Feeling Shabbat – People Creating Holiness

We will use a Hassidic story to discuss the power of symbols and human actions to create an atmosphere of Shabbat.

Resource Ages: 12-14


A Shabbat Feeling / Hassidic Story

Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha both used to feel the holiness of Shabbat every week, from its beginning to its end – and in particular when the Hassidim sat down for the Shabbat dinner and discussed Torah among themselves.

When they happened to find themselves together in the same place, Rabbi Elimelech said to Rabbi Zusha: “Brother, sometimes I’m afraid that the feeling of holiness I experience on Shabbat isn’t a genuine feeling but something I imagine. And if that’s the case, then my worship of God is also not genuine.”

“Brother,” Zusha replied, “I have the same feeling sometimes.”

“What should we do about it?” Elimelech asked. Zusha replied, “Each of us should hold a Shabbat dinner, authentic in every detail, on a weekday, and we should sit among other Hassidim and talk Torah. If we feel the sanctity of Shabbat, we will know that our way is not one of truth. But if we feel nothing, that will prove that our way is true.”

They did just that. On a weekday they held a Shabbat dinner, dressed in their best clothes, wore the Streimel (the special hat Hassidic men wear only on Shabbat), and sat with other Hassidim to discuss Torah. They immediately had the same feeling of the holiness of Shabbat that they would feel on a real Shabbat. The next time they met, Rabbi Elimelech asked: “So, brother, what are we going to do?” Rabbi Zusha suggested that they travel to Mezritch to consult with the rabbi. They went together to Mezritch and shared their concern with their rabbi, the Maggid of Mezritch. The Maggid told them: “If you put on Shabbat clothes and wore your Streimel, then it’s only natural that you felt the holiness of Shabbat, because these items have the power to spread the light of the holiness of Shabbat over the earth. It is people and their actions that make the day holy, so you have no reason at all to be worried.”

Based on: Martin Buber, Or Haganuz, Schocken, Jerusalem 5725, p. 224

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zusha (Zusha) of Anipoli – two brothers who both became important “rebbes” – leaders of Hassidic communities – in the eighteenth century.

Mezritch – the city where Dov Ber, known as the Maggid of Mezritch, lived. The Maggid of Mezritch was the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?
  • What makes time holy? 
  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is the role of customs, objects, and foods in creating an atmosphere of holiness on Shabbat?

Background for Teacher

Like many Hassidic tales, this story looks simple but deals with a serious philosophical question: what role do humans play in shaping reality? In our story, the question arises in the context of holiness. Does holiness have an inherent existence of its own, or...

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Like many Hassidic tales, this story looks simple but deals with a serious philosophical question: what role do humans play in shaping reality? In our story, the question arises in the context of holiness. Does holiness have an inherent existence of its own, or does it depend on humans who create it? The story shows that humans and their actions play an important role in creating holiness and in the special atmosphere of Shabbat. Concrete acts – ceremonies, customs, clothes, and food – create this special atmosphere.

From a broader perspective, the story suggests that people bear great power and great responsibility. This can be a meaningful realization for students. The atmosphere at home, in class, at parties, the challenge or lack of interest they feel during a given activity are not defined from above but rather depend on their own decisions and actions.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Bring or show pictures of objects relating to various ceremonies (a birthday cake, a graduation cap and gown, a wedding dress, Shabbat candlesticks, etc.). Ask the students to discuss and/or vote on one or both of these questions: What would the relevant event look like without the item? Does eating the special food or wearing the special clothes mean anything in isolation from the event?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. What worried Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha?
  2. Explain the answer given by the Maggid of Mezritch. 
  3. The Torah says that God sanctified Shabbat (made it holy). Is that compatible with the approach presented in this story? Does it contradict that approach? Explain your answer.
  4. Do you have any customs in your family that make Shabbat special and different to other days? Tell the class about them.
  5. Does the idea that people and their actions have such a strong impact (regarding Shabbat and in general) make you happy or do you feel that it puts too much responsibility on you, and so makes you anxious? Explain.
  6. The story mentions the Streimel – the special hat Hassidim wear on Shabbat and on the festivals. Do you have any clothes that influence your mood? Can you think of a particular item of clothing that has a very strong influence on you?
  • To illustrate the idea expressed in the story about how objects or actions can create a particular atmosphere, ask students to think of an example from their own lives of something (food, clothing, an object, or a symbolic action) that marks a particular day as special and even contributes to it being special.
  •  Stage an exhibition: Every student brings an object or a picture of an object that changes or could change the atmosphere of Shabbat for them. Ask the students to write a few lines explaining what the object does. Hold a “tour” to the exhibition guided by the students themselves.
  • Study the subject of the Sanctity of Shabbat.
  • This story is a very good example of the spirit of Hassidism, which emphasized the inner meaning of the Mitzvot and the individual’s personal experience of a connection with God, alongside the strict observance of the Mitzvot and of religious customs. Learn more about the Hassidic movement  and  read more Hassidic stories at the website Zusha – Discovering the Hassidic Story.