Shabbat and the Exodus

In this block we will consider the connections between Shabbat and the Exodus.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Devarim 5:12-15

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work,

but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

שָׁמ֛֣וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַּׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖֣ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽ֗יךָ׃

שֵׁ֤֣שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים֙ תַּֽעֲבֹ֔ד֮ וְעָשִׂ֖֣יתָ כׇּֿל־מְלַאכְתֶּֽךָ֒׃

וְי֨וֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔֜י שַׁבָּ֖֣ת ׀ לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑֗יךָ לֹ֣א תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כׇל־מְלָאכָ֡ה אַתָּ֣ה וּבִנְךָֽ־וּבִתֶּ֣ךָ וְעַבְדְּךָֽ־וַ֠אֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ֨ מֹֽרְךָ֜ וְכׇל־בְּהֶמְתֶּ֗ךָ וְגֵֽרְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן יָנ֛וּחַ עַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ כָּמֽ֑וֹךָ׃

וְזָכַרְתָּ֗֞ כִּ֣י־עֶ֤֥בֶד הָיִ֣֙יתָ֙ ׀ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔֗יִם וַיֹּצִ֨אֲךָ֜֩ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֤֙יךָ֙ מִשָּׁ֔ם֙ בְּיָ֥֤ד חֲזָקָ֖ה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֑֔ה עַל־כֵּ֗ן צִוְּךָ֙ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת׃

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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?
  • What are the factors that move individuals / communities / nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequences?
  • How do Jewish cycles shape our lives?
  • What makes time holy?
  • Why are holidays, rituals, and 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?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • Why is a link made between the Exodus and shabbat?
  • What wider values and messages are inherent in Shabbat observance? 
  • What does it mean to sanctify time and how do we do it?
  • How can observing shabbat help us improve society?
  • What relevant and contemporary ideas are contained in the ancient practice of Shabbat observance?

Background for Teacher

Devarim 5:12-15 Two Versions of the Ten Commandments: The Ten Commandments feature twice in the Torah. The first in the Book of Shemot, during the narrative describing the Exodus, and the second is a reiteration in the Book of Devarim. In the block on...

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Devarim 5:12-15

Two Versions of the Ten Commandments: The Ten Commandments feature twice in the Torah. The first in the Book of Shemot, during the narrative describing the Exodus, and the second is a reiteration in the Book of Devarim. In the block on Shabbat and Creation we examine shabbat in the Ten Commandments found in the Book of Shemot, and this text is taken from the Ten Commandments reiterated in the book of Devarim. The two texts are very similar, as one would expect them to be, but but the Devarim text comes to stress other elements.

A day of rest from work is a human right: The Devarim text offers a different perspective on the meaning of Shabbat. This text understands that not everyone has the personal liberty to choose when to work and when to take a break. The idea of telling the Israelites that they need to take one day off from their usual labors is to allow the Israelites’ employees to have a needed period of rest. It is very easy for some to think that when Shabbat comes, they will take the day off for their own purposes, but their employees will continue working. The Devarim text comes to say “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.” Shabbat is for all in the society, not just for the business executives and for the landowners. Thus, Shabbat here serves a humane and humanitarian purpose.

Shabbat is a utopia of equality: The idea that Shabbat is not just for “you,” but also for all those that surround “you,” is an idea bolstered in this text which reminds the Israelites of their time as slaves in Egypt. There, Moshe requested for them time off to go and worship God for a holiday (Shemot 3:18), but Pharaoh informed them that their time is not their own, and he would not be allowing them to go (Shemot 5:4). Pharaoh had all the time in the world to do with as he pleased, but he would not let those working for him to have the same freedom. By linking Shabbat with the Exodus from Egypt, the verse stresses a point made by the Shemot text: that Shabbat is not just for “you,” but is also for “your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements.” Not everyone is able to tend to their spirit, as Shemot would have it, but everyone needs time to rest and recuperate, and so Devarim speaks of the idea of “rest.”


Rachel Elior, The Holiness of Time and the Sanctification of Freedom (2001)

The number seven sanctifies freedom: Elior speaks of the preference for rest and freedom being sanctified and being held in higher regard at various moments in Jewish life. What these moments have in common is the number seven (7). The moments are marked by 

  • days, every seven days is Shabbat;
  • weeks, following a period of seven weeks is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals, viz. Shavuot
  • years, with the shemittah year occurring every seven years; and 
  • years of years, referring to the 49 years leading up to the yovel (Jubilee).

