Contemporary Approaches to Shabbat

In this block we will explore contemporary approaches to shabbat observance from various streams of Judaism that differ in some way from Orthodox observance.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Thinking Shabbat

(b. 1943) Reform rabbi and the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, California.

We need a way to describe liberal Jews who are serious about Shabbat. Shomer Shabbat, “keeper of Shabbat,” based, as it is, on the language of the actual commandment in Deuteronomy, could be ideal. Unfortunately, the phrase has been appropriated and defined, meticulously and oppressively, by someone else. So we return to the text of the fourth commandment and realize that it is said twice, once in Deuteronomy and again in Exodus. In Deuteronomy (5:12) we are told, “Shamor, keep the Sabbath.” But in Exodus (20:8) the verb is different. There, we are told, “Zakhor, remember the Sabbath.” Perhaps it is for us to create a new standard of Shabbat behavior called zakhor Shabbat. One who is zokhaer Shabbat would remember throughout the day’s duration that it was Shabbat. (Not so easy as it sounds.) We say to one another, “Do anything you like—as long as you remember it  is Shabbat,” because that will ensure that whatever you do will be lich-vod-ha-Shabbat, “for the honor of Shabbat.”

L. Kushner. 2010. “(Re)Thinking Shabbat,” I’m God, You’re Not. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 77.

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can my actions make time sacred?
  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?
  • How do Jewish cycles shape our lives?
  • What makes time holy?
  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do values and tradition impact my Jewish practice?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What contemporary meanings can I find for my own shabbat observance? 
  • How do non-Orthodox Jews relate to Shabbat observance?
  • How do I feel about non-halakhic approaches to Shabbat observance?
  • Should Shabbat observance be “all-or-nothing” or is there room for other approaches?
  • What steps could I take to engage with shabbat practices, either by “keeping” them or by “remembering” them?
  • Should Shabbat be a technology-free zone?
  • Can the use of technology enhance Shabbat observance?
  • What are the risks to using technology to enhance Shabbat observance?
  • How can shabbat observance be even more meaningful for me in difficult times, such as during a global pandemic?

Background for Teacher

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Thinking Shabbat An alternative to halakhic shabbat observance: The term shomer Shabbat has come to be used for one who observes Shabbat in a halakhic way according to Orthodox standards. Kushner raises the possibility that observing Shabbat can be done according...

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Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Thinking Shabbat

An alternative to halakhic shabbat observance: The term shomer Shabbat has come to be used for one who observes Shabbat in a halakhic way according to Orthodox standards. Kushner raises the possibility that observing Shabbat can be done according to standards different from the ones laid down by the Orthodox world. Jews that are not observant of the halakhah in the way the Orthodox are, or who are not observant of the halakhah at all, can still be observant of the Shabbat, Kushner argues. There are those who seriously seek to set Shabbat apart as a day different from all the rest, a day on which they can appreciate God’s Creation and be aware of God being the master of all. There are those who attend services in honor of Shabbat, whether on Friday night or Shabbat morning or both, who honor the Shabbat with family meals, and who otherwise celebrate Shabbat in assorted ways. However, given the colloquial usage of the term shomer Shabbat, they do not feel comfortable to use this term to describe the manner in which they celebrate Shabbat.

Being Zokher Shabbat: Kushner proposes coining a term taken from the Tanakh in the same way that shomer Shabbat is based on the biblical words. If shomer Shabbat derives from the Deuteronomic Ten Commandments , another term can be derived from the Exodic Ten Commandments. This term would be zokher Shabbat, one in whose actions and behaviors, and most importantly in whose thoughts, the presence of Shabbat would always be at the forefront as they go about their activities for that day. Whether the person would abide by the halakhic restrictions of the day in whole or in part, or not at all, Shabbat would become a special day by virtue of thinking and recalling the Shabbat day and what it means for the Jews. Kushner may be drawing on the rabbinic distinction between shamor, relating to the prohibitions, and zakhor, referring to the positive commandments associated with the day, and therefore chooses the root related to the practices that bring oneg to Shabbat.

