To say that the case of Lynn and Susan Stein -- the two Jewish students who challenged the Fairfax County school system's decision to hold their graduation on the Jewish sabbath -- has created a controversy, is putting it mildly.

For the past several months, as the Steins have taken their case from the principal at Woodson High School to the Fairfax school board and onto the Virginia Supreme Court, people have called The Post from all over the country with their views.

Although some have been abusive, like the woman who angrily told a reporter, "We do too much for the Jews already," most of the callers seemed to be divided into two camps.

Some argued that the religious beliefs of two girls should not be allowed to inconvenience more than 500 other graduating seniors.

Others, usually people from outside Fairfax County, expressed astonishment that the principal did not honor the girls' request early on, before it would have inconvenienced anyone.

While these issues -- and the constitutional questions raised by the Steins -- are important, they seem to miss the point.

The acrimony surrounding the Stein case seems due, at least in part, to a lack of knowledge about the importance a religious day holds for some members of the community.

More importantly, it seems that few people can understand that in these modern times a family can hold so fast to the faith of their fathers.

School Board Chairman Rodney F. Page was the first to voice his lack of understanding when he told reporters that the graduation date could not be changed for "an ordinary sabbath."

But it took a more blatant expression of ignorance to see how unaware people were of the principle at stake.

A woman, who identified herself only as an Irish Catholic parent, called The Post last week to comment on the Stein sisters.

"We can go to mass on Saturday afternoons now instead of Sunday, why can't the Jews do something like that instead of trying to change things for other people?"

The point that the woman, and chairman Page, seemed to miss was this: For an Orthodox Jewish family there is never an "ordinary" sabbath. For the Steins, and other members of their faith, each and every sabbath is the holiest of days. To violate the sabbath, as the Steins tried to explain again and again, was to violate their most deeply held beliefs.

Many of their classmates and neighbors, and even the school officials charged with deciding the issue, seemed to forget that there was a time not so long ago when their own Christian forefathers would have protested just as loudly as the Steins if their own sabbath had been violated.

Twenty years ago, in the small New Jersey town where I grew up, life came to a standstill on Sundays. People took the commandment to honor the sabbath seriously. Church bells pealed, lawnmowers were silent and a yellowed sign appeared in the window of the drugstore with a number to call for emergency prescriptions.

Every Sunday, a procession of station wagons headed for the various churches -- past darkened storefronts and offices.

After the religious services and the socializing on the sidewalks in front of the modest churches had ended, families drove home. Sunday afternoons did not differ greatly from mornings. People stayed indoors, where they ate extravagant meals and read the Sunday papers. If they ventured out at all it was for a Sunday drive or picnic, with the whole family -- including grandparents -- in tow.

A few children were allowed to shed their finery to ride bicycles and jump rope, but even that was frowned upon.

But for many people those slow and solemn days are a fading memory. In fact, most Americans probably cannot remember what life was like when working on Sunday was unthinkable for anyone other than firefighters and police officers, when shopping was for the other days of the week, when after five and sometimes six long days of work, families could look foward to a day of rest.

Neither the Steins nor anyone sympathetic to their case is calling for a return to those days. But what they are calling for, almost pleading for, is that their friends and neighbors remember that religious tolerance, the ability to respect another persons's beliefs, is one of the founding principles of this country.

Last Saturday, after Lynn and Susan Stein attended synagogue with their family instead of graduation with their friends, the issue of sabbath observances arose in a conversation with several members of the congregation.

A middle-aged woman, who said she had grown up in Norfolk when there were only a few Jewish families in the predominately Baptist town, said there had been more understanding, more religious tolerance, half a century ago than there is today.

"My mother wouldn't even hang out the wash on a Sunday for fear of offending the Christians on their sabbath," she recalled. "And even though there were only a few Jewish students in my school we were always considered when an event was being scheduled, because the others understood what the sabbath meant -- whatever day of the week you observed it."

Because of that tolerance, that understanding, this woman said she never had to make the hard choice that the Stein sisters made.

But, she recalled sadly, it was a decision her son had to make. The year was 1977, and the school was Woodson.

For weeks, she said, her son agonized over the problem, until he, too, decided that he must hold to his beliefs.