Shabbat-Observant Politicians?

After the nomination of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the first Jewish Vice-Presidential candidate - and a Shabbat observant one at that! - one question raised was his ability to conduct affairs of state only six days a week. Sen. Lieberman has said that his interpretation of the law means that he can do certain work on Shabbat. Can you explain the parameters of this question?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

If elected, Senator Lieberman (and his rabbi) would have to use discretion as to Shabbat desecrations, as each case and its variables have to be judged by itself.

According to Jewish law, one is allowed to do "break" Shabbat if there is an immediate danger to lives. If there is merely a suspected danger in the future, then a decision would need to be made whether to delay action until after Shabbat, or transgress a rabbinical decree, or even a Torah interdiction.

While appearing on television is rarely in result of a life-threatening situation, traveling by car, when driven by a non-Jew, who is driving in any case, can sometimes be permitted, even for only suspected eventual life-threatening situations. As the saying goes, "successful diplomacy can prevent war," and in that sense work discussions and meetings often falls into the category of pikuach nefesh, saving lives.

There are many Shabbat-observant politicians in Israel who have successfully navigated this path. At the highest level, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was Shabbat-observant, and dealt with a variety of situations in creative ways. Whenever possible, he would walk to meetings that had to be held on Shabbat. (After Anwar Sadat was assassinated, Begin famously walked miles on Shabbat to offer condolences to Sadat's wife.)

Begin's home had a "Gramma Phone," a specially-designed phone for Shabbat use that relied on an indirect dialing system, to reduce the severity of Shabbat activity in the event that an urgent phone call needed to be made. And I have heard of Begin requesting that the Israeli media delay the broadcast of news announcements until after Shabbat.

In 1982, Begin declared that Israel's national airlines, El Al, would cease to operate on Shabbat. "Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity,” he said. “It originated with us. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew of a day of rest."

Every Saturday night following the conclusion of the Shabbat, a small group of people would gather in Begin's residence for a lesson in weekly Torah portion. On one occasion an assistant hurried with an urgent message that U.S. President Carter was on the phone. Begin's response surprised the assistant, "Tell him to call back in two hours. I am busy now."

We wish Sen. Lieberman great success, and we hope to see more Shabbat-observant politicians making their way to the top!

(see "Code of Jewish Law" O.C. 329:1,6-8; "Chazon Ish" Ohalot 22:32 as to what constitutes immediate danger)

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