and, on Saturdays, share communal meals and focus on scripture and service; studies have shown that they have reduced risks of diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.
Critics of blue laws have long argued that they benefit only those individuals who attend religious services on Sunday, not the community at large or creation more broadly. But secular labor unions fought for Sunday closures as a way of guaranteeing time off for weary workers, whether or not they avail themselves of religious services on that day or any other, reasoning partly that a day or set of days must be chosen, not as a means of promoting religion but to insure rest from work. Such activists did not see themselves as advocates for a particular religion or enemies of any other, only as protectors of workers from economic exploitation.
Concerns about exclusivism, although reasonable in a society that values pluralism, have made people afraid to champion a common day of rest, even though, originally, in Mosaic law, the Sabbath was intended to be shared by all, regardless of their religious practice. That day was set apart not only for the Jewish people; in Deuteronomy, it is written: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.”
This litany includes the usual suspects—you and your children—but also many more: your servants, your ox and your ass, even the strangers in your midst. Everyone is owed a Sabbath, not just those who worship your way; the Sabbath is not only for you and yours but for all. “There’s not a single instance that I can find anywhere in Scripture where God gives Sabbath to an individual,” Nathan Stucky, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, says in the documentary. “It’s always to the community. It’s to the whole creation. It’s to the gathering of God’s people. Sabbath in all its fullness is an exercise of a community.”
We understand this necessity from our own experience: the only effective truce is a collective one. Thus unplugging works best if everyone in your household or office unplugs, and holidays are most holiday-ish when as much of our society as possible is allowed to observe them, when the markets and the banks and the post offices close and all the rest of the busy commercial world does its best to accept that most commerce can wait. Pluralistic commitments have provided cover for economic pressures, when, instead of arguing for a different day of rest, we more often accept there can be no rest, no forgoing revenue or losing business; opposition to the Sabbath is often cloaked in secularism but motivated by greed.