Jewish Praise of Truett Cathy: Chick-fil-A Founder and Sabbath Observer

 
 

In a society in which the profit motive tends to make all other interests subordinate to the almighty dollar, Chick-fil-A’s founder declared that the store would not be open on the Sabbath.

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All who fittingly sanctify the seventh day,
All who protect the Sabbath properly from desecration,
Will have great reward in accord with their deed.
Each in his own camp, each under his own banner.
—“Kol Mekadesh Shevi’i,” Friday night zemirah (Sabbath table song)

Last week, S. Truett Cathy, the controversial conservative Christian founder of the popular national chicken fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, died at the age of 93. Is there anything that we can we learn from Chick-fil-A that doesn’t have to do with fried chicken?

I have never eaten at Chick-fil-A, nor do I plan to. I keep kosher, and as far as I know, there are still no kosher Chick-fil-As—but with a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts in Teaneck, NJ, and a kosher McDonald’s in Jerusalem, perhaps a kosher Chick-fil-A in the Upper West Side may not be too far off. Still, when I heard about Mr. Cathy’s death, my attention was piqued by one piece of news: all of Chick-fil-A’s locations are closed on Sundays.

Needless to say, this is highly unusual—not so much because one particular business is closed on Sundays (many still are), but because an entire chain of a highly popular fast-food restaurant is closed on Sundays. Fast food is one of the most competitive and lucrative industries in the country, and the thought of closing all Subways or Burger Kings or Wendy’s throughout the country would likely prompt a customer riot—or at least a shareholder derivative lawsuit. Close all KFCs for an entire day every week? Sacrifice one-seventh of corporate revenue?! McDonalds regularly nets over seven billion dollars in revenue in every quarter alone; a fast-food chain that closes all of its restaurants one day per week literally sacrifices hundreds of millions of dollars.

Chick-fil-A’s observance of the Sabbath should be commended. We are living in an overworked, “overwhelmed,” and overburdened society, as Brigid Schulte has written in her recently published book. We no longer have time for our children, our friends, and ourselves. Compared to most European countries, we work more hours per day, work more days per year, and receive less vacation time than most citizens do in all other industrialized countries.

What can cure our society’s workaholicism? Perhaps a government-enforced limit on the hours per day that we can receive work-related email (the French Labor Ministry is contemplating such a law)? A government regulation that would mandate minimum vacation allotments for all workers? Or, to take a less top-down approach, perhaps a revival of an ancient yet ever-relevant social institution: the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is not just a day for religion. It is a day for leisure. When we lack leisure, we become “cut off from many of the best things,” wrote the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell. He goes on:

The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. . . . It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness.

The Greeks said that leisure was necessary for the soul. Similarly, Judaism and Christianity, by imploring their adherents to observe a Sabbath once a week and to observe a Sabbatical year once every seven years, mandated leisure as a religious precept. Mussar (Jewish ethical-devotional literature) advocated freedom of the mind as an ethical and religious imperative by equating mental drudgery with the Jewish slavery in Egypt and by associating mental freedom with the Exodus from Egypt.

This precept of “necessary leisure” (theologian Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s term) is embedded in the institution of the Sabbath and in the biblical concept of the sabbatical:

Shabbat (the Sabbath) [provides] the necessary leisure to be one’s self and to enter into deeper relationships.

Rest is more than leisure from work, it is a state of inner discovery, tranquility, and unfolding. . . . The Sabbath commandment is not just to stop working, it is actively to achieve menuchah (rest) through self-expression, transformation, and renewal. On this day humans are freed to explore themselves and their relationships until they attain the fullness of being.

