The Spirit of Shabbat

In this block we will explore the overall theme of “rest” on shabbat as a way to maintain the spirit of shabbat.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Hoshea 2:13

And I will end all her rejoicing:

Her festivals, new moons, and sabbaths—

All her festive seasons.

וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי כָּל מְשׂוֹשָׂהּ חַגָּהּ חָדְשָׁהּ וְשַׁבַּתָּהּ וְכֹל מוֹעֲדָהּ.

Yeshayah 58:13–14

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,

from pursuing your affairs on My holy day;

If you call the sabbath “delight,”

The LORD’s holy day “honored”;

And if you honor it and go not your ways

nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains—

14 Then you can delight in the LORD.

I will set you astride the heights of the earth,

and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob—

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

יג אִם תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶיךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג לִקְדוֹשׁ ה’ מְכֻבָּד וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ

מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר. 

יד אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל ה’ וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ עַל בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ כִּי פִּי ה’ דִּבֵּר.

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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 should the spirit of shabbat be?
  • How does the halacha try to protect this?
  • Do these laws resonate with you in your shabbat observance?
  • Do you have any things you do on shabbat to maintain the spirit of the day that are different from the ones suggested here?
  • Can you think of any new creative ideas of things one can do or refrain from doing to maintain the spirit of shabbat?

Background for Teacher

Hoshea 2:13 and Yeshayah 58:13–14 The added dimension to shabbat observance – celebration and delight: The Torah texts that speak of Shabbat, twelve in all, present Shabbat as a day upon which there are a number of things that ought not to be done....

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Hoshea 2:13 and Yeshayah 58:13–14

The added dimension to shabbat observance – celebration and delight: The Torah texts that speak of Shabbat, twelve in all, present Shabbat as a day upon which there are a number of things that ought not to be done. However, from the prophetic writings incorporated into the Tanakh, another image of the Shabbat arises – one of Shabbat being a festive and happy day, a day that should be a “delight”.

Using the parable of an unfaithful wife, Hoshea depicts the consequences for unfaithfulness to God. Hoshea indicates that God will take away any rejoicing from the Israelites should they fail in obeying God’s laws. Among the occasions in which the people rejoice, Shabbat is listed. From this, one can derive that at the time Hoshea was written, Shabbat was observed as a festive day. While Hoshea does not provide detail on how Shabbat was observed, Yeshayah mentions a number of things that are meant to enhance the spirit of Shabbat. However, reading Yeshayah alone in conjunction with the other biblical texts would lead to understanding Yeshayah as stressing only that which should not be done on Shabbat. In his words, “you refrain from trampling the sabbath” and “from pursuing your affairs on My holy day,” Yeshayah indicates the abstaining from regular activity allows one to enter the restful state and achieve the “delight” of Shabbat. Even the positive and active sounding “if you honor it” is qualified by the verse – “and go not your ways, nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains.” Taken together with the Hoshea text, though, allows one to see Yeshayah as telling the people not to do something so that their time is freed to be able to do something else, to make the day not just one of rest, but one that is festive. 

The idea that the Shabbat is meant to be a day for joyous activity and not just rest was fully brought out only by the Rabbis in their interpretations of the verses.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Peninei Halakha, Shabbat 22:1 – The Spirit of Shabbat

The meta-category of shabbat observance – Shabbat rest: Rabbi Melamed is a world renown halachist, and this is his magnum opus – where he codifies the Jewish law and gives his rulings on all matters of Jewish law. In this section, on shabbat, he writes about the complex area of the “spirit of shabbat”. While there are clear laws of what can and cannot be done on shabbat (based on the 39 categories of work seen in the block “shamor – the do nots of shabbat observance”) there is a meta-category of shabbat observance, based on the somewhat subjective concept of “rest” that is harder to legislate because of its subjective nature. In this section he attempts to define what it is and advise how it can be achieved.

Activities that are uvda decho (related to the rest of the week): He brings several examples of activities that according to the strict sense of the law (based on the 39 categories of work) should be permitted, however they are rabbinically prohibited because they compromise on the command to “rest”. These include opening a place of business (assuming no business transactions take place – there are ways to arrange for this with payment made after shabbat based on a trust system), heavy lifting and exertion, preparation for the rest of the week, and the moving of objects that are not needed on shabbat (muktza). Not all of these involve physical exertion or activities connected to the workweek. But they do have one thing in common – they are mundane activities done only during the rest of the week (uvda dechol) and therefore should not be done on shabbat. They compromise on the concept of “shabbat rest”.


Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, A Spiritual Shabbat Orientation

The spirit of shabbat – soulfulness: Rabbi Strassfeld comes from the reconstructionist tradition of Judaism, which does not necessarily take a halachic approach to ritual Judaism. However, he presents what Rabbi Melamed would consider to be a meta-category of shabbat observance – the spirit of shabbat (shabbat rest in the language of Rabbi Melamed, and soulfulness in his words), and gives several practical and concrete examples of ways to maintain the spirit of the day. These are to slow the day down (compared to the hectic fast-paced week), make it different from the mundane workweek, and enjoy the physical aspects of the day. These are categories we found in traditional halachic literature and approaches to shabbat, and Rabbi Strassfeld brings us a modern take on them.

