Shabbat as a Taster of the World to Come (the afterlife)

In this block we will look at three sources that compare the experience of observing shabbat to the World to Come (the afterlife).

Resource Ages: 15-18


Midrash Otiyot DeRabbi Akiva

Midrashic exposition of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

When God said to the Israelites, “I am giving you the Torah,” [God also] asked, “Will you observe the commandments whereby which I grant you the World to Come?”

The Israelites replied, “O Master of the world, show us an example of the World to Come in this world.”

God said, “That’s Shabbat which is one sixtieth of the World to Come . . .”

אַלְפָא בֵּיתָא דְּרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא

[בְּשָׁעָה] שֶׁאָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי נוֹתֵן לָכֶם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה אָמַר הַאִם מְקַיְּמִים אַתֶּם

אֶת הַמִּצְוָה שֶׁבָּהּ אֲנִי מַנְחִיל לָכֶם אֶת הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

וְיִשְׂרָאֵל הָיוּ מְשִׁיבִין וְאוֹמְרִים לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם הַרְאֵנוּ דֻּגְמָא שֶׁל עוֹלָם הַבָּא בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶהּ

אָמַר לָהֶם זוֹ שַׁבָּת שֶׁהִיא אַחַת מִשִּׁשִּׁים מִשֶּׁל עוֹלָם הַבָּא. . .

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can my actions make time sacred?
  • 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 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 would we define a utopian society?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is your conception of the “World to Come”?
  • What do you think it means that shabbat is 1/60 or a taster of the World to Come?
  • How can shabbat observance impact our lives during the rest of the week?
  • How can shabbat be an experience of a utopian world?
  • Why do some thinkers see shabbat as a day of freedom? Do you see it this way (or as a day of restrictions)?

Background for Teacher

Midrash Otiyot DeRabbi Akiva Shabbat as a mitzvah and shabbat as an experience: It is clear that the Midrash seeks to encourage the observance of the mitzvot by citing God’s promise to the Israelites to reward them in the World to Come for their...

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Midrash Otiyot DeRabbi Akiva

Shabbat as a mitzvah and shabbat as an experience: It is clear that the Midrash seeks to encourage the observance of the mitzvot by citing God’s promise to the Israelites to reward them in the World to Come for their fulfillment. As the Shabbat is itself one of the commandments, God is here guaranteeing reward for those that observe the commandments, including Shabbat.

But there is something else happening in this Midrash too. In this Midrash, Shabbat is used in two senses, one sense that is implied and one sense that is overt. In the first sense, Shabbat is one of the “commandments,” one of the mitzvot, whose fulfillment yields the reward of the World to Come. But Shabbat is also used in another sense. When Shabbat is mentioned overtly in this Midrash, the Midrash is no longer referring to the mitzvah of Shabbat, but is now referring to the experience of Shabbat, the experience resulting from doing the mitzvah of Shabbat. Keeping the Shabbat generates a certain type of experience, one that is a fraction of the experience of the World to Come. In effect, the Midrash is arguing that the observance of Shabbat becomes its own reward, and this reward is enjoyed now, not in some future time. And thus, there is an experience of “the World to Come in this world.”

Shabbat is a hint of the World to Come: When the Midrash (and the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 57b) states that the Shabbat experience is 1/60 of the World to Come, it means that Shabbat offers a person a slight hint of what the World to Come would be like. However, it is the assumption of the Rabbis that experiencing Shabbat is one of the greatest pleasures of this world. And if Shabbat feels so great, one can barely imagine what the World to Come would be like.

The rewards for mitzvot are there for the taking: Setting this teaching up as a dialogue between God and the Israelites adds an element of “choice” to the observance of the Mitzvot. In other words, one might suggest that the Midrash wants to make it clear that the opportunity has been provided, the Torah has been given, and the rewards are in place, but nonetheless, it is recognized that one must still make the effort. Unlike another famous aggadah (Tractate Shabbat 88a) that speaks of the Israelites being coerced into accepting the Torah, this Midrash suggests that the choice was, is, and forever will be in the hands of the Jewish people, with reward waiting for those who so choose.


Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Dream and How to Live It: Shabbat

Shabbat keeps the dream of a perfect world alive: Echoing Achad HaAm’s sentiment that the Shabbat “kept the Jews,” (see resource: Shabbat is the heart of Jewish life) Greenberg suggests that throughout the challenges of persecution and oppression, Jews have been able to keep their mission and dream alive drawing strength from the Shabbat—a foretaste of the World to Come.

This text gives contemporary expression to the idea of Shabbat being a taste of the World to Come. For Greenberg, life in the World to Come is parallel to the experience of the first humans in the Garden of Eden long ago – a “paradise,” an existence that does not exist in the here and now. Greenberg believes that one of the purposes of Shabbat is to be a day in which one can sense what the world would have looked like if God’s initial plan, as reflected in the life of the Garden of Eden, would be in place. At the same time, Shabbat is also a means to provide people with a chance to feel what the world could yet be. In providing the people with a taste of this wonderful life, the people become motivated to work to make the dreams of such a tranquil existence come about.

