The Why of Shabbat

What are the philosophical underpinnings of Shabbat observance that make it a critical area of religious observance throughout history? In this house this will be explored through the eyes of several contemporary Jewish thinkers.

Unit Ages: 15-18 | 5 lessons


What is Shabbat and what ideas does it convey? What do Jews do on Shabbat or is it more about what they do not do? Is it a “day off” or a day of spiritual and ethical meaning? Beyond physical rest, what is the inherent significance and meaning of the Shabbat? In this house the philosophy of Shabbat, its meaning and significance will be explored (rather than its practical observance according to tradition which is explored in a different House).

Desired Outcomes

Big Ideas
  • Celebrating Shabbat is a way of  recognizing God as Creator and being partners with God in creation
  • Shabbat observance is a weekly enactment of a utopian society of freedom
  • Shabbat as an experience can be a foretaste of the spirituality of the World to Come (afterlife)
  • Shabbat observance has a positive sociological impact on families and communities
  • Shabbat observance has a positive impact on us as individuals encouraging mindfulness and being in the present.
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 thematic link between shabbat and environmental ethics
  • the thematic link between shabbat and the value of freedom in society
  • The spiritual dimension of shabbat as a foretaste of the world to come
  • the importance and impact of shabbat to jewish society and civilization, with special focus on the jewish institutions of the family and community
  • How shabbat encourages mindfulness and being in the present
  • 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 meaning behind Shabbat observance 
  • Students will be able to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of shabbat observance and its relevance to their lives

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 :

  • 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.
  • After viewing the video, discuss the students’ responses that appear on the word cloud. 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 some contemporary Jewish thinkers who explore the “why” of shabbat, finding relevant and contemporary meaning behind shabbat observance for us today (there is another House that considers the “how” of shabbat observance that you may be looking at at another time).

Content Study: 

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

Unit Closing/ Assessment: 

Your students have spent five lessons considering many personal and philosophical approaches to the meaning behind shabbat observance. This final activity should encourage them to evaluate these for themselves, and then make a presentation articulating the approach (or their own creative approach) that speaks to them the most as an individual. Their presentation should be entitled: “What Shabbat means to me”.

This presentation could take the form of various media, such as:

  • A visual presentation (digital or physical)
  • written form (pros or poetic)
  • A speech to be delivered in front of peers

An alternative closing activity to this unit could be a shabbaton where all the approaches to shabbat your students have studied would be purposefully programmed and experienced over the course of the shabbaton. Perhaps your students could be given responsibility for aspects of the programming of shabbaton with this in mind.