Bill Clinton “got” Shabbat


Today, we posted my story on Jack Lew, the Orthodox Jew set to become President Obama’s chief of staff.

I included in it the oft repeated anecdote about how, when he was directing Bill Clinton’s budget, the president left a message on Shabbat urging him to pick up, because it was important. "God will understand," is what Clinton was supposed to have said.

Turns out, it’s not only not true — the actual story has Clinton deferring to Lew’s Shabbat observance, without Lew even asking.

Ami included the MSNBC version in his reaction roundup earlier:

Once, while working in President Clinton’s director, Lew’s home phone rang one Saturday. He didn’t answer and a familiar voice could be heard from the answering machine, urging him to pick up the phone. Mr. Clinton said he understood the sanctity of the Sabbath, but that it was important that he talk to Lew. He even said, it was later reported, that "God would understand."

Lew later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

Someone close to Lew called with the real deal. From my story:

One incident involves a Shabbat call he received from President Clinton. He came home from synagogue and the phone rang. As was his practice, he waited until the answering machine clicked on to see if it was urgent enough to pick up. As it happened, it was a White House staffer telling him to ignore the earlier message from Clinton, who had been phoning from overseas and had forgotten that in Washington it was still Shabbat. The matter was not urgent enough to interrupt Lew’s observance, Clinton told the staffer to tell Lew.

Going out of his way to keep Lew from breaking the Sabbath was a sign of the respect the president has for his observance, Lew tells people.

Recommended from JTA