Summary: In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore Shabbat in Jewish thought, and specifically the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).
Any of the following videos and articles could be used as a hook to explore the importance of “unplugging” from the digital world for at least once day a week, and the impact Shabbat can play on our very hectic modern lives:
- How do you unplug? (3 min video)
- Katy Perry Proposes a World-Wide Social Media Blackout (Cosmopolitan)
- Shabbat celebrities
- Shabbat: A Digital Detox a Rabbi Sacks video (under 2 minutes’ long)
- What are the main stresses in modern life?
- What are the dangers of constant access to social media and electronic devices?
- Why are these personalities calling for taking a break from technology at least once a week?
- How can Shabbat help with this?
- What messages are there contained in Shabbat observance that can help us live healthier more balanced lives?
- Was Shabbat also relevant in previous generations before we had these stresses from technology?
- Is this the only message inherent in Shabbat observance?
- What are the other reasons to observe Shabbat?
- What benefits do you get form your Shabbat observance?
Shabbat of creation:
- Bereishit 2:1-3
- What does it mean that God ‘rested’?
- What do these verses (the first mention of Shabbat in the Torah) tell us about Shabbat and how we should keep it?
- Why did God create the concept of Shabbat?
Shabbat and the Manna
- Shemot 16:22-30
- What can we learn about Shabbat from here?
- How does this story introduce us to the faith required to observe Shabbat?
- How does this connect to our lives today?
Shabbat in the Ten Commandments
- Shemot 20:8-11
- Devarim 5:12-15
- What are the differences between the two versions?
- What can we learn from these differences?
- What does it tell us about the mitzvah of Shabbat that it is included in the Ten Commandments?
The source of the 39 Melachot (categories of work prohibited on Shabbat)
- Shemot 35:1-19
- Mishna Shabbat 7:2
- What is the definition of “work” (melachah) when it comes to Shabbat?
- Where is this derived from?
- How does this apply to us today if we are not farmers or manufacturers?
Shabbat as Utopia
- Shemot 23:12
- Talmud Bavli, Brachot 57b
- Why it important that your animals and non-Jewish slave also rest on Shabbat?
- What does it mean that Shabbat is 1/60 of the World to Come?
- From these two sources, what would you say the experience of Shabbat is supposed to be like? Is this your experience of Shabbat?
Shabbat as a Utopian Revolution
The Sabbath (in Hebrew, Shabbat) is a religious institution, a memorial to creation, the day on which God Himself rested. But it is also and essentially a political institution. Shabbat is the greatest tutorial in liberty ever devised. Passover tells us how the Israelites won their freedom. Shabbat tells us how they kept it. One day in seven, Jews create a messianic society. It is the day on which everyone, master and slave, employer and employee, even animals, experience unconditional freedom. We neither work nor get others to work, manipulate nor allow ourselves to be manipulated. We may neither buy nor be bought. It is the day on which all hierarchies, all relationships of power are suspended.A Letter in the Scroll, pp. 136-137
The most compelling impact of Egypt was the enactment of freedom in time: the threefold sabbatical structure of the seventh day, the seventh year, and the Jubilee, the year that marked the completion of seven septennial cycles. Despite attempts of historians to trace a connection to the Babylonian calendar, the Sabbath was an unprecedented innovation. It meant that one day in seven all hierarchies of wealth and power were suspended. No one could be forced to work: not employees, or slaves, or even domestic animals. In the seventh year, debts were remitted and slaves sent free. In the Jubilee – when the shofar was sounded, proclaiming “liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10) – all ancestral land was returned to its original owners. The logic of these laws is simple: “For the Israelites belong to Me as servants; they are My servants whom I brought out of Egypt” (ibid. 25:25). Those who are servants to God may not be slaves to man.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, pp. 32-33
[Shabbat is] a day of history and politics. The Bible tells us to rest because of the exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery. It is a time of freedom, and the greatest freedom is the freedom to be masters of our own time. On Shabbat we may not work, meaning that one day in seven we are no one’s servant except God’s. Nor may we force anyone to work for us. Even our servants should be able to rest the way we do.
Tyrannies make people slaves by making them forget the taste of freedom. But no one who observes the Sabbath can ever forget what it is to be free. Jews know more than most what it is to have spent long centuries in homelessness and persecution. Yet every week, for a day, however poor they were, they gathered their possessions and celebrated like royalty. The Sabbath was their political education, a regular reminder of liberty.Faith in the Future, p. 136
- According to these texts, what is the core message of the institution of Shabbat?