Connecting to shabbat in thought: Kushner’s proposition takes into consideration that for many liberal Jews, Shabbat is not necessarily spent differently than any other day of the week. Those that need to go to the office do, those that take the day off to hike a mountain trail would do so on a Sunday as well, or on any other day on which they do not need to work. Some will go shopping or will sit back and watch a movie in their home, just as they would on other days, and all being things that observers of the halakhah would not do on Shabbat. Of course, this raises the question, what makes people such as this “serious about Shabbat”? The answer is that although some people are not able, for one reason or another, to spend Shabbat differently than other days, or they are not able to make it different enough, they do see God as the Creator of the world and they would like to recognize that. Kushner’s proposition to keep Shabbat in mind even while engaged in “whatever you do” offers liberal Jews a chance to have a connection to the Shabbat they would not otherwise have. 


Rabbis Rebecca T. Alpert and Jacob J. Staub, The Spirituality of Shabbat

Shabbat as a break to rejuvenate body and soul: For Alpert and Staub the context of Shabbat observance is the act of setting aside a day in which to rest, to stepping outside of the stress and demands of day-to-day living and finding time for relaxation with family and friends, a rejuvenation of body and soul. There is no mention here of Shabbat observance as a public theological statement, but rather as “budgeted, inviolable time” that allows for leisure time, for prayer, study, song, and food. Shabbat is a break that provides a welcome opportunity to connect with loved ones, as well as to reconnect with the divine “Source of Creation.” Observance of Shabbat can provide sacred moments or simply opportunities to enrich one’s life in other ways, through cultural events or even gardening.

For Alpert and Staub, since the objective is to create an atmosphere on Shabbat marked by its notably different pace than the rest of the week, it makes sense to state that “observing part of Shabbat is worthwhile in itself.” Given this approach to Shabbat, the idea of an incremental Shabbat observance is quite reasonable.

Shabbat is a day of connection: Further, as Shabbat is about finding “a window of connection – with our loved ones (whether they are still with us or not), with the Source of Creation,” or about recalling “what is most important in our lives” and “why life is worth living,” it is transformed into a day positioned to serve the one who observes it, more than being an act of serving God. 

Shabbat observance does not have to be all or nothing: Different from the previous text (R. Kushner), for whom halakhah is not a guidepost or a lighthouse but is something that exists apart from the official and formal Jewish life of the liberal Jew, for Alpert and Staub, Reconstructionist Jews, halakhah serves in exactly that capacity. For Kushner, as long as you keep Shabbat in mind, you are a Shabbat observer in his perspective, whether you are going to the office, to the museum, or working in the garden. For Alpert and Staub, “[we] do not frown upon such non-traditional modes of Shabbat rest as gardening or going to a museum,” but engaging in these practices is not the ideal way to spend Shabbat. “We do not demand of ourselves and one another that Shabbat observance be all or nothing.” Taking a closer stand to the traditional ways of observing Shabbat, Alpert and Staub seem to represent their religious views that see “Judaism as the evolving civilization of the Jewish people in an ongoing relationship with God,” “evolving” being a key word.


Video: Tiffany Shlain, Technology Shabbat

Shabbat as a day of unplugging: With the increased use of technology, many around the world, with no specific connection to Judaism or any other faith, have suggested that taking a day off from technology would be beneficial for all. This idea turned into a worldwide movement, with people everywhere celebrating the National Day of Unplugging. The frequency with which people unplug is not consistent, although some do it every week.

One may be inclined to take Shlain as an example of Kushner’s zokher Shabbat, as she refers to her and her family’s practice of unplugging for the duration of the day as a “technology Shabbat.” Keeping in mind the Shabbat as they engage in their various activities, and as they refrain from making use of certain devices, allows them to recall the Shabbat. At the same time, however, Shlain’s practice does not seem to be for the purpose of celebrating Shabbat, rather for the purpose of the health of her family. In that sense, then, it can be argued that she is actually more in line with the Reconstructionist Movement that focuses on Shabbat as a day to satisfy human needs.


Rabbi Sharon Brous, What This Rabbi Would Say to Those Struggling to Find Hope during the Pandemic (2020)

Reimagining Shabbat in the age of a Global Pandemic: Brous speaks of the importance of allowing oneself to be creative to reimagine how one observes Shabbat. For those not under the constraints of halakhah, there is more flexibility. And yet, Brous points out that this should be done without losing sight of what Shabbat is meant to be: an opportunity to press pause, to reflect, to imagine a better world; a day to sing, to connect with each other and with God.

