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The Sabbath is a gift that Senator Joe Lieberman, as an observant Jew, received from his parents who, in turn, received it from their parents, who received it from generations of Jews before them. According to ancient tradition, the line of transmission extends back to Moses at Mt. Sinai, who received the Sabbath as the fourth of the Ten Commandments. In this book, Lieberman will offer the gift of Sabbath observance—a gift that has anchored, ordered, and inspired his life—to readers of all faiths.
In the past century, the Sabbath has fallen on hard times. It is thought of as just another day or as a time to squeeze in some extra errands or recreation that you may have missed during the workweek. The weekend passes in a blur of often meaningless activity. Combining personal and political memoir with history and broadly informed religious reflection, this book is a practical how-to guide, with simple suggestions for introducing the Sabbath into your own life. It will be a very personal book, yet also one animated by reflections on history and larger social trends. It will also include profound reflections of both classical and modern Jewish sages, from the Talmud and the ancient Jewish prayer book, the Siddur, to Maimonides, to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Soloveitchik.
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Joe Lieberman is a United States senator representing Connecticut. As the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, he became the first Jew in American history to run for national office on a major-party ticket. With close ties and a wide fan base among Evangelical Christians, a popular speaker at churches and conferences, Lieberman counts top Evangelical leaders including Pastor John Hagee, Joyce Meyer, and Rick Warren as his friends and supporters.
Senator Lieberman lives in Stamford and Washington with his wife Hadassah. Together they are the proud parents of four children—Matthew, Rebecca, Ethan and Hana—four granddaughters, Tennessee, Willie, Eden and Madeleine, and a grandson, Yitzhak.
PREPARATIONS, PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL
Whether I’m in Stamford or Washington, I try to get home earlier on Friday than any other day of the week so I can participate in preparing for the Sabbath. But I don’t always make it as early as I hoped. Sometimes when I walk into the kitchen, my wife, Hadassah, will be on the phone with one of our kids. “Oh, Daddy just walked through the door,” she says with a wry glance in my direction. “He said he’d be home at two-thirty. Oh, look, its four already!”
In accordance with Jewish tradition, I always bring flowers home for Hadassah and our Shabbat table on Fridays. A Capitol Hill newspaper once surveyed members of Congress, asking, among other things, “Do you ever buy your wife flowers?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Every week,” I answered.
“Oh my goodness,” said the reporter, “you are so romantic!” The resulting article nominated me as one of the most romantic members of Congress.
I like to think of myself as romantic, but flowers on Friday afternoon is as much a gesture of respect and love for Shabbat as it is one of respect and love for my wife. The beauty and smell of the flowers—even the ritual of stopping at the Safe-way in Georgetown or the Stop & Shop in Stamford to pick them up—is part of my preparation for the Sabbath.
Of course Hadassah is well ahead of me in getting ready. The forbidden labors of the Sabbath—thirty-nine categories, all detailed by the rabbinical authorities of long ago—are creative activities that imitate God’s creativity in the first six days. They include lighting a fire, and by extension, lighting an electric light or using a combustion engine like the one that makes your car move. Handling money is forbidden on Shabbat, and we don’t go shopping or engage in business. Cooking is prohibited, so Hadassah prepares the Sabbath meals on Thursday night and/or Friday.
The Sabbath does not just happen spontaneously at sundown on Friday. In some important ways, it begins as darkness falls on the preceding Saturday night and we prepare to return to the six days of work. We leave Shabbat, knowing it is our responsibility to be as creative and purposeful for the next six days as God was in creating the Heaven and Earth. But we also yearn to return to Shabbat to enjoy the gift of rest, just as God enjoyed the seventh day as the culmination of His creation.
By Thursday night Hadassah has decided on a plan of action for our meals. By Friday afternoon all is ready, and the wonderful smells of food fill the house. The dining room table is set with our best china, embellished by the flowers I have brought.
MEMORIES OF SHABBAT
My earliest memories of Shabbat are in my grandmother’s house—where we lived until I was eight years old. On Friday morning and afternoon, the house was busy with activity and cooking and cleaning, as if we were preparing for the arrival of a very honored guest.
In 1950, Mom and Dad, along with my sisters Rietta and Ellen and I, moved into our own house on Strawberry Hill Court in Stamford, about two miles north of my grand-mother’s. The warm, rich Sabbath memories continued there. Of all the blessings I have received in my life, the first was one of the best—maybe the best ever. I was blessed to be born the son of wonderful parents, Henry and Marcia Lieberman. They were loving, supportive, and principled. They taught my sisters and me a lot, and gave us a lot, including the gift of Sabbath rest and observance.
