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Shabbot in a Small Town in Russia Before the First World War
Bielsk Podlaski, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire)

Who but a poet or a painter can describe or paint the holiness of the day or even the preparations for that day? So, not being either, I will endeavor to give you my impression of that day, sacred to us, in my shtetl.

photo: The family of Sender Chrabolowski, Bielsk Podlaski, date unknown.

To see or feel the greatness of that day, you had to live in a shtetl in Russia within the Jewish community. But we will never see that picture any more. Those wonderful people were all lost to us in the German gas chambers, over six-million of them.

The Shabbot really began on Thursday night. There was a baker in town whose business was baking bagels each evening of the week, but on Thursdays he baked poshladkis (onion rolls) instead of bagels. At that time there were no ice-cream parlors or cinema theaters in the shtetl and the young people spent their evenings waiting in the bakery fur the fresh bagels to come out of the oven on a long stick, or for the poshladkis on Thursdays. You could overhear their conversations on different subjects, news of the day, literature, and mostly about the revolution in Russia.

The poshladkis on Thursday night were the beginning of the Shabbot custom. When the citizens of the shtetl came home on Thursday evenings they were served by their wives a tzimis cooked of turnips. On the following day, Friday, another departure from the other days of the week, lunch was served with a krupnik (a stew of grits and meat and poshladkis). The day was called Erev Shabos, which means Shabbot eve. But this is an expression that cannot be likened to say other holiday eve or occasion. There was something special to Erev Shabos which defies comparison. You could only feel the advent as something special, the Shabbot.

In the street you could get the odor of gefilte fish cooking. That was a Saturday must. The streets were being swept by a number of prisoners from the city prison under the watchful eye of their jailers. Bakeries preheated their ovens for the Shabbot cholent (A Shabbot meal of meat, potatoes or barley), also the kugel was cooked there. After Shabbot morning services the cholent and kugel were claimed from the bakery and served for lunch. As you know, it is forbidden to cook on the Shabbot. Through windows you could see tables covered with white tablecloths and two challas and a bottle of wine ready for the Kiddush as the Shabbot begins on Friday at sunset.

Now, I would like to tell you how one man in our town prepared the Shabbot on Erev Shabos. His name was Reb Leib, for short Leibl. He was a Gemorah teacher in the Talmud Torah. On Friday, about noontime, the classes were dismissed and Leibl came to my parents' house with a mission. There were not many families who owned a daily calendar. We owned one. This calendar has a separate page for each day of the year with much information besides the Russian and Western European dates, the Jewish months and dates, the name of the Sedrah or portion of Saturday's reading from the Torah, the Haftorah of the week, and the exact hour and minute of sunrise and sunset. And this was very important for Reb Leib to know to usher in the Shabbot and when to say the morning and evening prayers.

After having marked this information on a piece of paper with a stub pencil, Reb Leib went to the Railroad Station where there was the most accurate clock in town. He checked the time and made sure his watch agreed. On his way home from the railroad station, if anyone stopped to ask him the correct time, he would take the watch out of his vest pocket, open the cover, look at it and say: 22 and one-half minutes past one. He worried that whoever asked him for the time should not Mechalel Shabes zein (delay the Shabbot by even a half minute and thus have an aveira, a sin).

Reb Leib's next visit was to the public bathhouse. As did any pious Jew, he had to clean his body to be ready to greet the Shabbot. About one-hour before sunset, all dressed in his Shabbot best, beard nicely combed, he started again for the railroad station where the business street started, and ran for about a quarter of a mile. He then walked to the first store on the street and shouted to the storekeeper, “Farmacht de krum” (close the store). Within minutes the storekeeper obeyed. He repeated this ritual down the street to the last storekeeper. Everyone obeyed. But the storekeepers at the head of the street sometimes complained why he did not start with the stores on the end of the street so they could get some more business, to which Reb Leib had the proper answer, that the Messiah will arrive on the white donkey from their end of the town and they would be blessed to see him first.

On Sundays the stores had to be closed 'till noontime, when the services in the churches were over. But as you can surmise, the storekeepers were reluctant to obey. When the police sergeant walked through the street and ordered the stores to close, they obeyed, but as soon as he went past, they reopened. And the sergeant threatened the storekeepers that the next time he would bring along Leibke, then they would have to obey.

The Shabbot was holy. No smoking, no cooking, no walking great distances, no lighting a lamp or candle. There were many no's. The Rabbi can give you more information about it.

