Shabbat can be seen as a state of holiness to which we all aspire… and not just on the seventh day.
A tale printed in 1929 describes a colorful episode involving two of the most famous hassidic masters – Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786) and his brother Rabbi Zusha of Annopol (1718-1800). These two greats began their hassidic careers under the tutelage of Rabbi Dov Ber, the great Maggid (preacher) of Miedzyrzec (d. 1772). Rabbi Elimelech went on to become responsible for the spread of hassidism in Poland and Galicia, while Rabbi Zusha would be forever remembered for his humility and lovable disposition.
Many hassidic tales are told about these two personalities – individually and when they spent their formative years together. This particular story was recounted by Aryeh Mordechai Rabinowicz, who had heard the tale from his father, Rabbi Ya’acov Aharon Rabinowicz of Ostrove, who had received the story from his uncle, the hassidic master Rabbi Ya’acov Zvi Rabinowicz of Parysow (d. 1888), scion of the Przysucha Hassidic dynasty. Despite the details of the tale’s provenance, the distance in time makes it nigh impossible to verify its historicity. Still, the value of hassidic tales often lies not in their historical accuracy, but in the message they offer.
Sometime before 1772, the two brothers discussed a matter concerning the service of God. They were concerned about whether the sanctity they palpably perceived on Shabbat was real. The brothers were worried that their feelings did not emanate from the holiness of Shabbat, but from the external Shabbat trappings. Perhaps these holy feelings were nothing more than their imagination, conjured up by their own expectations.
To test their concern, the brothers devised a cunning plan. They would choose a random day during the week and act as if it were Shabbat. If they were unable to fool themselves into feeling the sanctity, it was a clear sign that the holiness they perceived on Shabbat was real. However, if they felt the special Shabbat feeling on this weekday, then indeed their elevated spiritual status on Shabbat was nothing more than dream stuff.
The plan was hatched, and they diligently went about preparing for Shabbat on a weekday. They cooked and washed and donned their Shabbat finery. They gathered with their disciples to accept the Shabbat, ate the prepared Shabbat foods, and sang the prescribed Shabbat songs. In the lofty atmosphere they had created, and with the scent of Shabbat food wafting through the air, they offered words of wisdom, as was their custom each Shabbat.
Suddenly Rabbi Elimelech cried out: “Zusha, what are we doing here?!” Could it be? Could it be that Shabbat holiness was merely fanciful imagination? R. Zusha responded: “Let us travel to Miedzyrzec to the great Maggid.
We will tell him what happened and hear his response.”
When they reached Miedzyrzec they recounted their experience before the Maggid, as bitter tears flowed from their hearts. The Maggid answered them: “If you were wearing Shabbat clothes, then you rightly felt the holiness of Shabbat, for the clothes that we set aside for Shabbat – they themselves have the power to draw the light of the holiness of Shabbat.”
He concluded: “My dear disciples, you have nothing to fear at all.”
Perhaps one implication of the Maggid’s words is that Shabbat is not confined to a day of the week. It perpetually exists, but we only tap into its holiness once a week.
Appropriately, in Rabbi Elimelech’s Noam Elimelech (Lwow, 1788) – one of the earliest hassidic works – Shabbat appears not just as the seventh day of the week, but as a propitious time for repentance.
Indeed, Shabbat can be seen as a state of holiness to which we all aspire… and not just on the seventh day.