Storytelling on Shabbat


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Storytelling on Shabbat

Jewish heritage is full of stories; it is an important value for us, as Jews, to tell the narrative of our people. There are even mitzvot (commandments) for us to remember (just like we learned earlier that we are supposed to remember Shabbat). Stories act as a compelling and important way to remember.
First step – find a story! Not just any story. Find a story you love! You’ll tell it often, and you want to enjoy it every time.

Storytellers learn their stories in many different ways. Some read or listen to a story over and over. Some meditate on it. Some type or write out the story. Some draw charts. Some begin telling the story at once. However you do it, you must absorb the story until it becomes second nature. Picture the story. See the scenes in your mind, as clearly as you can. Later, these pictures will help you recreate your story as you tell it—whether or not you consciously call them to mind.

It’s best to practice your story with a “mirror.” This can be a mirror, or an audio or video recorder, or a friend — anything that helps you “see” how you’re doing.

First, practice to get the storyline. Then, once the story is straight in your mind, focus on how you tell it.

Remember to vary the tone, the pitch, and the volume of your voice, your speed, your rhythms, your articulation (smooth or sharp). Use silences. Remember, variety catches and holds attention.

Use gestures to mime the action, or for emphasis. Make them big! Own the gestures. Gestures keep eyes on you.

In your story, pay special attention to beginnings and endings. You may want to practice an introduction along with the story. This introduction can tell something about the story or about you. But don’t give away the plot!

A good storytelling space is comfortable, intimate, and free of distractions.

Give your listeners the full force of you. Make your words ring. Try to avoid filler words like “um” or “y’know.”

No fidgeting, hands in pockets, or shifting from foot to foot.

Storytelling is magic in part because it’s personal—so make a personal contact with your listeners – eye contact!

As you tell your story, take your time, and give time to your listeners—time to “see” the story, time to laugh, time to feel, time to reflect, time to hang on the edge of their seats for what comes next.

Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, so next time you can change, add, or subtract.

Above all, trust yourself, your audience, and your story.

Use repetition; it can help your listeners stick with the story by providing familiar landmarks.
habbat is a great time to listen and tell stories. Obviously, an important part of the story is how it’s told. Here are some techniques1 to help you tell a compelling and interesting story:


Stories & Programs

Here are some stories you can use to set the tone of your Shabbat program. Remember the first storytelling tip: find a story you love. If you don’t love any of these, find one that really excites you! If neither of these stories appeals to you, check out: and

The Mirror By Chana Sharfstein
This is the story about a very beautiful and special mirror. It hung on a wall in the dining room of a fine house belonging to a rich man. The mirror was large and square, with a wide, thick gold frame carved with beautiful designs of leaves and flowers. Everyone that saw the mirror admired it, but everyone also noticed that it was imperfect. On one of the corners, you see, the silver backing had been scraped off so that this part of the mirror was plain transparent glass. People would remark upon its beauty and then say, "Oh, what a pity! Too bad the mirror is damaged." To everyone's surprise, the mirror's owner would tell his visitors that it was he himself who had deliberately scraped the silver backing off!
Many year ago, in a small town in Poland, there lived a man called Abraham. He owned a small store and he earned just enough money to take care of his family. He was not a rich man, but he also was not a very poor man. He had only a few customers. Sometimes people left without buying anything because Abraham did not have many things to choose from.
Abraham was happy with his life. Though he was not rich, he always had enough to share. No visitor ever left his home hungry. Every time a poor person needed help, Abraham always found money to give him. Abraham and his wife lived a very simple life. Their home was small. The house really needed a paint job, but there was never enough money for that. It seemed to them that it was more important to help someone in real trouble than to paint a house. Their furniture was old for the same reason. The curtains on the window had probably been washed a hundred times. Abraham and his wife had no carpets on their floor. Their clothes were plain, and they did not often buy new things. Many of their cups and plates had chips and cracks. The food they ate was simple.

Yes, it was not a very fancy home. But it was a real home. It was a warm and happy place. Everyone felt comfortable and relaxed there. Abraham had many visitors because everyone knew that he was kind and liked to be helpful.

