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Labor Day: A Shabbat for Us All

After completing six days of work on the heavens and the earth,

“and all the host of them...God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made” (Genesis 2:1-3).

This example set by God instructs us as Jews to observe and remember Shabbat - the day of rest - every week. We turn from the routines and responsibilities for our daily lives and spend time with our families, our friends, maybe light candles or attend services. By respecting our rest, we honor our work.

The first Monday of September, Labor Day, is a type of “national Shabbat.” As a nation, we put down our tools, take our hands off our keyboards, and celebrate the work and achievement of American workers throughout history. The end of Labor Day itself (which might be a misnomer, because it has the effect of No-Labor Day), is a sort of havdalah (separation). For many, Labor Day weekend symbolizes the end of summer, the return to school, or to a more intense work schedule.

As a nation, we have been commemorating Labor Day since 1894, when President Grover Cleveland pronounced Labor Day as a federal holiday after attempts to end a railroad strike. This 120-year history reminds us of the importance of labor rights, not just the importance of work.

The Union for Reform Judaism has often affirmed its commitment to America’s workers. A 1961 resolution on "Migrant Farmers" states the Reform Movement’s commitment to raise the status of farm-workers from degradation to “dignity and equality.” A 2005 resolution titled "Workers’ Rights In The United States" reminds us that “in recent years, workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively have come under increasing attack, and gaps in existing law provide insufficient protection for many workers,” and calls on us all to “Recognize the rights of those who work for them either directly or indirectly, under contractual arrangements for services, to be treated with dignity, to be paid a living wage and to work in a healthy, safe and secure workplace.”

The Torah emphasizes the importance of fairness to workers:

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer”, but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).”

Unions are models of self-sufficiency: workers stand up to demand their own rights. As Jews we have an obligation not only to assist the downtrodden but also to help those in need become self-sufficient (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah), a goal we can pursue by promoting unions.

On Labor Day, may we honor work, honor workers across the United States, and remember this national Shabbat as a day of rest and of deeper connection to the importance of work as a key to the American Dream, alongside the necessity of balance and rest.

Sarah Greenberg was, at the time of this writing, the assistant legislative director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was also an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell Universityn and is originally from New York City.