The extra soul (neshama Yateira): Soulfulness, an idea found in other traditions and explored in many contemporary systems of spirituality, is Rabbi Strassfeld’s take on the idea of the spirit of shabbat, and the kabbalastic concept of neshama yateira – that is that every Jew receives an extra soul when shabbat commences, allowing them to experience reality in a more intense spiritual way during the 25 hours of shabbat. This soulfulness is not achieved through denying the physical (asceticism), but rather through a physical enjoyment of the day – for example through clothing, food, and sexual intimacy.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • Ask your students to write on a piece of paper to describe what their ideal “day of rest” would look like (this could also be done visually through art rather than words). Have some volunteers share theirs with the class, and conduct a brief discussion of what “rest” looks like, whether their definition is similar at all to the halachic definition, and whether there are any grey areas that need clarifying.

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

The first two biblical sources are the source for three concepts that the rabbis legislated as part of shabbat observance generations later (interesting to note these come from the prophets rather than the Torah which is the usual source for Jewish laws, perhaps because these are more abstract ideas on how to observe shabbat rather than legalistic ones). These are the festive/celebratory nature of shabbat observance, that shabbat should be “honoured”, and that shabbat should be a “delight” for those who observe her laws. These questions may help explore these ideas:

  • How do we learn from this first text that shabbat should be rejoiced in?
  • Why might we think otherwise?
  • How might shabbat be a delight for those who observe its laws?
  • What does it mean to honour shabbat? 
  • How can we do that?

For Rabbi Melamed, all of the laws of shabbat (based on the 39 categories of work) are designed to lead to a “spirit of shabbat”. However, this spirit is not always achieved by adherence to these laws alone, and therefore needs a meta category of shabbat observance the rabbis call “rest”. They encourage this by outlawing the practice of things we do during the week (uvda dechol). These questions will help your students explore this idea:

  • Why did the rabbis need to add the category of “rest” on top of the other 39 categories of work already prohibited?
  • How did they encourage “rest” on shabbat?
  • Why do you think the rabbis need to define rest for us? Why can’t we define it for ourselves?
  • Why were the rabbis concerned to prohibit activities that were from the workweek (even if they were not considered under the 39 categories of work)?

Rabbi Stressfeld gives three recommendations to achieve a soulfulness that he believes is the spirit of shabbat. These are to slow down, make shabbat different, and make sure it is a day of enjoyment. These questions may help your students consider his approach:

  • What does soulfulness mean to you?
  • Why is this an important part of shabbat?
  • How does this thinker suggest it can be achieved on shabbat?
  • How does this compare to the previous approach you considered?
  • Do the examples he gives of ways to achieve these things resonate with you?
  • Can you think of any other ways you could achieve these or a soulfulness on shabbat?


  • Sanhedrin Rule on the Spirit of Shabbat: Having seen the sources in this block, your students are now in a position to debate what the spirit of shabbat is. Using the six scenarios described below, hold a class debate on this question – what is the spirit of shabbat and how in each of these cases do the people balance the spirit and law of shabbat?
  • This can be done by creating a sanhedrin (Great Rabbinic Court) to decide between the scenarios. 
    • Divide your students into seven groups:
      • Case study 1
      • Case study 2
      • Case study 3
      • Case study 4
      • Case study 5
      • Case study 6
      • Sanhedrin (must be an odd number, can be a smaller group)
    • Give each of the groups their case study (see below) and give them five minutes to provide an argument defending this approach to shabbat.
    • Give the sanhedrin  a minute after each presentation to ask questions/receive responses
    • Give the Sanhedrin 5 minutes to deliberate and decide which of the six they think best personifies the spirit of shabbat. (Note that only three of the case studies – 2, 4, and 6 – are halachicly unacceptable according to traditional halachic categories).
      • Case study 1-
        Person A runs a catering business. S/he works most shabbatot catering shabbat meals and events. She arranges with her clients to be paid only for the work she does before and after shabbat, so that halacha is not compromised.
      • Case study 2-
        Person B lives far from their family and so spends much of shabbat each week reconnecting and catching up  with them via video conferencing and phone calls.
      • Case study 3-
        Person C spends every shabbat relaxing on the beach with their family enjoying nature and good family time.
      • Case study 4-
        Person D is an avid athlete and gains much pleasure from working out. Shabbat is the only day of the week they have the time for a long run and enough time to visit the gym. For Person D, this is an almost religious experience, and certainly gives them much pleasure.
      • Case study 5-
        Person E is a rabbi and works very hard every shabbat in their shul, connecting to their congregants, delivering the sermon and Torah classes, and entertaining members of the community at their home for shabbat meals.
      • Case study 6-
        Person F goes to synagogue every shabbat, and has family meals together. In the afternoon, they drive to visit their housebound relative who would otherwise be on their own for the whole of shabbat.