- Do you see aspects of this approach to Shabbat in your own experience of Shabbat?
- How can we apply this message from Shabbat to broader society in order to bring it closer to a utopian society?
Shabbat Reinforcing Community and Family
The Sabbath sustains every one of Judaism’s great institutions. In the synagogue we re-engage with the community, praying their prayers, celebrating their joys, defining ourselves as part of the “We” rather than the “I.” Hearing and studying the Torah portion of the week, we travel back to join our ancestors at Sinai, when God spoke and gave us His written text, His marriage-contract with the Jewish people. At home I spend time – sacrosanct, undisturbed – with my family, my wife and children, and know that our marriage is sheltered under God’s tabernacle of peace. I once took Britain’s leading child-care expert to a Jewish school where, for the first time, she saw young children rehearsing the Sabbath table – five-year-old parents blessing five-year-old children and welcoming five-year-old guests. She, a non-Jew, was enthralled. She asked the children what they liked most about Shabbat. They replied: “It’s the time when mum and dad don’t have to rush off.” She said to me afterwards: “You are giving those children the greatest gift, the gift of a tradition. And it is saving their parents’ marriages.”A Letter in the Scroll, pp. 139-140
To this day, Judaism is a religion of the family. Marriage, one of the most vulnerable of human institutions, is protected in Jewish life by a whole host of laws, rituals and customs to do with modesty, the separation of the sexes and the laws of “family purity.” The home is the center of many of Judaism’s most sacred institutions, the Sabbath, the festivals, the dietary laws, and education as the conversation between the generations.
There is something exceptionally gracious about Jewish family life at its best. On Friday evenings, as the candles are lit, and the blessings made over the wine and bread, as the family sings its song of praise to the mother and parents bless their children, you can almost touch the Divine presence. And there is something moving about the fact that the Divine presence is here, in ordinary families in ordinary homes, rather than in the palaces of the great or the cathedrals of the many. Here if anywhere you witness the Jewish truth that God lives in the unadorned heart of the human situation – in the covenantal love between husband and wife on which the republic of faith is built.A Letter in the Scroll, pp. 83-84
The landscape of Shabbat is vast: creation and our purpose in it. And yet for most Jews, myself included, the mode of the day is intimate. It is a time in which we celebrate family and children, the home, and just being together… Relationships take time, and Shabbat is when we give them time – to listen to one another, praise each other, share in a meal, sing together, and sense the blessedness of one another’s company…
Shabbat is more than family time. It is collective time. Even those who have been too busy to come to the synagogue during the week do so on Shabbat, joining others in prayer and listening with them to the weekly Bible reading. If the synagogue is the center of community space, Shabbat is the center of community time… Shabbat is not private time, but shared time, a time for sharing, not owning.Faith in the Future, pp. 133-135
- According to these texts, what is the core message of the institution of Shabbat?
- Why is family so important to Judaism?
- How does Shabbat protect the family?
Shabbat as an Environmental Ethic
Though we must exercise caution when reading twenty-first century concerns into ancient texts, there seems little doubt that much biblical legislation is concerned with what we would call nowadays ‘sustainability’. This is particularly true of the three great commands ordaining periodic rest: the Sabbath, the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. On the Sabbath all agricultural work is forbidden, ‘so that your ox and your donkey may rest’ (Exodus 23:12). It is a day that sets limits to our intervention in nature and the pursuit of economic activity. We become conscious of being creations, not creators. The earth is not ours but God’s. For six days it is handed over to us, but on the seventh day we symbolically abdicate that power. We may perform no ‘work’, which is to say, an act that alters the state of something for human purposes. The Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the boundaries of human striving.The Dignity of Difference, p. 167
The Sabbath reminds us that the universe is created – meaning that ultimately it belongs to God and we are merely its guardians. Adam was placed in the Garden to ‘serve and protect it’, and so are we. One day in seven we must renounce our mastery over nature and the animals, and see the earth not as something to be manipulated and exploited, but as a thing of independent dignity and beauty. It too is entitled to its rest and protection. More powerfully than any tutorial or documentary, the Sabbath makes us aware of the limits of human striving. It is a day, if you like, of ecological consciousness.Faith in the Future, p. 136
Shabbat is also a way of living out another idea, the concept of possession without ownership which is at the heart of Judaism’s social and environmental ethic. Every week, for a day, Jews live not as creators but creations. On Shabbat the world belongs to God, not us. We renounce our mastery over nature and the animals. We see the earth as a thing of independent dignity and integrity. We become God’s guests, as Judah Halevi put it, recognizing the limits of human striving. But above all else, Shabbat is covenantal time, the working out of Judaism’s vision of a society of equal dignity and hope.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 138
- What is the connection between Shabbat and protecting the environment?