But I will tell you about another custom. We Jews are forbidden to carry anything on Shabbot, no matter how light or heavy the article, in a Reshut Horabim which means in public or open places. In other words, you could carry things in your own house or yard, but not in the street, it is open country. What makes your home and yard private and not open country? The walls, the fence and the doors, a private closed property. So, in order to be allowed to carry cholent (the Shabbot dinner) from the bakery to the house, or carry a talith to the synagogue, or other articles of use, there was found a remedy. The city was closed. The ends of all streets were closed with an overhead wire. That made the city private property. Reshut Yochid. But how do we know that the wire which is called Airuv, is not broken or removed by someone?

There was another pious man in town by the name of Reb Berl. He walked on Friday to inspect all the Airuvim to see that they were in place. If one was broken or removed and could not be replaced before the advent of Shabbot, he notified all the Shamoshim sextons of the synagogues, to announce at the Friday night services about the Airuv break. And this was a minor calamity. Well, to take the talith to the synagogue was easy. They put it on under the coat, a handkerchief was wound around the waist and it became wearing apparel. The pocket hatch was left at home. But how about the cholent, how to get it home? But, a child under Bar Mitzvah age was able to bring the cholent home. And if the child was too young, an older person carried the child with the cholent, the reason being a child was not considered an object or parcel.

Reb Berl, when he felt that he became too old to do this sacred work, decided to go to Eretz Israel to die there, so that he would not subject his bones to roll underground to the Promised Land. Many elderly Jews went to Eretz Israel (Palestine) to die. After being driven from Eretz Israel for over two thousand years, Jews still considered it their homeland and wanted to be buried there.

The Shabbot Day was something special. I have never seen anyone anywhere keep the Shabbot according to God's command as the Jews did in the shtetl in Russia. I will quote 20 8—11: “Remember the Shabbot Day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all the work. But the seventh day is the Shabbot in honor of the Lord thy God; on it thou shalt not do any work, neither thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gates; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day, therefore the Lord blessed the Shabbot Day, and hallowed it”.

This is the exact text of the Fourth Commandment according to the Bible. Businesses, stores, shops, offices were closed. No one was smoking or even writing on that day. As I mentioned before, no cooking, no lighting or extinguishing a candle or a lamp was allowed.

There was a public tea house in town attended by gentiles, and if anyone wanted to get boiling water for tea on Shabbot, he paid for it on Friday, received a voucher for a two or three-kopek tea pot, and called for it on Saturday. A Jew was not allowed to even touch money on Shabbot.

The Shabbot is called Malka (Queen). Does any other religion call its day of rest, Queen? And is the day of rest revered as a Queen? At Friday night services it is greeted as a Queen and on Saturday night it is bidden farewell as a Queen with a meal called Maluve Malko (Farewell to the Queen).

I have many memories of the Shabbot and I will end now with one. As you all know, each Saturday during the morning prayers, between Schacharit and Muesaf, a portion of the Torah is read. The Torah is divided into 52 Sedroth (sections). Beginning with the Saturday after Simchat Torah (day of finishing read the last section), the first section beginning with Genesis is read and so each Saturday the following section to the end of the year is read.

As you know, no business transactions are allowed on Saturday and money is not handled on that day. But one business was going on in the synagogue. Aliuth were being sold. The first part of the weekly reading belonged to a Kohen, the second to a Levi, the third (Shlishi) to the Rabbi or to the most learned one in the congregation. Seven portions in all plus the last one— Mafter.

Before beginning the reading of the Torah all the Aliyuth were sold to the highest bidder. The sale was an auction and the highest bidder received the Aliya for which he bid. No money passed. No bookkeeping was conducted. The Shamoth, sexton, conducted the sale and he remembered to collect the agreed price during the week. I remember that even on Yom Kipur an auction was held, but the tune of the auction call resembled the Yom Kippur Torah reading melody,

The two most expensive Aliyoth were Shlishi, the sixth and Mafter.

The reading of the Torah is the most important part of the services.

As you know, we were given the Torah before there was any dogma of ritual. So to interrupt the reading of the Torah is a grave transgression. But here you will see that the Jewish religion, ethics and compassion are above everything.

If a man or woman were wronged by Society or by any individual in town, he came to the synagogue on Saturday (on Saturday the synagogues were always well attended) and before the scrolls were taken from the Ark, he mounted the Bima (pulpit), banged his hand on the top of the table and announced, I am Meakev Hakriah (It means, I am restraining you from reading the Torah, I have been wronged.) Musaf, a part of the morning prayers could not be said and the congregation was forced to listen to the complaint of the wronged party and to find a solution to his problem.

This shows how even before democracy was born in Eastern Europe we practiced it in full.

-- by I. Semiat, Smithtown, New York

Credit: From the book "Bielsk-Podliask," Editor: Haim Rubin, Published by the Bielsk Immigrants' Association of Israel and the United States of America, Tel Aviv, 1975.

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