MAXWELL:  Lieberman brings Sabbath into focus

8/13/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Al Gore’s selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate has many non-Jewish Americans seriously learning about Judaism for the first time. This is a healthy development for the nation.

For good reasons, the Sabbath, or Shabbat, is of particular interest to voters. Shabbat _ from sundown on Friday to nightfall on Saturday _ is the day that observing Jews rest. It is ineffable, and its importance in Jewish life cannot be overstated. More has been written about this day than any other subject in Jewish literature.

Few people realize that it is the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

As a gentile, I do not claim to understand Shabbat. I know a lot about it, and although I have enjoyed many Shabbat meals in Jewish homes both in the United States and Israel, I can never experience its essence. Only the Orthodox can fully grasp the day’s true meaning. As a side note, I believe that Shabbat in Israel is unique. It is celebrated there unlike any anywhere else in the world.

The Sabbath is front-page news in this country because of the restrictions it places on practicing Jews, especially Lieberman. They do not, among other things, travel by animal or motorized vehicle, answer telephones, write, handle money, cook, listen to radio or watch TV, clean house, bath, shower, switch on lights or start fires of any kind.

Of course, all bets are off in matters of life and death or when a personal deal can be made with God.

The observant copes with the harsh rules and inconveniences in clever ways. For example, the meals are cooked before Friday sundown and kept warm by special devices, and special monitors switch lights on and off on cue.

One of the most interesting mechanisms is the Shabbat elevator, which I experienced with great embarrassment in Jerusalem in 1996, when I was traveling with a group of fellow American journalists. As guests of a luxury hotel near the Old City, we received a complimentary copy of the Jerusalem Post each morning.

On my first Saturday in the country on this trip, I opened my door and did not find my Post. This news junky marched to his fourth-floor elevator determined to find out what had happened. I pressed the “down” button and waited for what seemed forever before a car door opened. By now, eight other people, all Jews, had gathered. As I entered the car, no one followed. Each person stood there, grinning at me.

I cannot be the only one going down, I thought, pressing the “lobby” button. When nothing happened, I pressed “close door” _ again and again. Now, everyone was laughing. A few moments later, the elevator made a whirring sound, one I had never heard before in an elevator anywhere else. The door closed so slowly I thought it was broken. Instead of going down, the car went up ever so slowly to the fifth floor. The whirring returned as the door opened and several people got on.

This process, which lasted about 14 minutes, repeated until I got to the 12th floor, where the car finally reversed direction. On each floor, people got on, some I had seen on the way up. They were grinning at me. At the fourth floor, Menachem Haftez, my group’s Israeli guide, got on. Looking at me and smiling, he said: “Bill, how long have you been riding the Shabbat elevator? I told you gentiles to take the regular one.”

Indeed, he had. I told him that I was going to the front desk to find out why I did not get a Post, whereupon he said: “Newspapers aren’t delivered on the Sabbath. You weren’t listening, Bill. By the way, we’re leaving for the Dead Sea in 30 minutes.”

Because 99 percent of Israel shuts down during Shabbat (Tel Aviv, Haifa and Arab areas being exceptions), the life of the foreign traveler, even seasoned ones, can be a nightmare. When I was in Jerusalem last year, I mistakenly trusted the word of a busy desk clerk at the Mecure Hotel in Jerusalem. I had a Saturday noon appointment with an Ethiopian Jewish family in Lod, a small town near Tel Aviv. On Friday, the clerk told me that I could park my car in the hotel garage and drive it out the next morning.

Well, the next morning _ Shabbat _ another clerk said that cars could not leave the garage because the main gate could not be opened. Why? Because to open the gate is to work. I protested to no avail and called an Arab taxi driver who charged me the price of a two-humped dromedary.

Leaving the city, my cabbie made a near-fatal mistake. He drove into Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox community where most of the streets were blocked with boulders to keep out vehicles during Shabbat. Several groups of Hassidim _ side-locked, amulet-draped and clad in black from head to toe _ stood with stones at-the-ready. My cabbie hit the brakes, put the Mercedes in reverse, turned around and roared out of harm’s way.

“If they hurt us, the police won’t do anything,” he said. “Sorry. I was trying to find a shortcut.”

“No more shortcuts on Shabbat,” I said, imagining stones cracking my gentile skull. Instead of being angry and frightened, I was unaccountably awed by the scene, strangely inspired by the zealousness of these men in black.

Today, as Joe Lieberman, hailed as a man of morality, runs for vice president, voters should learn more about his religious beliefs _ the stuff that is inseparable from his conduct both as a man and as a politician. Listen to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein describe the significance of Shabbat (it defines Lieberman) in his book What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism:

“Through (the Sabbath), we can affirm the centrality of the family, the home, and the synagogue in our lives. In observing the Shabbat, the Jew bears testimony to the existence of a Supreme Being, one who loves humankind and is concerned for his welfare. The Shabbat can give a society searching for its soul the essential building blocks with which it can become reinvigorated and transformed into one with a deep moral character, strong spiritual backbone, and profound sense of justice, community, and fellowship.”

As Lieberman will say often before the November election: Shabbat Shalom.