- How does Shabbat model environmental responsibility?
- What can we learn from Shabbat ti implement in our everyday lives to help protect the environment?
Shabbat as Digital Detox
The Torah is God’s word, and just as God transcends time so does His word. It would be absurd, for instance, to suppose some human being more than three thousand years ago could have foreseen smart phones, social media and being online, on-call, 24/7. Yet Shabbat speaks precisely to that phenomenon and to our need for a digital detox once a week. God speaks to us today in the unsuspected inflections of words he spoke thirty-three centuries ago.An Introduction to Covenant & Conversation, I Believe series (5780)
Which is why holy times are important. For me, Friday nights around the Sabbath table, with the candles, the wine and the special bread baked for the day are the high point of the week. It’s when Jewish husbands sing the song of praise to their wives, taken from the 31st chapter of the Book of Proverbs, “A woman of strength, who can find? Her worth is above rubies.” Parents bless their children. Together we share words of Torah about the biblical portion we’re going to read in the synagogue the next morning. We sing the traditional melodies. And for a day the pressures of the outside world disappear. There are no phones or faxes, no radio or television, no working or shopping. In ancient times the Sabbath was a protest against slavery. Today it’s an antidote to stress, the most effective I know…
Rest sets everything else in perspective. Whenever I pass the scene of a car crash I find myself wondering what could have been so important that it was worth risking a life to save a few seconds by running a red light or overtaking on a corner. Is anything that important? When life becomes an endless succession of pressures, we lose the natural rhythms of work and rest, running and relaxing, striving and enjoying the fruits of our striving. We move so fast that we miss the view. We travel so often that we forget where we’re going. At regular intervals we need to stop, pause, breathe, cease becoming and just be. It makes a difference. People used to say that food tastes better on the Sabbath. I think they meant, it tastes better when you have time to let it linger on the tongue. Happiness is tasted in tranquillity. It’s right there behind us, waiting for us to rest so that it can catch us up.Celebrating Life, pp. 23-25
This is a powerful scientific finding that explains why the Sabbath, which I mentioned in connection to smartphones and social media, has had such a powerful effect on cultures that have adopted it. The Sabbath is a focused, one-day-a-week antidote to the market mindset. It is dedicated to the things that have a value but not a price. It is the supremely nonmarket day. We can’t sell or buy. We can’t work or pay others to work for us. It’s a day when we celebrate relationships. Husbands sing a song of praise to their wives. Parents bless their children. We take time to have a meal together with family and friends. In the synagogue we renew our sense of community. People share their joys—a new child, a bar or bat mitzvah, an engagement, a forthcoming wedding—with others. The bereaved find comfort for their grief. We study the Bible together, reminding ourselves of the story of which we are a part. We pray together, thanking God for our blessings.
The Sabbath is in fact one way of living out John Maynard Keynes’s vision of an age of limited work in which leisure becomes a way of celebrating the human spirit. What makes the Sabbath so transformative an institution even today is that it does not involve waiting for the Keynesian moment of the fifteen-hour week to arrive, if indeed it ever does. It takes the utopian future and translates it into now, making it still the most effective form of work-life balance ever devised. It is a day of gratitude, when the restlessness of the week subsides and we find refuge in an oasis of rest.
The Czech economist Tomáš Sedláček, in his book The Economics of Good and Evil,33 argues persuasively that what we need is a “Sabbath economics,” to create a pause in the endless pursuit of more, so that we may celebrate what we have rather than fixate exclusively on what we do not yet have. It is paradoxical, Sedláček notes, that there had to be a command to rest on the seventh day. One would have thought that the desire for such rest would be natural. However, there seems to be something in our nature that seeks to maximize, to continue relentlessly and indefinitely to seek more and yet more. The result is exhaustion—physical, emotional, psychological. Far better, he argues, to create the kind of balance envisaged by the Bible: six days of striving followed by one of relaxing, enjoying, pausing, and resting.Morality, pp. 116-117
- Why is a weekly digital detox vital for our wellbeing?
