The How of Shabbat

In this house the “how of shabbat observance” will be explored in all its complexity and diversity among the Jewish people today.

Unit Ages: 15-18 | 4 lessons


This House will look at the elaborate system of religious law governing Shabbat observance put in place by the Rabbis, a system that includes both proscribed and prescribed behavior. First some of the elements of the traditional observance of Shabbat observance, will be outlined, focusing on its major themes. Then we will shift to present-day texts that describe varied contemporary approaches to Shabbat observance.

Desired Outcomes

Big Ideas
  • It’s a mistake to understand shabbat only through its restrictions; what really brings it alive are the things we do.
  • Our actions impact the space and time of shabbat.
  • Stepping back from creation is itself a way of impacting the space and time of shabbat.
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?
  • Biblical sources for Shabbat observance
  • The rabbinic sources for the restrictions of shabbat observance (negative commandments)
  • The active elements of shabbat observance (positive commandments) and the link between these active mitzvot and the philosophical themes of shabbat
  • How “rest” is a meta-theme of shabbat and how it is enshrined in Jewish law in order to protect that “spirit of shabbat”
  • Various contemporary approaches to shabbat observance and how they creatively engage in the  philosophical themes of shabbat
  • Students will be able to analyze biblical and talmudic texts in order to ascertain the ancient source for the Jewish practice of shabbat.
  • Students will be able to theorize the connection between the mitzvot of shabbat observance (including the negative and positive aspects of Shabbat observance) and the philosophical underpinning of shabbat as an institution
  • Students will be able to think creative about contemporary approaches for shabbat and their possible resonance for their own practice of shabbat observance

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: 

Shabbat Brainstorm (note this is the same unit opener for the House “The ‘Why’ of shabbat” – this unit opener could be used as a way to begin both of these parallel complementary houses):

  • Write the word SHABBAT on the board and have your students write the first thing that comes to their mind. Or using an online website such as, create a word cloud from their initial thoughts/responses to the question “what comes to mind when you think of shabbat?”
  • Show this video which differentiates between the “why” and “how” of shabbat observance.
  • Discuss your students’ responses to the first activity (before the video). Were the responses focused on the “why” or “how” of shabbat observance? Were they focused on the restrictions or beauty of shabbat observance?
  • Explain that this House will explore the sources for the “how” of shabbat (there is another House that considers the “why” of shabbat observance that you may be looking at at another time) as well as some creative contemporary approaches that take an alternative approach to traditional Judaism to arrive at the same themes and experiences of shabbat observance. 

Content Study: 

Each of the five lessons in this House stands alone, and can be taught independently.

Unit Closing/ Assessment: 

As a class, create a project on the “How” of shabbat observance. Divide your students into four groups, each taking one of the following four “orders” of the 39 melachot (this is how the rabbis divided the 39 categories of work, showing how these categories were used to create or run the Tabernacle service)::

Each group needs to explain (in oral presentation with visual aids or in written form) the list of forbidden activities, and take 3-5 examples and demonstrate how these are found in our modern day lives.
They must then plan to incorporate these examples into their shabbat observance on a particular shabbat, and journal before (about their plans and feelings about how this will impact their shabbat observance) and after the shabbat (where they will reflect on the experience). These journal entries should become part of the presentation they make before the class.
In addition they must also add a section to their project on how the positive aspects of shabbat, such as kavod or oneg, can be fulfilled in contemporary times (either through traditional halakhic means, or in other ways found in non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.)