One of our deacons lent me a copy of The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath by Senator Joe Lieberman. While it might surprise you that a (now former) United States Senator would write a book about the Jewish practice of Sabbath, but I found the book very good, giving a glimpse at how a man of faith survived in the halls of government.
Written for both religious and a-religious readers alike, the goal of this book is for people to set up their own type of weekly Sabbath, a time of rest, contemplation, and reconnection with the family.
In the book, Lieberman walks readers through each moment of Sabbath: from the Friday afternoon preparations, the Friday evening meal, the Friday night time for (ahem) marital relations, Saturday morning synagogue, and Saturday afternoon family time. For each step, he provides some historical background, his personal preferences, and why he enjoys that step.
Two important benefits struck me as I read this book. First, Lieberman provides readers with a glimpse at how an Orthodox Jewish family celebrates Sabbath. By describing the different events of Sabbath—like going to the synagogue sometimes up to three times per Sabbath, as well as the contents of the prayers offered at the synagogue—I experienced the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath for the first time. Often I felt like I was participating alongside Joe in the Sabbath, his voice whispering the purpose of each action in my ear.
Second, Lieberman provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at how someone can balance faith with responsibilities as a U.S. Senator and onetime Vice-Presidential candidate. The book is filled with stories of Joe and his wife celebrating Sabbath meals with politicians from both sides of the aisle. He describes some ironies he has encountered as an Orthodox Jew in government, like the time he performed his Sabbath prayers next to Al Gore’s Christmas tree. Also, there are some really enjoyable anecdotes, like when Lieberman made fun of Colin Powell’s Yiddish during George W. Bush’s Inauguration. For most of us, how politicians practice their faith is rarely seen; Lieberman is open and honest about his journey in this book.
One concern I have is not with the book or author, but rather with the inherent legalism found in the practices of Jewish Sabbath. At times the rules for Sabbath reminded me of the Amish: you cannot light a flame, which rules out electric lights (since they replaced candles), a stove, or even an internal combustion engine (which is pretty important to a car).
Lieberman does discuss this issue, writing that it is more important to save a life—or, in his case, vote on a bill that will help save lives or improve the community—than to follow Sabbath. He recounts several times he violated Sabbath in order to talk on the phone, be present for a Senate vote, or help his wife to the hospital. However, he also describes the tiresome, almost legalistic mental processes he goes through whenever the phone rings on Sabbath and the Caller ID shows it is someone important.
As a Christian, I see the value and importance of taking a day of rest, following the example of God after Creation. But the line between celebrating Sabbath rest and making it a chore or legalistic obligation is easy to cross when there are so many governing rabbinic laws to follow, as described in this book.
I think The Gift of Rest would be a great read for those who want to understand how modern Orthodox Jews practice Sabbath, as well as a good memoir by a devout politician. However, if someone is looking to this book as a source of inspiration or encouragement for Christians to observe a Sabbath rest, I would suggest looking elsewhere. While I have not read it, I have heard that The Rest of God by Marc Buchanan is good.
- Title: The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath
- Author: Joe Lieberman
- Publisher: Howard Books (2011)
- Format: Paperback
- Rating: 3.5/5