- Was Shabbat also relevant in previous generations before we had the modern stresses from technology?
- Shouldn’t halachah, including Shabbat observance, embrace technology rather than fight it?
Shabbat and the Power of Now
We now understand why the Torah contains three distinct accounts of Shabbat. The account in the first version of the Ten Commandments, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,” is the Shabbat of creation. The account in the second version, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord, your God, brought you out,” is the Shabbat of redemption. The Parshat Emor account, spoken in the Priestly voice, is the Shabbat of revelation. In revelation, God calls to humankind. That is why the middle book of the Torah (that more than any other represents Torat Kohanim, “the law of the Priests,”) begins with the word Vayikra, “and He called.” It is also why Shabbat is, uniquely here, included in the days “which you shall proclaim (tikre’u) as sacred convocations (mikra’ei kodesh),” with the double emphasis on the verb k-r-a, “to call, proclaim, convoke.” Shabbat is the day in which, in the stasis of rest and the silence of the soul, we hear the Call of God.
Hence too, the word mo’ed, which in general means “appointed times,” but here means “meeting.” Judah Halevi, the eleventh-century poet and philosopher, said that on Shabbat, it is as if God had personally invited us to be dinner guests at His table. The Shabbat of revelation does not look back to the birth of the universe or forwards to the future redemption. It celebrates the present moment as our private time with God. It represents “the power of now.”Three Versions of Shabbat (Covenant & Conversation, Emor)
- Why is it important to live in the present and be mindful in the moment?
- How does Shabbat help us do that?
- Does this mean the past and the future are unimportant? Does Shabbat have a message for us on these also?
- The perspective we gain on Shabbat UK (1:30 min)
- Rabbi Lord Sacks Havdallah ceremony – UK Shabbaton (5:45-10:50)
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s Havdallah Message for the Shabbat Project (3 minutes)
- A Life Worth Living – interview with Dr. Miroslav Volf at Yale University (40 minutes)
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Time (3.26 min video for Jinsider)
- Shabbat: A Digital Detox (1.50 min)
Further articles from Rabbi Sacks exploring the philosophy of Shabbat
- Dreaming not streaming (Thought for the Day)
- If I Ruled The World
- Not everything we can do, should we do (Thought for the Day)
- The lesson of Noah’s Ark is that wolves can lie down with lambs (Credo)
- Sunday shopping has not made us better or happier (Credo)
- Three Versions of Shabbat (Covenant & Conversation, Emor 5779)
- Three Versions of Shabbat (Covenant & Conversation Family Edition, Emor 5779)
- Why We Value What We Make (Covenant & Conversation, Terumah)
- The Sabbath: First Day Or Last? (Covenant & Conversation, Ki Tissa)
- The Duality of Jewish Time (Covenant & Conversation, Emor)
- Renewable Energy (Covenant & Conversation, Beshallach)
Shabbat is the greatest tutorial in liberty ever devised.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 136
“The Sabbath is Judaism’s stillness at the heart of the turning world.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 136
Shabbat is also a way of living out another idea, the concept of possession without ownership which is at the heart of Judaism’s social and environmental ethic. Every week, for a day, Jews live not as creators but creations. On Shabbat the world belongs to God, not us. We renounce our mastery over nature and the animals. We see the earth as a thing of independent dignity and integrity.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 138
“The Sabbath sustains every one of Judaism’s great institutions. In the synagogue we re-engage with the community, praying their prayers, celebrating their joys, defining ourselves as part of the “We” rather than the “I”. Hearing and studying the Torah portion of the week, we travel back to join our ancestors at Sinai, when God spoke and gave us His written text, His marriage contract with the Jewish people. At home, I spend time – sacrosanct, undisturbed – with my family, my wife and children, and know that our marriage is sheltered under God’s tabernacle of peace.A Letter in the Scroll, pp. 139-140
Shabbat is where a restless people rested and renewed itself.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 140
Shabbat is the day we stand still and let all our blessings catch up with us.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 140
Shabbat is the holy time of a people that found truth in time.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 141
I am a Jew because of Shabbat, the world’s greatest religious institution, a time in which there is no manipulation of nature or our fellow human beings, in which we come together in freedom and equality to create, every week, an anticipation of the messianic age.A Letter in the Scroll, p. 228
Shabbat is not private time, but shared time, a time for sharing, not owning.Faith in the Future, p. 135
The Sabbath is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the boundaries of human striving.The Dignity of Difference, p. 167