Mom and Dad came from very different religious backgrounds, but together they created a unified, religious home. My mother’s family was very observant. My dad’s was not. My father’s mother, Rebecca, died in New York in the influenza epidemic in 1918 when he was only three, and his father, Jacob, put him into an orphanage for Jewish boys where he stayed until he was ten. When his father remarried and moved to New Haven, he brought my father and his sister, Hannah, to live there with his new wife and her children. Dad’s family was very secular, so he received no religious education and didn’t even have a Bar Mitzvah. He graduated from high school in 1933 in the Depression, but though he was intellectually brilliant, he could not go to college. Instead he took a series of jobs that began on an overnight delivery truck for a bakery in Bridgeport and culminated in a factory in Stamford, where at a Purim dance (celebrating the story of Queen Esther) at the Stamford Jewish Center, he met Mom. When they got engaged, two members of her family who owned liquor stores offered to help Dad lease and open his own liquor store. They all agreed that as soon as he was making twenty-five dollars a week, they could get married. That incentive system worked well, and they married in 1940. It was only before their wedding—at the insistence of my mother’s family—that Dad took lessons and had his Bar Mitzvah. Although he came to Judaism later in life, his faith was deep and informed. He studied religious texts and commentaries, often in his liquor store between customers, and became quite learned. Later he joined a class in modern conversational Hebrew and became fluent. He loved the Sabbath, but as was the custom for many men at the time, he kept his liquor store open on Friday night and Saturdays because he could not afford to close. For most of my childhood, Dad would try to come home early for dinner on Friday and break for lunch on Saturday, but was otherwise not at home or synagogue on the Sabbath.
Dad was a deductive believer in God, founding his faith in God’s existence on the extraordinary sophistication and order of the natural world and on the miraculous continuity and survival of the Jewish people in the human world. Neither, he concluded, could have happened without divine support.
Dad created the intellectual basis for my religious observance, and Mom provided the spiritual depth and traditional ritual-blessed home environment to which my faith attached itself and grew. Together, they built a very spiritual home, with great pleasures and high expectations for my sisters and me. The Friday pre-Shabbat experiences that I first had in my grandmother’s house continued and grew in Mom and Dad’s house.
I would come home from school on Friday afternoon and immediately inhale the aroma of the chicken soup, meat, or kugel—a sweet baked noodle dish—or whatever else was cooking. I would go over to the stove and pick up the lid of the chicken soup pot, smell it, and then take a spoonful. Years later, when Hadassah first saw me tasting from the soup pot on Friday afternoon in my mother’s kitchen, she was appalled.
“How can you do that!” she asked in her most mannerly New England tone.
“It’s my tradition,” I answered, with a big smile as if I was Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. But Hadassah was unconvinced.
Later I learned I had the Code of Jewish Law on my side. It may surprise you that Judaism has such things codified, but one highly authoritative legal commentary, the Mishnah Berurah, actually says, “It is meritorious to taste every dish on Erev Shabbos, so as to see that it is prepared well and properly.” Little did I realize that I had such esteemed authority to justify my undisciplined Friday afternoon ardor for chicken soup.
The Midrash, a compilation of ancient rabbinic traditions, tells the story of a Roman Emperor, named Antoninus Pius, who had a close friendship with Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the prince), the head of the Jewish community in the land of Israel at the end of the second century. Rabbi Judah served him a delicious meal when the emperor visited him on Shabbat. On another occasion, Antoninus visited on a weekday. Although the food was as elaborately prepared as before, it did not taste nearly as good. When the emperor mentioned this, Rabbi Judah replied that unfortunately each dish was missing a very special ingredient. The emperor then asked: Why did you leave out the ingredient this time? Were you skimping on costs? Rabbi Judah replied: The missing spice is the Shabbat. Food prepared and eaten in the ambience of the Sabbath has a special, delicious flavor which we cannot duplicate at a weekday meal (Genesis Rabba 11:4).
In the opening scene in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator tastes a cookie, a madeleine, that he associates with his childhood and that spontaneously fills him with memories and sensations. When it comes to the Sabbath, we taste or smell or see or hear, and immediately we are transported to Shabbatland—as Hadassah and I call it—with all its religious, mystical, and sensual meanings and memories. So when I walk into Hadassah’s kitchen today and smell the baking challah, the specially braided bread of Shabbat, I am instantly transported to the kitchen of another woman whose influence on me was so crucial that, without it, I might not be a Sabbath observer today.
My maternal grandmother, Minnie, or “Maintza” as she was known in Yiddish, was the religious foundation of our home. I associate her with many things, of course, but preparing for Shabbat is high on that list. We spent the first eight years of my childhood living on the second floor of her house. We called her Baba, a Yiddish word for “Grandma.” After we moved into a home of our own, Baba would spend most Sabbaths with us. She would appear at our door on Friday afternoon, Erev Shabbat, with a towel full of pastries or a pot full of some other food she had made for us. I can almost smell the pastries—the sweet, crescent-shaped rugelach—and the wonderful firm, little sugar cookies. She often brought us challah, along with delicious chicken soup.