One day Abraham stood in the doorway of his store waiting for customers. Suddenly he noticed a stranger approaching his store. Abraham lived in a small town so he knew all the people there. When the stranger was near the store, Abraham asked how he could help. "Maybe you would like to come to my home and rest awhile," he said. "If you are hungry, please be my guest. If you are thirsty, please come for something to drink. Perhaps you need money? We will help you." Abraham's invitation was so warm and friendly that the stranger decided to stop in his house for a rest.
What Abraham did not know was this was no ordinary stranger. This was a very holy, wise and famous Rebbe from a town far away. He was on his way to a wedding and happened to pass through Abraham's town. The Rebbe was an important man and many people in Poland traveled long distances to listen to his words of wisdom, or to ask for a blessing or prayer in time of need.
The Rebbe soon noticed Abraham's kindness and generosity. He knew many rich people who could have helped the poor much more easily than Abraham, but who did much less than he. The Rebbe enjoyed his short stay. Before he left he blessed Abraham with riches, so that he should be able to continue helping the poor and needy more easily.
After the Rebbe left, Abraham's store suddenly became a very busy place. All day long customers were coming in. Everyone found what he wanted, and no longer did people leave his store to shop somewhere else. With each day that passed, Abraham had more new customers and more money to bring home. Soon he had to make his store larger to fit all his new customers. After awhile, Abraham became a very big, important and rich storekeeper. He became one of the richest men in the town. The Rebbe's blessing that Abraham should become wealthy had been fulfilled.

Because Abraham was busy with his store, he found less and less time for studying Torah and going to shul to pray. He did not even have time to bother with poor people. Abraham could only be seen by special appointment. His secretaries were told to give money to needy people who came for help, but Abraham had no time to listen to their problems.

Abraham and his wife built a brand new house that almost looked like a palace. It had many rooms, and all the rooms were large and beautiful. On the windows hung soft velvet drapes. The floors were covered with thick rugs. There was wallpaper on the walls. The kitchen was filled with new pots and pans. There were lots of fine dishes in the cabinets. All the furniture was new and expensive. The dining room table was made of shiny wood. The chairs in the living room were soft and plump. On the walls hung paintings by real artists. And on one wall in the living room there hung a huge mirror. It was so big it almost covered the whole wall. All around this mirror there was a wide, thick frame of gold. No one else in town had such a fine mirror. Everyone who saw it spoke of its beauty. It was truly a masterpiece.
There were many servants in this new house. But this house was so fancy that Abraham did not want to let beggars come in. Strangers were no longer invited for a meal. Servants would only open the door and give some money to the needy.
"Abraham is different," people said. "He has changed since he became rich. What a pity! He was always so kind and good, and now look at him. He has no time for any of us any more." And they would shake their heads sadly and remember the good old times when Abraham had never been too busy to help others.
Time passed. One day a messenger came to visit Abraham. He had been sent a long distance from the famous Rebbe who had given Abraham the blessing of riches. The news of Abraham's good fortune had reached the ears of the Rebbe and now he needed his help. An innocent Jewish man had been put in prison on false charges and a great deal of money was needed for his ransom. Of course Abraham was happy to help. He gave the messenger the money and sent him off with good wishes for a safe trip home. He also sent regards to the Rebbe.

The messenger had completed his job, but he did not feel happy. It had been difficult for him to speak to Abraham in person. His secretaries had not wanted to let a stranger into Abraham's office. Abraham had given him the money, but he had not invited him to his home for some food and rest. The messenger was surprised. The Rebbe had praised Abraham and often spoken of his hospitality and charitable ways. The messenger could not understand what had happened.

