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Rabbi Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg: Shabbat on a Weekday

Rabbi Shmuel Shmelkeh Halevi Horowitz was born in 5486 (1726) to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch. Together with his brother, Rabbi Pinchas, they were first disciples of the Vilna Gaon, but through the influence of Rabbi Avraham HaCohen of Kalisk (who himself was a disciple of the Vilna Gaon and became a chassid), they left Vilna to go learn with the Maggid of Mezritch. Some of Rebbe Shmelkeh’s disciples became great chassidic rebbes in their own right, such as Rebbe Yisrael of Kozhnitz (Kozienice), Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and the Choizeh (the Seer) of Lublin.

In 5523 (1763) Rabbi Shmelkeh became the head of the Jewish Judicial Court in the city of Shinova (Sieniawa) and moved his yeshivah there. In 5533 (1773) he became the rabbi of Nikolsburg in Moravia. He moved his yeshiva there as well. Some of the students in his yeshivah in Nicolsburg also became great chassidic rebbes, among them Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Riminov, Rebbe Yitzchak Isaac of Kaleb, and Rabbi Mordechai Benet (who later became the chief rabbi of Moravia).

During his tenure as rabbi of Nikolsburg, Rebbe Shmelkeh suffered from disputes with part of the Jewish community there. They had to resort to the mediation of Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhansk, who severely reprimanded the townspeople in an effort to solve the dispute and to warm the relations between the tzaddik and the townspeople. Rabbi Shmuel Shmelkeh passed away on the first day of the month of Iyar, 5538 (1778) at the age of 52, the same age as the Biblical Samuel after whom he was named. He was laid to rest in Nikolsburg.

Rebbe Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg and his brother, Rabbi Pinchas, known as the Ba’al Hahafla’ah, were disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. They felt a great spiritual uplifting on the holy Shabbat, after properly preparing for the holy day. The holy brothers suspected, however, that this spiritual feeling was not authentic and did not truly originate and flow from the sanctity of the Shabbat. They suspected that perhaps it was the result of their special preparations for the holy day. After some thought, they decided to test themselves. On a Tuesday, they would wear their Shabbat clothing, immerse in the mikveh and make all the preparations they were accustomed to making for Shabbat. Then they would see if they would experience the same feeling of inspiration. They embarked on the test and sure enough, they experienced the same uplifting feeling they had on every Shabbat.

The tzaddikim were quite disconcerted, fearing that all their service of God and their sense of the holiness of the Shabbat were all just self-deception. Confounded, they journeyed to the Maggid of Mezritch to consult with him. When the Maggid heard their story, he told them that they should not feel any sorrow. The Shabbat is so lofty that even the preparations associated with it, including external aspects of preparation like wearing Shabbat clothing, can draw down the light of Shabbat. And this is true even on a weekday.

The doubt expressed by Rebbe Shmelkeh and Rebbe Pinchas, who did not rely on their appreciation for holiness, is part of the service of the beinoni, the intermediate individual described in the Tanya. The beinoni is a person who naturally identifies with his animal soul and with the body. With concerted effort, however, he succeeds in reining them in and conducts himself like a tzaddik. Thus, the beinoni is always apprehensive (this also applies to the tzaddik who sees himself as a beinoni) that all his experiences of holiness and his identification with his Divine soul are a pretense and that in truth he is deceiving himself. The Maggid comforted his disciples, explaining that even on the weekdays, there is a depth of experience that illuminates the entire service of the beinoni.

In Chasidic teachings we find that the spiritual work, the Divine service of the beinoni, who identifies with his body and his feeling of being separate from God, resembles weekday service. The spiritual toil of the tzaddik, who identifies with his Divine soul and with Godliness, resembles the spiritual service of Shabbat. Focusing on the Maggid’s words, we discern an additional, even more subtle division: The service of the weekdays alone is the service of the wicked person who is constantly transgressing and then trying to emerge and free himself from his misdeeds. The service of Shabbat is the service of the tzaddik, who is all holiness. But the spiritual work of the beinoni lies in an intermediate state between the rasha (the wicked individual) and the tzaddik. It has elements of the light of Shabbat as it shines on weekdays and the mundane aspects of weekdays as they are included within the Shabbat.

The light of Shabbat that shines on the weekdays is found and experienced during the regular times for prayer. During the regular weekday prayers, the beinoni temporarily ascends from his level to the level of a tzaddik. The evil in him lies dormant for a short time (usually the duration of the prayer service). The mundane weekdays are included in Shabbat Eve (in the Talmud this time is called ma’alei Shabbata,[1] which literally means “the entrance of the Shabbat”) which serves as the entrance and ascent into the holy Shabbat. During the time of Shabbat eve, as we prepare for the Shabbat, we still experience some effort in disconnecting from the weekdays, we are not yet totally immersed in the Shabbat’s holiness. These are the preparations for the Shabbat that the holy brothers doubted in the story.

In the Tanya, the book of the intermediary person, it is explained that relative to the spiritual service of the tzaddik, the service of the beinoni is still false. But in truth, it is the “central crossbar that extends from one end to the other.”[2] It is the beinoni’s spiritual work that connects all the levels of spiritual work (from the rasha through the tzaddik) through their central axis and reveals the truth that manifests at each of these levels. The pinnacle of the beinoni’s service connects to the service of the tzaddik. In our story, this is the essence of the Maggid’s revelation to his disciples that the illumination of the Shabbat that penetrates the weekdays is authentic and with it one can experience the aspect of the weekdays within the Shabbat; the preparations that lead to Shabbat, the aspect we have identified with Shabbat eve (ma’alei Shabbata). Once that level is attained, the path is open to ascend to the lofty levels of the tzaddik, the levels of service associated with the day of Shabbat itself.

tzaddik   Shabbat day
beinoni weekdays in Shabbat Shabbat eve/preparations for Shabbat
Shabbat in weekdays weekday prayers
rasha (wicked)   weekdays

We can add a numerical allusion to the connection between the Tanya’s beinoni—intermediate individual—and the structure we have painted. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that the essential message of the entire Tanya is “Do not be an imposter” (אַל תִּהְיֶה רַמַּאי). The pinnacle of the beinoni’s spiritual work is to arrive at the recognition that he is not yet a tzaddik. And yet, the value of this phrase is 702, the same numerical value as “Shabbat” (שַׁבָּת). When the beinoni has attained his highest level of service, without pretending to ascend to a level that is not his, he discovers that he has actually just ascended to the tzaddik’s service of the Shabbat.


[1]. See for instance Pesachim 50b.

[2]. Exodus 26:28.

[1] Brachot 17a.

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