The importance of community: It is clear from the Torah that living the life that it envisions entails living in community. A review of all the commandments included in the Torah reveals that no one individual is able to fulfill them all. It is also clear that the Torah envisions the Israelites living this life in one geographic area in which they have sovereignty. What is new about Greenberg’s perspective on the link between Shabbat and community is the reason one needs community. As he states, “as this enclave of perfection,” meaning Shabbat, “is carved out in the realm of time,” observing it one day a week, “the world goes on as usual in the realm of surrounding space,” as the rest of the world goes on with their day doing much of what they would normally be doing on other days. “This is why Shabbat needs a community in order to be credible. By an act of will, the community creates this sacred time and space, and agrees to live by its rules,” allowing the individual to actually feel Shabbat not only in their own home, but also in their neighborhood and environs. Shabbat is not just to be observed for Greenberg, it is to be experienced. 


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Shabbat is the antidote to materialism: Heschel utters that “[six] days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul,” what one can see as an effort to bolster the spirit and keep it from the materialism. Heschel sees Shabbat as “a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time.”

Building a Palace in Time: Heschel’s notion of Shabbat being a “palace in time” is an image often drawn upon by other modern thinkers. This idea most likely influenced Greenberg in describing Shabbat as an “enclave of perfection . . . carved out in the realm of time.” Heschel’s concern that the industrialized Western world had lost the sense for wonder and the sacred led him to create the term “palace in time.” For a society that was constantly occupied with building in space, Shabbat was an antidote – instead of building yet another palace, one should build a nonphysical palace, whose architecture is a combination of elements of refrain (things one does not do on that day) and of joyful activities one does especially on this day. In this “palace in time,” all could live as if kings for a day, with no concern for daily chores, sustenance, or the need to get anything done. A day completely dedicated to the enjoyment of holiness, God, community, and family.

Perhaps one of the most central ideas Heschel conveys is that Shabbat is not merely a day in which one can rest in order to regain energy for the coming week, as if it is a day off from the important activities that occupy a person at other times. For Heschel, Shabbat is “not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” His approach may be paralleled by the kabbalistic thinking that sees Shabbat as the middle of the week, three days preceding and three days following it. 

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Guided Fantasy Exercise on shabbat:

    • Ask your students to close their eyes and rest their heads on the desk/arms
    • Take your students on a guided fantasy to a utopian place where the world is perfect (you may need to spend some time explaining/discussing what utopia means and what it could look like). You may find these websites helpful to master the guided imagery technique: 
    • While your students are in their ‘utopian world’ ask them to look around and notice what it is that makes it utopian and perfect. Ask them to pay particular attention to the people there. What are they doing and how are they behaving? Ask them to take a souvenir from there that can fit into their pocket.
    • Bring your students back to your classroom from the utopia, and ask them to share what they saw and what their souvenir was (and why it represents the utopia they visited)
    • Explain to them that in this unit they will be looking at three sources that compare the experience of observing shabbat to a utopia, and it will be interesting to connect shabbat to their experience of utopia.

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

This midrashic source is one of several that make a direct connection between the World to Come (this could be heaven or messianic times) and the experience of observing shabbat. the following questions could be used to explore this idea with your students:

  • What does the term ‘World to Come’ mean to you?
  • What do you imagine the World to Come is like?
  • What aspects of shabbat observance do you think is similar to this?
  • What do you think the significance of the fraction 1/60th is to the Rabbis?
  • What message does it therefore contain for us?

Rabbi Greenberg reminds us that this world was in a perfect state while Adam and Eve resided in the Garden of Eden, but as a punishment for their sin this paradise was lost. It is the mission of humanity to recreate this paradise in this world, and shabbat gives us hope that we can achieve this because shabbat is a small taster of what paradise was and could be. These questions help explore these themes:

  • What does the word paradise mean to you?
  • What do you think the Garden of Eden was like and why was it described as paradise?
  • How could we create a paradise in this world? What would we need to do?
  • What aspects of shabbat observance is like the paradise of the Garden of Eden or of the future redeemed world?
  • According to Rabbi Greenberg, what important function does shabbat play for us in our continued journey towards creating a paradise in this world?

Rabbi Heschel coined his famous phrase ‘a palace in time’ when describing shabbat. A day when we cease from all the struggles that are involved in physical life and concentrate on the spirit and on our connection to the Divine. These questions ay help explore his poetic description of shabbat:

  • How does Rabbi Heschel describe the six weekdays and our activities during that time?
  • Does that resonate with you in your life?
  • Why do you think we need a mandated break from this?
  • How do we construct a ‘palace in time’ through observing shabbat?
  • How does Rabbi Heschel’s perception of shabbat as a ‘Palace in Time’ compare to the ideas in the  two previous sources we have seen in this unit?
  • The best way for your students to understand the ideas contained in this unit is to experience shabbat observance and then circle back to the sources and write an assignment or journal on how it compared to the description of shabbat in these sources. You could arrange a shabbaton for your class, or arrange shabbat home hospitality to give your students a shabbat experience (obviously the more control of the programming over shabbat the more you can ensure they have a spiritual experience that will help these sources resonate with them).
  • A second (less powerful/experiential) option could be to invite a panel of shabbat observers from your community to visit your classroom and describe what shabbat means to them. (This could also be part of the shabbaton programming)