Despite attempts of historians to trace a connection to the Babylonian calendar, the Sabbath was an unprecedented innovation. It meant that one day in seven all hierarchies of wealth and power were suspended.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, p. 25
The Sabbath is the lived enactment of the messianic age, a world of peace in which striving and conflict are (temporarily) at an end and all creation sings a song of being to its Creator.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, p. 25
Shabbat is the day in which, in the stasis of rest and the silence of the soul, we hear the Call of God.Three Versions of Shabbat (Covenant & Conversation, Emor 5779
[Shabbat] celebrates the present moment as our private time with God. It represents “the power of now.”Three Versions of Shabbat (Covenant & Conversation, Emor 5779
In ancient times the Sabbath was a protest against slavery. Today it’s an antidote to stress, the most effective I know…Celebrating Life, p. 23
[Shabbat] is a time of freedom, and the greatest freedom is the freedom to be masters of our own time… no one who observes the Sabbath can ever forget what it is to be free. Jews know more than most what it is to have spent long centuries in homelessness and persecution. Yet every week, for a day, however poor they were, they gathered their possessions and celebrated like royalty. The Sabbath was their political education, a regular reminder of liberty.Faith in the Future, p. 136
[Shabbat] is a time in which we celebrate family and children, the home, and just being together… Relationships take time, and Shabbat is when we give them time – to listen to one another, praise each other, share in a meal, sing together, and sense the blessedness of one another’s company…Faith in the Future, p. 133
Shabbat is more than family time. It is collective time. Even those who have been too busy to come to the synagogue during the week do so on Shabbat, joining others in prayer and listening with them to the weekly Bible reading. If the synagogue is the center of community space, Shabbat is the center of community time.Faith in the Future, p. 135
- How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the family in Judaism?
- How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
- Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
Rabbi A. Y. HaCohen Kook
The control and use of fire is unique to humanity. It is the basis for our advances in science and innovations in technology. Even now, fuel sources for burning, coal and oil, are what power modern societies. In short, fire is a metaphor for our power and control over nature, the fruit of our God-given intelligence.
What is the central message of the Sabbath? When we refrain from working on the seventh day, we acknowledge that God is the Creator of the world.
One might think that only the pristine natural world is truly the work of God. Human technology, on the other hand, is artificial and perhaps alien to the true purpose of the universe. Therefore, the Torah specifically prohibits lighting fire on the Sabbath, emphasizing that our progress in science and technology is also part of creation. Everything is included in the ultimate design of the universe. Our advances and inventions contribute towards the goal of creation in accordance with God’s sublime wisdom.
Along with the recognition that all of our accomplishments are in essence the work of God, we must also be aware that we have tremendous power to change and improve the world. This change will be for a blessing if we are wise enough to utilize our technology within the guidelines of integrity and holiness.Rav. A. Y. Kook, Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 53
We live out our lives in two realms. There is our inner world — our ideals and moral principles, our aspirations and spiritual goals. And there is our outer world — our actions in the ‘real’ world, our struggles to eke out a living and tend to our physical needs in a challenging and competitive world. The greater the dissonance between our inner and outer lives, between our elevated ideals and our day-to-day actions, the further we will have strayed from our Divine image and true inner self.
Shabbat, however, provides an opportunity to attain a degree of harmony between our inner and outer lives.
The holiness and tranquility of Shabbat help enrich our inner lives. Shabbat is a state that is very different from our workday lives, which have been complicated and even compromised by life’s myriad calculations and moral struggles. “God made man straight, but they sought many intrigues.” (Ecc. 7:29)
The Sabbath, with its elevated holiness, comes to restore the purity of inner life that was suppressed and eroded by the corrupting influences of day-to-day life, influences that often contradict our true values and goals. But the power of Sabbath peace is even greater. Not only does Shabbat restore our inner world, but it reaches out to our outer world. The spiritual rest of Shabbat enables our outer life to be in harmony with our inner life, bestowing it a spirit of peace and holiness, joy and grace.Rav. A. Y. Kook, Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 28;
Rabbi Irving Greenberg
According to the Genesis account, this world originally was and is still meant to be a paradise. But only when there is peace, with abundant resources and an untrammeled right to live, will the world be structured to sustain the infinite value of the human being. This is the heart of Judaism, the dream.