[The Shabbat’s] focus remains the enrichment of personal life. In passing over from weekday to Shabbat, the individual enters a different world. The burdens of the world roll off one’s back. In the phrase of the zemirah (Sabbath table song): “Anxiety and sighing flee.” In the absence of business and work pressure, parents suddenly can listen better to children. In the absence of school and extra-curricular pressures, children can hear their parents. Being is itself transformed. The state of inner well-being expands. As the Sabbath eve service text states: “The Lord . . . blesses the seventh day and [thereby] bestows holy serenity on a people satiated with delight.” The ability to reflect is set free. Creative thoughts long forgotten come back to mind. One’s patience with life increases. The individual’s capacity to cope is renewed.

A society in which the ethic of necessary leisure—or, in the terminology of the siddur [prayer-book], “holy serenity”—is not respected is a society that degrades the human being and, consequently, depreciates the image of God. This is why the Torah and the ba’alei mussar [authors of ethical-devotional literature (lit., “masters of ethics”)] fiercely advocate the absolute, inviolable necessity for periods of leisure—Sabbath days and Sabbatical years—during which we can be self-reflective and thereby rejuvenate our inner image of God.

If the value in human beings lies in the work they do and in the things they produce, why would the Torah ever command that we rest? The Bible recognizes that leisure is just as much an integral component of what it means to be human as is work.

It is necessary and good for human beings to be given times of leisure. According to a midrash (rabbinic legend), when Moses first came before Pharaoh, he requested that the Jewish slaves be given the Sabbath as a day of rest. In a society in which the weekend is an integral part of the week, we are accustomed to thinking about necessary leisure times in terms of days. What is radical, if not downright revolutionary, about the institution of the sabbatical is its explicit message that necessary leisure should, ideally, also encompass certain years.

That the Bible goes so far as to mandate an entire year of necessary leisure strongly suggests that we ponder the importance of leisure: why we need it, how to achieve it, and what society would look like if the ethic of necessary leisure—in the form of the Sabbath, and potentially even a sabbatical as well—were widely respected.

To close our businesses one day per week is to free ourselves from enslavement to profits and open ourselves to simple happiness, enjoyment, leisure, and—if we want—readings from the Prophets. Observing the Sabbath won’t make you rich, but neither is it an impediment to becoming very wealthy: Mr. Cathy’s Sabbath observance didn’t stand in the way of his becoming worth more than $6 billion. Not working one day per week may not earn you more money, but it will earn you invaluable leisure hours and precious freedom from the mass-market mentality. The Sabbath is a day to enjoy art, culture, rest, and spiritual reflection. By closing all his restaurants on Sundays, Cathy allowed his employees to have the option, if they chose, of enjoying Sabbath rest and in partaking of the necessary leisure that is constitutive of being thoughtful, introspective, and reflective human beings.

Many have written about the Sabbath, but few actually keep it. Even more remarkable than the astounding commercial success of Chick-fil-A (which has overtaken KFC in total market share) is its remarkable moral success: in a society in which the profit motive tends to make all other interests subordinate to the almighty dollar, Chick-fil-A’s founder declared that the restaurant would not be open on the Sabbath. He willingly sacrificed billions of dollars of revenue in order to stand for a crucial moral principle: that there are higher values in this world than money, and that there are more important things in this world than profits.

By resting on the Sabbath, S. Truett Cathy taught us an important lesson that continues to resonate in our hyper-capitalistic, overwhelmed, overworked age: greater than the almighty dollar is the Almighty deity. And greater than the finite value of quarterly profit is the infinite value of every human being—a value that can only be nourished if we can assert our freedom from the market, for at least one day per week, and proclaim: who I am is greater than what I earn. 

Chick-fil-A keeps the Sabbath—l’chayim!—but only when they start keeping kosher will I be able to say bon appétit!

Daniel Ross Goodman, a writer, lawyer, and rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York, is editor-in-chief of Milin Havivin, the YCT Journal of Jewish Studies. His writings on art, religion, law, literature, and film have appeared in The Weekly Standard, Journal of Religion & Film, Religious Studies Review, Bright Lights Film Journal, Moment Magazine, South Texas Law Review, Haaretz, and Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.

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