Soul-Searching – Cheshbon Nefesh

A unit approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which focuses on the subject of cheshbon nefesh - examination of ourselves and, when necessary, our deeds and regret over them.

Unit Ages: 9-11, 12-14 | 4-6 lessons


One of the central themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the importance of every person to do a personal accounting of their actions over rhe past year, to do cheshbon nefesh – soul-searching. This process begins a month before Rosh Hashana – at the beginning of the month of Elul. If a person finds that he or she has hurt someone they must apologize to them and change their ways for the better (to do tshuva). This self- examination will hopefully lead them to making changes they wish to make towards the future.

Desired Outcomes

Big Ideas

Holiday rituals and customs encourage and foster personal growth

Essential Questions
  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?
  • How can I be the best “me” this year? In class, at home, on the virtual “playgrounds” of life?
  • Students will learn the background of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana
  • Students will know the names of the shofar sounds (tekiah, shevarim, teruah).
  • Students will be able to say the blessing recited over hearing the shofar.
  • Students will understand that the shofar is a symbol of “awakening”.
  • Students will understand characteristics of the month of tishrei which encourage personal contemplation and teshuva – repentance.
  • Students will be able to relate personal reflections to the Jewish themes of the Tishrei period
  • Students will be able to utilize Tishrei motifs to frame their own reflections.
  • Students will be able to identify the names of the different shofar sounds.
  • Students will be able to identify at least one area in which they would like to do teshuva, and make a change.
  • Students will be able to connect between their understandings about cheshbon nefesh and works of art or literature which touch on the subject.

Assessment Evidence

What evidence will students provide to demonstrate that they:
Know the knowledge; Can do the skills; Can respond thoughtfully to the EQs and BIs

Teacher creates authentic assessments before beginning the unit

Learning Experiences

Possible Unit Plan

Possible unit opener:

Bring an alarm clock to class and have it go off. Alternatively, bring a shofar and an alarm clock to class. Ask the students to consider the metaphor of shofar as an alarm clock. Record and share the  students’ ideas.

Content Study: 

  • Explore Maimonides’ text and use it to encourage learners to do their own cheshbon nefesh.
  • Teach the basics about the shofar and its sounds.
  • Make connections between two or three pieces of art (for example, Rodin’s The Thinker, O. Henry’s story A Retrieved Reformation, Portia Nelson’s I Walk Down the Street) and Maimonides’ ideas 
  • Suggest a creative writing exercise on the subject of cheshbon nefesh  inspired by these texts: ask students to write a new ending to O. Henry’s  story, to write a new stanza to Portia Nelson’s poem,  or to write their own poem or short story in the spirit of Maimonides’ ideas 

Unit closing/assessment: 

Ask the students to respond to the unit’s essential questions using the insights they have gained from their learning. 

  • For example, after doing your own cheshbon nefesh, write down three small steps that you can take in the next period of time to make the improvements you would like to see.
  • Suggest occasions when blowing the shofar might act as a wake up call during the year – when would it be important to you to pause and take stock, to do cheshbon nefesh? What might ‘wake you up’ to such opportunities?