Reflecting on many of the ideas in the texts in this and other blocks should remind one of the sanctity of the day, and that it is not based on a physical place, but on time itself. There may be different ways in which one chooses to sanctify time, but the centrality of taking a step back, reflecting, resting, rejuvenating, and “re-souling” (vayinafash) should not be lost. These are ideas that would benefit all of humanity during these times, and those who engage in a meaningful way with shabbat have a ready-made framework waiting for them.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

The following three Jews and the way they observe shabbat is based on a piece of writing by Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro (a North American reform rabbi and professor) entitled Three Jews – Three Models for Work and Rest on Shabbat (the complete piece can be found in the appendix here). Ask for three volunteers to read out each portrait, and then ask your class about what they think of the way these Jews observe shabbat. Ask them to evaluate (respectfully) how close to what they think is the original intention of shabbat. Explain that in this block they will encounter five thinkers who present a contemporary approach to shabbat observance that is somewhat different from a traditional Orthodox approach.

  • The Walker: Imagine a Jew who wants their weekly shabbat experience to be totally different from the rest of the week. Shabbat for them ought to be a “sanctified” day with an element of k’dushah (holiness). What is done on Shabbat should have the feeling of being holy because it is clearly different from what happens on a Wednesday or a Sunday. The Walker does not pursue his or her occupation on Shabbat. The walker is a Jew who makes the seventh day holy by choosing not to use the car and not to spend or even carry money on Shabbat. The walker puts aside these so-called necessities of modern life and uses Shabbat afternoon, in particular, as a time for taking walks, private reading, studying with a group of friends, picnicking, or any activity along these lines. What the walker does on Shabbat afternoon is a total change of pace from anything done on other days. It means doing something positive through thought, leisure, and friendship while it also involves choosing from among the various Shabbat abstentions in rabbinic literature to avoid what Jewish tradition has come to call “work” on Shabbat (such as not using money or a vehicle). The walker withdraws from the tools of civilization, acknowledging that the world is not our human creation. It functions by itself, and we leave it to do so on Shabbat in order to focus on ourselves instead of everything but ourselves, our values, and our goals.
  • The Museumgoer: Imagine now a second Jew who also stays away from business on Shabbat. Unlike the walker, however, this Jew will spend money and drive on Shabbat, although he or she limits the use of money or the automobile to certain activities that he or she feels are appropriate for the creation of a meaningful Shabbat. This Jew doesn’t drive to the mall in order to shop on Shabbat but will go to a museum. How does the museumgoer draw a distinction between spending money to enter the museum as opposed to purchasing a new lamp at the mall? The museumgoer would say that spending money on Shabbat is not the issue as much as it is how one spends money that matters. In this case, the museumgoer is approaching Shabbat as a day of freedom from necessity. As busy as he or she is all week long, the joy of Shabbat for the museumgoer lies in the fact that on Shabbat he or she doesn’t respond to the pressure of running errands. He or she doesn’t use Saturday’s free time in order to do what could be done on a longer lunch hour or a day off. For the museumgoer, Saturday afternoon becomes Shabbat when it is devoted to activities that are ends in themselves. And Saturday can feel even more like Shabbat when the activities in question involve family or friends for whom there is so little time during the rest of the week. The joy of Shabbat comes into play when, at least once a week, the museumgoer can spend time for its own sake with the people he or she cares about most.
  • The Painter: For the walker and the museumgoer, a pause is fundamental. Indeed, the Shabbat pause has to have a certain quality. Shabbat is not only a day to avoid business as usual. It is also a day to avoid leisure as usual, which means that whether they are talking, strolling, or swimming, both Jews see Shabbat as a time for truly letting go of the world-as-usual. They “put down the paintbrush” and rest on Shabbat by trying to interfere as little as possible with the equilibrium of the world as it exists when the sun sets on Friday. After six days of creating or contributing to the world, on the seventh day the walker and museumgoer try not to engage in the creative process at all. Imagine a third Jew, however, who does something very different when he or she puts down the figurative paintbrush of the workweek. Imagine that Jew walking away from the computer or setting aside planning for a conference and then literally picking up a paintbrush on Shabbat afternoon in order to create a work of art. For the painter, the Book of Deuteronomy would be teaching that Shabbat is best observed when it calls to mind the end of Egyptian slavery and the gift of freedom that came with it. Shabbat would, therefore, be a day on which we remember our ancestors’ liberation by allowing ourselves to feel liberated as well. What activities might liberate contemporary people whose days are filled with text messages, appointments, and errands? Painting might be just the antidote for that lifestyle because it involves such a totally different perspective on life. For that matter, any creative endeavor might also bring a breath of fresh air into our lives. It would be a Shabbat activity if it were an activity we didn’t pursue on the other days of the week. It would be appropriate to Shabbat afternoon if it helped us refocus ourselves after a week of errands or wage earning. For some Jews, finding an activity that liberated them from the mundane could be the essence of “rest” on Shabbat. It could allow their weekday minds and spirits to “rest” as hands and body came into play in ways that are impossible all through the week.