Jewish existence without the dream is almost inconceivable. The drawing power of the vision has kept Jews faithful to their mission over several millennia. Expulsion, persecution, and destruction have assaulted but never obliterated the dream. Jews have repeatedly given everything, including their very lives, to keep it alive. And when catastrophe shattered the vision, Jews spent their lives renewing it. The question is: From where can these people draw the strength to renew their dream again and again? The answer of Jewish tradition is: Give people just a foretaste of the fulfillment, and they will never give it up. The Shabbat is that taste…
The world of the Shabbat is totally different than the weekday universe: There is no work to do, no deprivation. On Shabbat, there is neither anxiety nor bad news. Since such a world does not yet exist in space, it is first created in time, on the seventh day of the week. Jews travel through time in order to enter a perfect world for a night and a day. The goal is to create a reality so complete and absorbing that these time travelers are caught up in its values and renewed.
The Shabbat is the foretaste of the messianic redemption. But even as this enclave of perfection is carved out in the realm of time, the world goes on as usual in the realm of surrounding space. 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…
The Shabbat comes to an end weekly, but it creates an appetite and a satisfaction that lasts through the week until it is renewed again.I. Greenberg, 1988, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, New York: Touchstone Book published by Simon & Schuster, pp. 127–130.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel
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. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self…
The Sabbath 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…
What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the hearts? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine…
The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God…To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?…
The seventh day is the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man . . . The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time…
The Sabbath . . . is a profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above. All that is divine in the world is brought into union with God. This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe.A. J. Heschel, The Sabbath, Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers Canada Ltd., 1979, pp. 13–14, 16, 18, 28.
Asher Ginzburg (Ahad Ha’am)
One need not be a Zionist or scrupulous about the commandments in order to recognize the value of Shabbat . . . One who feels in his heart a true tie with the life of the nation throughout the generations will not be able to imagine the Jews without the “Shabbat Queen,” even if he does not acknowledge a world to come or a Jewish State. One may say without exaggeration, that more than the Jews have maintained the Shabbat, the Shabbat has maintained the Jews. And were it not for the Shabbat restoring the “souls” of the people and renewing their spiritual lives each week, the hardships of the workweek would pull them down lower and lower until they would descend to the very lowest levels of “materialism,” and ethical and intellectual inferiority.
Rabbi Micah Goodman
Perhaps ironically, an ancient culture contains the means to enable Jews and non-Jews alike to cope with this modern problem. The Jewish sabbath – a day in which the use of technology is forbidden – can serve precisely this goal. The essence of the Sabbath is to take a break from technology. It forces us to be present in our conversations with other people, without distractions and without the ability to disappear into our smartphones. The Sabbath creates moments that are not recorded, reminding us that our time has meaning even if it is not shared with virtual audiences. In brief: the Sabbath creates a space that allows our minds to be present where our bodies are. The greater our awareness of the vital need to repair the relationship between people and technology, the more relevant the Sabbath will become.
Of course, the Sabbath cannot be the only means for protecting humankind from the technology it has invented. The Sabbath alone cannot give our minds full protection from the damages of bombardment by digital stimuli. But it can be a first and meaningful step, indicating the way toward a more wide-reaching and comprehensive move. Switching off all digital noise once a week creates an unfamiliar silence, but it is a silence we need for relationship-building, family bonding, spiritual worship, and intellectual enrichment. Shutting down our digital lives for one day a week can empower our emotional lives for the rest of the week.M. Goodman, The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity (2020), New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 189-190
Lesson Plan: Shabbat in the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on the thought of Rabbi Sacks. If you wish to incorporate the broader secular sources and the other contemporary Jewish thinkers into your class, more than sixty minutes will be necessary.
Download our 60-minute class for high-school aged students
Bet Nidrash on Shabbat
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
The texts presented here explored the following themes of Shabbat from the writings of Rabbi Sacks:
- Shabbat as a Utopian Revolution
- Shabbat reinforcing Community and Family
- Shabbat as an Environmental Ethic
- Shabbat as Digital Detox
- Shabbat and the Power of Now
The most obvious way to create programming that acts on these values in a practical way would be to create a Shabbaton experience for your class, grade, school, or even in the wider community, where these themes (one or more) are explored and experienced over the duration of shabbat. Your students could do the planning and find as many elements of the Shabbaton they can to deliver experiences and learning surrounding the chosen themes.