Jewish Bakers in Late Nineteenth-Century Great Britain and Sunday Baking Restrictions

By Moskoff, William Velvel; Gayle, Carol | Shofar, October 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Jewish Bakers in Late Nineteenth-Century Great Britain and Sunday Baking Restrictions


Moskoff, William Velvel, Gayle, Carol, Shofar


When immigrants first arrive in a country there is almost always friction between the host population and the new immigrants over housing, jobs, and culture. This article tells the story of such a clash in Britain in the late nineteenth century, tracing how Jewish bakers ran afoul of Britain's Sundays closing laws, which forbade bakers to bake and bakeries to sell their good on Sundays. In a time when most businesses worked a six-day week, Jewish bakers felt unfairly victimized, since their religion called upon them to close their establishments on Saturday in observance of the Sabbath while Christian bakers were free to bake and sell on Saturday, but the law required all bakers, including Jews, to close on Sunday for the Christian Sabbath. This story is a microcosm of social conflict and social change, and reveals the serious pressures that observant Jewish immigrants faced as they tried to find a place for themselves in British society.

From medieval times, custom and the law in England assumed that Sunday was a day of rest and worship. Sunday observance laws were directed at errant Christians who failed to observe the Sabbath. Renaissance urban growth, increasing commercial activity, and the turmoil of the Civil War in the midseventeenth century all disrupted the habits of Sabbath observance. After the restoration of the monarchy, Parliament sought to restore religion to a central place in British life and to reestablish strict observance of the Sunday Sabbath with respect to the commercial life of the country. It passed the Sunday Observance Act of 1677, an avowedly religious law that was for centuries the foundation of Britain's legal structure on Sabbath observance. The act prohibited work and commerce on Sunday except in some limited instances.1 It was augmented a century later by the Sunday Observance Act of 1781, which required that the nation's theaters, taverns, libraries, museums, zoos, and retail shops were to be closed on Sundays.2 However, it was recognized that some businesses such as bakeries and food merchants had to be allowed to work even on Sundays in order to provision the populace.

Medieval England had a small but thriving community of Jews but it was destroyed by the expulsion of Jews in 1290. Under the Tudors, Jews, mainly Spanish Jews, began to trickle back into Britain. The number of Jews continued to grow as British commerce and empire grew and British trade spanned the world. In 1734, there were about 6,000 Jews living in England.3 The Jewish population of Britain began to rise more rapidly in the nineteenth century as Jews from the German states arrived on British shores. In 1850, the Jewish population was approximately 25,000.4 Toward the end of the nineteenth century a new wave of Jewish immigration, composed largely of Jews from the Russian and Hapsburg Empires in eastern and central Europe, led to a substantial increase in Jewish population. About 120,000 Jews immigrated to Great Britain between 1880 and 1914. The Jewish population of London alone went from 47,000 in 1883 to 150,000 in 1905, which accounted for about three-fourths of the Jewish population in the UK.5 This influx of new Jewish immigrants, arriving at a time of significant changes in British social and economic life, faced them with-and helped to create-tension with the host population. Nowhere was this tension played out more visibly than in the British baking industry. Jewish bakers wanted to bake on Sunday, the day that was not their Sabbath, and ignore the legal restrictions on Sunday commercial activity. British law forbade that. By the late nineteenth century, there was conflict in the baking industry.

Some legal restrictions on baking connected with Sunday closing existed before the nineteenth century. For instance, a 1794 act obliged bakers to refrain from work on Sunday except for three hours, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.6 The purpose was not to unburden bakers per se, but rather to obtain "better observation of the Lord's day by persons exercising the trade of Bakers. …

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