Baba was one of the most patriotic Americans I have ever known. Like countless other immigrants to this country, she had something to compare America to—the place from which she came. There, she and her family were poor and religiously harassed. Here, she found opportunity and acceptance. One of the most miraculous experiences of her life, she once told me, was when her Christian neighbors in our ethnically diverse neighborhood would see her walking to synagogue on Saturday morning and say, “Good Sabbath, Mrs. Manger.” At those moments, Baba probably thought she was not in Connecticut, but in heaven.
Years later in 2000, on the first Sabbath after I accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president, Hadassah and I and some of our kids ended up in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. As we walked through the lovely streets from our hotel to the local synagogue on Saturday morning, people came out of their homes to wish us a good Sabbath. I thought of Baba and how right she was to be a grateful and patriotic American.
By the time of her passing away in 1967, at age eighty-six, she had moved into our house full-time. The very last words Baba spoke on the day of her death were about honoring Shabbat by preparing for it. I was in law school at Yale and clearly remember being called that Friday afternoon and told that Baba had suffered a serious stroke and that I should rush back to Stamford. On the last Erev Shabbat of Baba’s life, my mother later told me, she and Baba were in the kitchen. Baba, sitting idly at the table, said to my mother, “Masha, give me something to do l’kavod Shabbos,” which means to honor the Sabbath. My mother gave her some carrots and onions to chop for the soup. She was chopping vegetables l’kavod Shabbos when she fell ill for the last time. She died that Friday night, on Shabbos, which tradition says is a special blessing for the righteous.
At that time in my own life, I had fallen away from Sabbath observance. During my first semester as an undergraduate at Yale, I was sincerely worried that I would flunk out. I hadn’t yet realized that to get kicked out of Yale for poor grades actually required quite a determined effort. I could have easily taken time off from my school work on Shabbat, but anxiety about my academic performance, combined with peer social pressures not to be different, pulled me away in surprisingly short order, and I stopped observing the Sabbath. Ironically, I still put on tefillin, the little black leather boxes filled with sacred scrolls that observant Jewish men wear on their arms and head for morning prayer, and said my prayers each morning. Why did I do one and not the other? Maybe, I must admit, it was because putting on tefillin was private and personal, and Shabbat was more public and interrupted the weekend social flow of college life.
During college, I continued to observe the Jewish dietary laws, but by the time I reached law school, I also began straying in my eating. When I look back at this time, I am amused and a bit embarrassed by the strange distinctions I made. I would eat non-kosher chicken or beef, but never with milk because the mixing of meat and milk products is an additional prohibition in the Torah. I continued to refrain from ham, bacon, or shellfish, except on one memorable occasion. Someone convinced me to try Lobster Newburgh. After all, I reasoned, the lobster was removed from its familiar shell and cloaked in a rich sauce, therefore making it unrecognizable to both me and God. I took one mouthful of the shellfish, chewed it, swallowed it, and immediately proceeded to the men’s room where I puked up everything in my stomach. I suspect my stomach upset had more to do with theology and psychology than with gastronomy or gastroenterology.
My Baba’s death in 1967 marked the beginning of my return to Jewish observance. There was a synagogue right across the street from where I had lived for more than a year in New Haven, Connecticut but I had never gone there. The Shabbat after Baba passed away, I remember saying, “I really want to go to shul”—shul is the Yiddish term for synagogue.
Was it because of my grandmother’s last words, which so hauntingly conveyed her love of preparing for the arrival of Shabbat? Perhaps indirectly. But uppermost in my mind was the worry that Baba was my link with the Judaism of my ancestors, the Judaism of history. If I let go of the link in the chain, it would be broken and lost to me and my children after me. And so I slowly began my return to regular synagogue attendance and Sabbath and religious observance.
When I think of Erev Shabbat, I think also of Baba’s husband, my grandfather. His name was Joseph Manger. I am named for him and therefore never knew him because we Jews of European ancestry name for deceased relatives or friends. He died when my mother was just a child and he was only forty-two; his death, too, was strangely linked to Sabbath observance.
My grandfather started in the soda business in Stamford, and like many Jewish immigrants at that time he decided that supporting his family ruled out giving up that day of work on Saturday. He had been a very religiously observant man in Europe, and in 1922, he finally reached a time in America when he felt he could afford to stop working on Shabbat. It happened that year that the two-day Jewish festival of Shavuot—which like the Christian Pentecost, occurs fifty days after the beginning of Passover—began on Sunday...
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