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

In the first source we encountered, R. Kushner shares his concern that the term in Hebrew for shabbat observance, being shomer shabbat, has connotations of a strict halakhic observation, which does not apply to many liberal Jews, who he says are also serious about shabbat observance. So instead he suggests using a parallel term found in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, zakhor (rather than shomer which comes from the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments). These questions may help your students explore his suggestions:

  • Why does R. Kushner say the phrase “shomer shabbat” does not really apply to liberal Jews and their relationship with shabbat?
  • Why is Zokher shabbat more appropriate?
  • In what ways can liberal Jews “zokher” shabbat?
  • How do you think someone who considers themselves “shomer shabbat” (via a halakhic observance of shabbat) would respond to this way of relating to shabbat?
  • How could someone who is only “zokher shabbat” respond?

What would someone who is both “shomer” and “zocher” shabbat say?

In the second source we find a Reconstructionist approach to shabbat observance best summarized as “Incremental Shabbat Observance”. That is that the central focus of shabbat is rest and cessation of the fast paced intense lives we lead during the rest of the week. This does not have to take an “all-or-nothing” approach that full halakhic observance demands, but rather this rest can be achieved on your own terms, including non-conventional shabbat activities such as gardening or going to a museum, as long as the larger themes of shabbat are firmly kept in mind (such as connecting to creation, family, and meaning in life). These questions may help your students understand this idea:

  • What is the most important theme of shabbat according to these Reconstructionist rabbis?
  • How can this approach broaden one’s observance of Shabbat?
  • What is the difference between their approach and an Orthodox halakhic approach?
  • What activities can you think of that are ways to experience the core themes of Shabbat?

The next source, the video created by and featuring Tiffany Shlain, presents shabbat as a digital detox, a 24 hour hour screen-free zone, creating a different pace of life for a short period, allowing reconnecting to family, nature, and self. The following questions may help your students connect to the ideas contained in the video

  • Do you feel too anchored to screens and digital devices?
  • How do you regulate this in your life?
  • Does this approach to shabbat, as a digital detox once a week, resonate with you?
  • Does this remind you of any of the other approaches you have seen in this block?
  • Does this approach to shabbat say what you should actually do on shabbat?

The final source explores how the challenges of a global pandemic can help us understand how shabbat can focus us on the important values in life. Although this source is written in a specific time with specific challenges being faced, the ideas from shabbat beautifully expressed here are timeless. The following sources may help your students connect to them:

  • What challenges to our shabbat observance have come from the pandemic?
  • How can we be creative and reimagine our shabbat observance during times like this?
  • What themes of shabbat can help us navigate the pandemic with hope and positivity?


Have your students keep a journal of their shabbat observance/experiences, on five consecutive shabbats. 

    • For each one, ask them to try and connect to the themes of shabbat presented in each of the sources they have looked at in this block, one source for each of the five shabbats. Ask them to find ways to connect to the themes during their shabbat and then journal about it afterwards.
    • You could also ask them to do this for a sixth shabbat, and ask them to approach shabbat from a more Orthodox/halakhic observance and journal about that.
    • A shorter version of this activity/assignment would be to find as many of the themes from these sources in one shabbat (this could be especially powerful if the shabbat was a school shabbaton spent together as a class).
    • A student who feels they cannot do this assignment because they observe a halachically Orthodox shabbat every week, can be asked to journal if and when the themes from these sources can still be experienced during a halachic shabbat.