Candle lighting and the gift of rest

by Senator Joe Lieberman

Senator Joe Lieberman describes in his book, Senator Joe Lieberman, his household moments before the Shabbat candles are lit. He writes that often there is a “frenzy in the air as the clock mounts steadily towards the time when the Shabbat candles are lit, shortly before sunset, signalling the start of Shabbat.

“In our home, the Shabbat officially begins when [my wife] lights the two Shabbat candles.” He then questions why our last creative act before Shabbat begins is creating fire. “Part of the reason is that fire is the original and true light of creation. The part is that with the entrance [of Shabbat] we are welcoming an older, gentler and timeless light, the soft, mellow candle which replaces the artificial light of electricity.” Senator Lieberman describes how his wife, Hadassah, “covers her eyes with her hands and thinks about our children, grandchildren, parents and loved ones, sending out prayers to them all”. He revels in the realisation that all of a sudden “the frenzy and stress end. It is Shabbat.” Senator Lieberman and his wife greet one another and exchange Shabbat hugs and kisses by saying, “Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Peace to you.”

The gift of rest

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.

“How often?”

“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.

Senator Joe Lieberman

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. Senator Lieberman lives in Stamford and Washington with his wife Hadassah. Together they are the proud parents and grandparents.

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