These patterns of sevens all bring home the message of the sanctity of freedom.

Elior proposes that the concept of Shabbat developed in a world where the time of so many, including that of the Jews, was limited due to their being enslaved. It was the direct experience of slavery that gave the Jewish community the appreciation that the Torah manifests for freedom.


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Building a Society of Freedom

Shabbat is a weekly rehearsal of messianic times: Building on the previous source which demonstrates how Judaism uses cycles of seven to sanctify freedom in time, Rabbi Sacks here gives further depth to our understanding of how shabbat achieves this. Through a weekly suspension of hierarchies of wealth and power, all Jews come together as a community of free and equal humans in the eyes of God. This is a direct theme of the Exodus, and  explains why the Torah makes a connection between this historical event and Shabbat. We learn in Exodus that slavery should never be a permanent state. Instead, the Shabbat offers a pause from the hierarchical structures of society, allowing all people to be free to serve God. According to Rabbi Sacks, the ultimate endgame is that  no human should be a slave to another human. Humans should only be servants to their Creator. Parallel to this, shabbat teaches us that no human (or animal for that matter) can be forced to work without respite or rest. 

There have been many failed revolutions that have tried to bring about a utopia for humanity, but instead have led to cruelty, bloodshed and injustice. Judaism offers a different model. A weekly rehearsal of the utopia that will be messianic times, a world of peace where all are equal in dignity and rights.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Use the familiar Pesach song of Dayenu to make a link between the Exodus and Shabbat:

  • Explore Dayenu by reading together, or singing together (check out this classic karaoke version), or watching someone else sing.
  • Discuss with your students the general themes, (gratitude, the complexity of the necessary stages of the story, God’ s role in the redemption, etc.) 
  • Then specifically ask your students to focus on the appearance of Shabbat in the song – why does the author of the haggada mentioned shabbat (the only mitzvah mentioned as a “gift” from God in this narrative). 
  • Then ask them to consider if there are any obvious links between the themes of the Exodus and shabbat? Explain that this is the subject of this block.


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

As opposed to the version of the Ten Commandments in Shemot which tells us to keep shabbat because God rested from creating the world, this version in Devarim tells us to observe shabbat because of our national experience of slavery in Egypt. These questions may help you to unpack this connection with your students:

  • Why do you think the Torah makes a connection between being slaves and keeping shabbat?
  • How is shabbat the opposite of slavery?
  • What would you say to someone who claims being forced to observe shabbat is just another form of slavery?
  • Why does the Torah list all the people around you that must also rest on shabbat? Isn’t shabbat a personal day of rest for the individual?

The second text highlights several cycles of seven, each representing a dimension in time that we are commanded to sanctify. These questions may help you to explore this with your students:

  • How many sets of sevens are mentioned in this text?
  • What do they all represent?
  • What do these cycles of times all have in common?
  • What then would you say seven represents in Judaism?
  • How does shabbat represent “freedom”?

In the final text shabbat is presented as a weekly experience of what society could be: equal rights and dignity for all in the community. The opposite of slavery. These questions may be useful for you to consider this idea with your students:

  • What is a hierarchy of wealth?
  • What does it have to do with slavery?
  • How does shabbat suspend it?
  • Why do you think no one had thought of creating a day of rest before the Torah gave this idea to the world?
  • What is a ‘utopia’? Is shabbat a utopia?
  • How can shabbat help us achieve a society that is closer to utopian?
  • The themes explored in this block, how shabbat represents the antithesis of slavery, and therefore connected to the story of the Exodus, may be hard for your students to fully relate to. Which of us can say that we understand what slavery and lacking in freedom really feels like? However, there are other forms of slavery (for which shabbat can also serve as an antidote of some sort) that are closer to home, such as addiction (to substances, smartphone use, or social media, etc.). Use this video (until 3:20) of the hasidic rabbi and world renown American psychiatrist Abraham J. Twerski where he tells the story of a recovering addict at his father’s seder night, who described his deeper identification with the slavery of the Exodus story because of his experience of addiction (the story is also found here in written form). 
  • Ask your students to consider why he felt this way? What are the similarities between substance addiction and physical slavery?
  • Ask your students to identify something in their life they are “addicted” to (or assume they all have a dependence on cell phone use and focus on this only). Ask them to keep a journal for a week documenting how many hours each day they spend on the addiction, and how difficult it was to reduce their usage.
  • When you’re together again as a class, ask for volunteers to share their experience, and discuss how shabbat could be an antidote.