Winter Sabbath Bread

“Thus shall the days as God designed,
Improve my health, unbend my mind;
And Monday morning, free from pain,
Cheerful I’ll go to work again.

The New England Farmer and Gardener’s Journal, 1838

sabbath sampler

Americans have had a complicated relationship with the Sabbath since the post-Revolutionary period, at least. Among the pious of colonial New England, who were considered (by themselves) the gold standard in religious observance, proper observance of the sabbath was one of the many practices that set the elect above decadent Europeans, bedeviled Catholics and, in general, anyone from out of town.

But despite the New England colonies’ rigid and fanatical beginnings, social control eventually faltered. By the late eighteenth century, the practice of sabbath-keeping had dwindled enough to get the knickers of various pillars of the community in a collective twist, and in 1792, Massachusetts resorted to legislation to compel its citizens to observe the Sabbath:

Whereas irreligious or light-minded persons, forgetting the duties which the Sabbath imposes, and the benefits which these duties confer on society, are known to profane its sanctity, by following their pleasures or their affairs; this way of acting being contrary to their own interest as Christians, and calculated to annoy those who do not follow their example; being also of great injury to society at large, by spreading a taste for dissipation and dissolute manners…all and every person and persons shall on that day carefully apply themselves to the duties of religion and piety.


TL; DR: Slackers—or dissidents—who strayed from the Puritan practice wouldn’t bring harm on themselves alone; the community as a whole would suffer for their choice.

The meaning and practice of sabbath-keeping was always more complex and elastic in pluralistic New York than in staunchly homogeneous New England (in the 1680s, New York’s Roman Catholic governor, Thomas Dongan, counted “not many of the Church of England; few Roman Catholics, abundance of Quakers…Singing Quakers; Ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part of none at all.”) But the New York mix did include some vigorous defenders of the sabbath: mostly Yankee Presbyterian transplants, hoping to replicate the serene, sanctified Sundays of their New England youth. They pushed their agenda energetically throughout the nineteenth century—organizing unpopular boycotts, closing theaters, and working tirelessly to prohibit recreational activities in Central Park on Sundays (the only day working people were free to visit)—unflagging in their commitment to improve the negligent, the impious, and the merely uninterested, whether they liked it or not.

Like their opponents, who extolled the physical and social benefits of wholesome recreation for the working class, sabbatarians positioned themselves as champions of public health. Massachusetts-born, Yale-educated Yankee Reverend Gardiner Spring, pastor of the Brick Church on Bleeker, attributed the cholera epidemic of 1832, which left 3515 New Yorkers dead (the equivalent proportional death toll in today’s city would be more than 100,000) to “vices which proper regard to the Sabbath would check more effectually that anything else,” though he was able to find a silver lining, as the plague did, in disproportionately thinning the ranks of the poor,  “drain off the filth and scum which contaminate and defile human society.” As late as 1881, the largely Presbyterian board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art insisted, despite almost universal opposition from the city’s newspapers, on keeping the Museum’s doors shut against Sunday visitors. Thanks to their perseverance, working people would have to wait another ten years to profane the Lord’s Day at the Met.


Opponents of the legislated sabbath–a century-spanning, shifting coalition of intellectuals, radicals, reformers, labor organizers, immigrants (especially Germans) whose sabbath construct was not a day on their knees, and other New Yorkers who believed in minding their own business–called for a modicum of respect for workers, whose time and activities were already forcibly circumscribed, wrote and lectured about the corrosive effects of theocracy on rational thought and democratic society, and spotlighted the sabbatarians’ defiance of constitutional protection of religious freedom. But mostly New Yorkers ignored the issue. Many New York stores and taverns blatantly defied the laws; many more just kept their back doors open on Sunday. The police, tasked with enforcing the penny-ante codes, were usually willing to work something out.

One feature common to both orthodox and freethinking interpretations of sabbath practice is rest from the work of the week. For those who keep a sabbath, freely chosen, this beautiful bread offers the richness of a special-day treat with a relatively quick preparation time that should ensure it’s in the oven by sundown even on the short days of winter. It is an egg-enriched bread, out of respect for challah and the tens of thousands of Jewish New Yorkers whose sabbath did not arouse the protective impulses of the sabbatarian zealots. It’s presented here as a plain loaf rather than in braided form, to honor the variety of the sabbath-keepers and non-keepers who I hope will enjoy it while doing whatever they damn well please.

Brioche Bread
Verbatim from Beard, James. Beard on Bread. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1973

[2 loaves]

1 ½ packages active dry yeast
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ cup warm water (100° to 115°, approximately)
1 cup melted butter
1 ½ teaspoons salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs
1 egg yolk mixed with ¼ cup evaporated milk or light cream

Combine the yeast, sugar, and warm water and allow to proof. Mix the melted butter and salt. In a large bowl combine the flour, eggs, melted butter, and yeast mixture. Beat with the hand until smooth. Place in a buttered bowl, turning to butter the surface, cover, and set in a warm, draft-free place to rise until light and doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1 ½ hours. Punch the dough down and shape into two loaves. Fit into buttered 8 x 4 x 2-inch loaf pans and let rise again in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about one hour. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk-milk wash. Bake at 400° for 30 minutes, until the loaves are a deep golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with the knuckles. Cool on a rack.

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