The Tisch: Friday afternoon in Lezajsk

A lofty spiritual plane on Shabbat can only be attained through spiritual striving throughout the week.

shabbat hala_311 (photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
shabbat hala_311
(photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
According to hassidic tradition, each Wednesday morning the hassidim of Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786) would savor the taste of Shabbat as they recited the psalm that the Levites used to sing in the Temple on Wednesday: a passage that ends with the three verses that open the Kabbalat Shabbat service (Psalms 95:1-3). Indeed, the connection between Wednesday and Shabbat is rooted in Jewish law: The Halacha allows the recitation of havdala – the prayer said at the conclusion of Shabbat – until Tuesday evening (see Shulhan Aruch OH 299:6), and considers Wednesday to already be in the sphere of the coming Shabbat.
For Rabbi Elimelech, however, the connection between Shabbat and the preceding week was not limited to Wednesday. Rabbi Elimelech wrote: “The righteous who are constantly ensconced in sanctity and throughout the week, they look to the loftiness of the Almighty, then on the holy Shabbat they achieve great clarity and the sanctity sparkles on its own.” Thus, a lofty spiritual plane on Shabbat can only be attained through spiritual striving throughout the week.
Surprisingly Rabbi Elimelech related that the hard spiritual work of the week could best be assessed not on Shabbat, but on Friday: “Whoever toils for the sake of Heaven, and his intent is for the better every day of the week in whatever he is dealing or studying – then he has clarity in the Heavens. When Friday comes, then the clarity is excited within him for the upcoming Shabbat, even though he [has] yet to do the day’s preparations; rather the action of the weekday has blessed and sanctified him... so that he feels the holy Shabbat day immediately as it approaches on Friday morning.”
For Rabbi Elimelech, Friday morning provided an indicator of the week’s spiritual work. If the week had been spiritually successful, the sanctity of Shabbat could be felt on Friday morning even before preparations for the Shabbat had begun. The sense of Shabbat holiness on Friday was so palpable for Rabbi Elimelech that later sources report in his name that it is possible to merit the scent of the Garden of Eden on Friday afternoon.
The spirituality of Shabbat felt on Friday was not without a price. According to one tradition, on Friday afternoon Rabbi Elimelech was so overcome by the scent of the Garden of Eden that he was forced to lie down. Other sources note that Rabbi Elimelech attested to hearing the heavenly commotion on Friday as Shabbat entered, and he was so overwhelmed by what is described as bells ringing in his ears that he tried to block them.
Thus for Rabbi Elimelech, Friday was a mystically stressful time. It was a yardstick of the week’s spiritual progress, there was an overpowering scent of the Garden of Eden, and the heavenly din that signaled the coming of Shabbat rang in his ears.
The pressure was so great on Friday that all Shabbat preparations in Rabbi Elimelech’s household had to be finished before midday. Any weekly chores done after midday would not succeed: Food prepared would “accidentally” spill and spoil. It is no wonder that some sources describe Friday afternoon in Lezajsk as a time akin to the eve of Yom Kippur. Years later an old person who had worked in Rabbi Elimelech’s home as a youngster reported that the hired help was moved to ask each other for forgiveness each Friday – just as we ask for forgiveness from our peers in the lead-up to Yom Kippur.
A contemporary hassidic master, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky of Slonim (1911-2000) related that Rabbi Elimelech would say: “Were it not for the sweetness of Shabbat itself, I would not be able to handle the sweetness of Friday.”
The salve for the awesome holiness of Shabbat that pervaded Lezajsk on Friday – terrifying the hassidic master, his household and the entire village – was Shabbat itself.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.