Rabbi’s Essays – Lieberman’s Shabbat

Lieberman’s Shabbat

Albert Gore’s choice of Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate has produced a great deal of commentary. It is not just that Senator Lieberman is the first Jew to run on a major party ticket, the individual “only a heartbeat away from being President” is an Orthodox Jew! The term ‘orthodox’ is a bit slippery, and I will comment on it on another time. First, let us consider the content of his Jewish practice.

When pundits and reporters discuss Lieberman’s Orthodoxy, they usually note his Shabbat observance. The Senator avoids riding from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and while he will attend Senate sessions (walking to Capitol Hill, of course), he takes care to limit this activity. For the most part, however, Lieberman appears to refrain from normal senatorial work on the Sabbath.

For my own part, I have seen very little discussion of Lieberman’s dietary observance, or any other ritual practice—attending daily minyans or laying t’filin, for instance. It is clear that the Senator does not feel obligated to keep his head covered. Now, a kosher Vice-President seems to be an intriguing prospect, given the number of State Dinners both in the U.S. and abroad that he will have to attend. Yet all the interest has centered on Lieberman’s Shabbat observance. Why might that be?

I sense—although I have seen no explicit commentary—that people regard the running of government as a 24/7 proposition. You might remember the consternation that ran through the general populace when it was reported that Ronald Reagan’s aides chose not to wake him up during a military action over Libya. Sure, we concede that the President and Vice-President need to sleep, relax, even take a vacation now and then, but otherwise they need to be on the job all the time, every day of the week.

Yet, while much is made of Lieberman’s Shabbat observance, there does not seem to be much discussion of the implications. Could it be that people reason along these lines: Joe Lieberman is a veteran politician. He has been in government for decades. Clearly when something comes up on a Friday night or Saturday, he puts his Jewish practice aside and deals with it. This line of thought appeared to be bolstered by the fact that Lieberman did attend a campaign event on the eve of the fast day, Tisha b’Av.

If my own reading of the situation is correct, this is what we have: People are intrigued with the prospects of a Vice-President who professes to observe a traditional Shabbat, since this practice runs counter to our notions of the demands of the office. But we are not terribly concerned because we think that the Vice-President will get around the traditional Jewish restrictions and work on Saturdays when the demands (political as well as substantial) require it. This assessment may or may not be accurate regarding Senator Lieberman, but what does it say about Shabbat?


The meaning of Shabbat is elusive, because it defies translation. In English, for instance, it is merely anglicized into “Sabbath.” The Hebrew root of the word connotes cessation from work. (In modern Hebrew, the word sh’vita­a form of shabbat­is used for a labor strike.) We therefore associate Shabbat with rest. The importance of the Sabbath is so profound that it is the only observance listed in the Decalogue: Remember Shabbat and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, doing all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal God; you shall not do any work…(Ex. 20:8-10). Then, the biblical text gives us a rationale: For in six days the Eternal made heaven, and earth and sea, and all that is in them, then God rested on the seventh day…(Ex. 20:11). The equation is straightforward. We rest every seven days because God rested on the seventh day following the work of creation.

It is simple­actually too simple! Think about all the questions that arise: What does it mean for God, who merely had to speak and the world came into being, to work? An omnipotent being would hardly labor, therefore what does it mean that God rested? And what exactly is work? Is it an exertion of energy­then what about sports and recreation? Is it an activity for which one gets paid­then are the Rabbi and Cantor working on Shabbat? Perhaps it is the performance of an obligation­but keeping the Sabbath is itself an obligation! Finally, given our modern scientific sensibilities, what does it mean to base a religious practice on the literary myth of a six-day Creation?

None of these questions are new. The Torah itself anticipates some of them. The Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 5) repeats the Decalogue, but with a significant emendation of the Fourth Commandment: Observe Shabbat and keep it holy…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal God has commanded you observe the sabbath day (vv. 12-15).

The image of a laboring and resting deity is removed, and in its place is the liberation from slavery in Egypt. We humans, who, unlike God, do labor and require rest, are entitled to respite from our work because we are not enslaved. Hence, the idea of Shabbat moves from being an imitation of God to an act of defiance in the face of oppression. This is indeed a powerful motivation, but it is more social and political than religious and spiritual. We may ask, what is the force of Shabbat in a democratic, pluralistic society that has safeguards for labor?