When he came back to the Rebbe, he gave him the money and told him everything about his trip. The Rebbe shook his head sadly. He understood that Abraham, the poor man, had a heart of gold, but Abraham, the rich man, with all his gold, seemed to have a heart more like stone. The Rebbe decided to visit Abraham to see what could be done.
When the Rebbe arrived at Abraham's house, Abraham welcomed him warmly and invited him into his home. This house looked very different from the home that Abraham had lived in when the Rebbe first visited him. It was big and beautiful, but gone was the friendliness and warmth one had felt in the simple, old home. The Rebbe walked on the heavy rug. He saw the costly paintings. He looked at the expensive, new furniture, and at the drapes made from the finest, softest velvet. And then he noticed the mirror. He looked at its shiny gold frame. It was the biggest mirror he had ever seen.
"Quite a change, is it not?" said Abraham with a pleased smile on his face. "And that mirror, " he continued, "is my favorite treasure. Of all the lovely things I own, I like that mirror the best. It cost a great deal of money, but it was worth it. It is truly a masterpiece, a work of art, is it not?" he said and turned to the Rebbe.
"Yes," the Rebbe answered. "Quite a change. Quite a change." He said this softly, in a serious voice, his face sad.

Suddenly, the Rebbe called to Abraham. "Come here," he said, and asked him to walk over to the mirror and stand in front of it. The Rebbe then walked away a bit and asked Abraham to tell him what he saw.

Abraham was puzzled, but answered, "Myself. That is what I see in this mirror. My own reflection -- that is all I can see."
"Look closely," the Rebbe said. "What else do you see?"

"I see my lovely furniture reflected in the mirror. I see my paintings, I see my rugs and drapes. I can see many things in my beautiful home," answered Abraham.

The Rebbe then walked over to the window with Abraham. He pushed aside the drapes and told Abraham to look out into the street. Abraham's home was on a big street and people were always passing by. Since it was a small town, Abraham knew almost all the people walking past his house. The Rebbe asked him many questions about all the people they saw. And Abraham told him that the woman with the basked was a poor widow with many small children. She was hoping that kind people would put food in the basket for her family. He told the Rebbe about Bentze, the water-carrier, who was getting old and found it hard to carry the water. He pointed out Yankel the tailor, a fine Jew who went to shul every day, but was very poor and never had enough money for his family.
Abraham was wondering why the Rebbe was asking him all these questions. The Rebbe was a serious man who never had time to waste. Why should he be so curious about all these people?
Then the Rebbe said, "It is strange, is it not? A mirror and a window are both made of glass, yet they are very different."
"What do you mean?" asked Abraham.

"Well," said the Rebbe, "when you looked in the mirror you could only see yourself and your things. You could see much more when you looked out the window. Then you could see all your neighbors and friends from the town."

"That is true," said Abraham. "A mirror and a window are both made from glass. The window is transparent. Light can pass right through it. It is clear and you can see everything through it. The mirror, on the other hand, is covered with silver on one side. The rays of light cannot pass through, and therefore a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it."

"I see," said the Rebbe and nodded his head. "I see. The piece of glass that is plain is clear through and through, allowing you to see others and their lives. But when it is covered with silver, then you can see only yourself. Hmmm…very interesting. It is really quite fantastic, isn't it? Now do you think it will work the other way too? Could you take a mirror and scrape off the silver so that you would be able to see everyone else instead of yourself?"

Abraham's eyes filled with tears. He felt so ashamed. Finally, he was beginning to understand everything that had happened to him since he became rich.
That evening, Abraham made a big party in his home. The whole town was invited, especially all the poor people. Everyone had a fine time. Then Abraham asked for silence. He made a short speech and asked for everyone's forgiveness. He told his guests that he was sorry for the way he had acted after he became rich. His life would now be different. He promised them that his doors would always be open for everyone, and that he never would be too busy to help those that needed him.
After all the guests had left, Abraham walked over to his beautiful mirror. With a sharp knife he scraped off the silver covering in one corner. He did not stop until that part was as clear as glass. Only then was he satisfied.

Fifty Year Old Honey By Yerachmiel Tilles

Less than a week after the tzaddik Rabbi Levi Yitzchak moved to Berdichev in 1785 to serve as chief rabbi, three men knocked on his door to ask him to decide a question of Jewish law. It would be his very first case as a rabbinical judge in his new position.

