Is It OK To Be A Yom Kippur Free Rider?

Today is a day of attonement for Jews. In addition to attoning, many will fast and many more will take off work for the day.

One fascinating aspect of holiday observance is the practice observing holidays particular to one faith by members of other faiths or people who aren’t religious at all. The Senate Finance Committee, which only has two Jewish members, is taking a break for Yom Kippur, for instance.

In some sense, this can be looked at as a sign of respect for the faith of other people. But many employers look down on those who attempt to take off holidays of other faiths. Employees taking the day off are looked at as “free riders” on other people’s religions, as if they were taking advantage of the fact of the holiday just to get a day away from the office.

There is also a tendency to apply this asymmetrically across religions. It’s fine for everyone to take off Christmas, for instance. But not everyone can get away with taking off for Samvatsari, the holiest day of the year for Jains. How can this disparate treatment be explained?

We suspect there’s an economic answer. With so many employees taking off for Christmas on the grounds of faith or cultural attachment, the marginal value of keeping non-Christians at work is probably slight. Much of what needs to get done simply has to wait since so many employees are already out of the office. With smaller faiths, however, the cost of giving everyone the day off is much higher.

That still doesn’t explain the Senate Finance Committee. But we guess politicians have different incentives than the rest of us.

Update: There’s a Glenn Beck angle in this. Apparently he urged people to make this day a day of fasting an atonement for the Republic. And his critics are angrily saying he is attempting to co-opt the Jewish holiday.

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