The biblical and theological underpinnings of Shabbat seem to have seriously damaged by modern life and sensibilities. Its practice persists with virtually all religiously attuned Jews acknowledging it with candlelighting, kiddush, and/or attending worship. As the Jewish activist Ahad Ha’am wrote: As much as Israel has kept the Sabbath, so has the Sabbath kept Israel. The Sabbath is thus an enduring and deeply felt symbol of Jewish identity. All true, important and laudable, but what about Shabbat’s original purpose, as a day of rest?

Fifty years ago, Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, attempted a recovery of the Sabbath for modern sensibilities. His book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, promoted the concept of Shabbat as a “sanctuary in time.” Heschel recognized that society was becoming faster paced, more rushed, more harried. The Sabbath could therefore represent a shelter from the race that is the rest of the week.

Heschel’s argument that we appreciate the holiness of time as much as we are willing to acknowledge holiness in space (such as the synagogue, the Ark and its Torah scrolls), still resonates. After all, in the past 50 years, life has become even more rushed. Yet I fear that we have also become increasingly inured to the breakneck pace of society. We might look for respite from the race every now and then, but the duration of rest we need has become shorter. Patience might still be a virtue, but our threshold of impatience (think about how you feel while waiting for the computer to connect with the internet) has become remarkably low. The 24 hours that Heschel promoted as a sanctuary of time back in 1950, might struck us as more as a prison today in the year 2000. Twelve hours, or eight, or even four, might do.


Imitation of God, liberation of oppression, a sanctuary in time: the Jewish sources give us one more rationale for Shabbat. Normally we think of the commandment concerning keeping the Sabbath as framed in the Decalogue: You shall work for six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In three separate places (twice in Exodus, once in Leviticus), the commandment is rephrased: Six days work shall be done, but you shall not work on the seventh. The emphasis is changed from subjective to objective; from ‘you the worker’ to the work itself.

In the former (subjective), we may infer that one has a certain amount of work to do, and that you are obligated to get it done in six days, thus leaving the seventh free for other pursuits. In the latter, however, we learn that work is a constant reality. It never ends, and is always there. Finish some project, and another looms. Thus, it is not the work the is concluded, rather that we simply do not do it!

And if we do not do it, what happens? Amazingly, the world does not collapse. Rivers continue to flow, plants grow, the sun rises and sets. The universe survives our taking the day off.

Does this sound naive or foolishly obvious? Perhaps, but modern culture tends to dictate otherwise. We carry cell phones into fine restaurants and movie houses, lest we miss some important business call. We have faxes in our automobiles. We wake up and immediately tap into the internet in order to review the closing market prices in the Far East. Rivers flow, the sun rises and sets, and yet we have begun to lead lives as if it would all stop if we were not vigilant: watching, listening, managing. Thus, our attitude toward Joseph Lieberman: we respect his professed observance of Shabbat, but do not quite believe it. How can he possibly take a day off each week when the country­the whole world­might require his attention?

At the heart of the biblical commandment to observe Shabbat is not Creation, slavery or sanctuary. At the heart is a matter of faith; not in ourselves, but in others and in God. The work is always there, it never ends, there is always something else we ought to do. In resting on Shabbat, one is proclaiming one’s faith that the world will nonetheless survive.

You might object, we do take time off from work—even from thinking about work—in order to enjoy family, friends and pure relaxation. We often, however, make our own choice about the time taken off, when we feel we can take that break. Yes, we have days of rest, but they are unevenly spaced and tailored to our needs and wishes. The fixed Shabbat suggests that rest­cessation from work­may occur independent of ourselves. Even when the deadlines seem to be bearing down, when the tasks are looming larger and larger, indeed in all cases but clear and present danger to ourselves or others, we can walk away, say “time out,” and let the world muddle on for a day without us. All it takes is faith.

This is not a faith in some decree or dictate of God. It is not a faith that demands that we walk rather than drive, avoid turning on and off lights, or refrain from buying something on Shabbat­although all these activities might be an expression of that faith. It is rather a fundamental faith that God, in creating the world, will see to it that it does not fall apart. When we are able to admit to that simple but daunting declaration of faith, the rest falls into place. Shabbat, I believe, is achieved.

So Joseph Lieberman keeps Shabbat, and this discipline is now thrust into the political arena. There will be much blather over Church and State (which is very different from Religion and Politics). For me, the real issue regarding Lieberman’s practice will generally be overlooked. It is the issue of faith: What do you really believe? For it is from conviction that the course of our actions are most often determined.

rabbi signature