A wealthy merchant from the nearby town of Hemelnick had brought several barrels filled with honey to sell at the big fair in Berdichev. Unfortunately, just then, the price of honey dropped sharply. Not wanting to suffer a loss on his investment, he asked an acquaintance to store the honey for him until the price rose again.
The two were old friends, and the local man was happy to oblige. Knowing each other to be completely honest, they didn't write down anything of their arrangement or call in witnesses.

Time went by. The price of honey remained low, so the barrels remained in their Berdichev cellar, untouched.

More time went by. The man on whose property the honey was stored contracted a fatal disease and passed away. Everything happened so quickly, he never had a chance to explain to his family anything about the state of his affairs.
More time passed. The price of honey finally began to climb. When the increase became significant, the owner of the barrels showed up at his deceased friend's house to claim his honey from the sons who had taken over their father's business. They, however, having heard nothing about it from their father, refused to honor the merchant's claim. After some discussion, they decided to proceed to the bet-din (rabbinical court) to present the case before the new rabbi.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak listened carefully, even though the law in such a case was clear. Of course he would have to rule against the out-of-town merchant. Even if there had been witnesses or a signed document, Torah law stipulates that no claims against "orphans" (i.e., heirs who are disadvantaged by the fact that they have no way of knowing what transpired between the deceased and their litigant) can be collected without first swearing an oath as to the validity of one's claim; and here there were neither document nor witnesses.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak hesitated to pronounce his verdict and finalize the case. Two nagging thoughts disturbed him. Why, in his first days in his new position, did the God arrange for his inaugural judgment to be something so straightforward and clear-cut, with no room to budge left or right to attempt any sort of compromise?

The other thought that made him uncomfortable was: Why did God arrange it so that his very first ruling in this town would be considered bizarre by the entire populace? After all, the merchant from Hemelnick was well-known to everyone as a scrupulously honest man, as someone who was already wealthy and as such immune to monetary pressures, and as far from theft as east is from west. Furthermore, everyone knew that the merchant and the deceased were old friends who trusted each other implicitly, never resorting to documents or witnesses in their transactions. Surely, the entire town would be paying attention to the first ruling handed down by their new rabbi. Everyone was sure to wonder: Why should the law of the Torah be so opposite to common sense? "

He couldn't bring himself to issue the verdict just yet. The contradiction between the natural sense of what was right and the law of the Torah was too great. Even though the claimant and defendants anxiously awaited his word, he asked them to excuse him for a few more minutes. Turning aside to a corner of the room, he poured forth in silent prayer his frustration, beseeching G-d to enlighten him with understanding.
Suddenly, the owner of the honey jumped off his seat as if struck by a bolt of lightning, and exclaimed: "I remember! I remember!" So struck was he by his recollection, and so convinced of its importance and relevance, he didn't hesitate to interrupt the Rabbi, who was standing in the corner, absorbed in his personal prayer.
"Honored Rabbi, please forgive me," he called out excitedly. "While waiting here I had the most amazing realization! An old memory, which I haven't thought about in many years, just flashed through my mind. Rescued from oblivion! I'm talking about something that happened fifty years ago, when I was just a young lad.
"Our father died suddenly, leaving us a large inheritance. Included in this was a storage room filled with casks of wine and oil.
"One day, the father of these two young men -- may his rest be peaceful -- came to our home in Hemelnick. He claimed that the wine and oil were his -- that he had stored it with our father for safekeeping. My brothers and I were still quite young then, and had never been involved in any of our father's business affairs. We had no idea what we were supposed to do, but were reluctant to give up the merchandise just like that.
"We all went to the rabbi of the town and presented our case. He ruled in our favor, explaining that nothing can be taken from the inheritance of orphans without absolute proof and an oath. The wine and oil remained in our possession. After a while, we sold the entire lot for a good price.

"What I just realized is that the money we received for that wine and oil is exactly equal to the value of my honey, which is now in the possession of the sons of my departed friend!"

With his apt comparison of the two parallel events fifty years apart, the merchant had conceded his own present case. For the same reason that, as an orphan, he was entitled to keep the wine and oil that long time ago, he had to relinquish his claim on these orphans for his honey today.

1 Story-telling techniques are courtesy of Aaron Shepard at


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