Shabbat Shuvah: The Potential for Transformation

Dr. C. Tova Markenson loves exploring the mystery of the present moment through story, ritual, and Shabbat! Read Tova’s thoughts about Shabbat Shuvah, a special Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A refrain of the Jewish High Holidays is the Hebrew word teshuvah, a word that many translate as “repentance,” but literally means return. During this  season, I often return to a Hasidic story about Reb Zusha, an 18th-century Polish Rabbi, who was beloved for his emotional approach to prayer.

When Reb Zusha was on his deathbed, his students surrounded him to say goodbye. 

“Why are you crying?” asked one of the students, “You were almost as wise as Moses and nearly as kind as Abraham!”

Through his tears, Rabbi Zusha answered, “Yes, but when I leave this world and stand before the heavenly courts, no one will ask me ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Moses and Abraham?’ No! They will ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not more like Zusha?’”

I am often moved to tears by this story. For me, it carries the essence of teshuvah, of the process of returning to our highest selves during the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Is there a part of yourself that you feel distant from and that might you want to return to this year?

As Rabbi Alan Lew, a 20th and 21st century rabbi from the U.S., wrote in This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, a book that many read to prepare for the High Holidays, “The great drama of this season is the drama of choice.”

What is one significant choice that you made this year and how did it impact you?

Half of a pomegranate sliced open with seeds around it on top of a white table

What’s Special About Shabbat Shuvah?

Shabbat Shuvah, Shabbat of Return, always falls during the Yamim Nora’im, or the 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are also called the Days of Awe. 

Rabbi Lew described the Days of Awe as follows: “For 10 days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again like waves on the sea.”

While Shabbat is always a special time of the week, Shabbat Shuvah has an extra special potential for transformation. It is said that on this day, one’s fate is sealed for the year to come. 

Consider: In the story of your life, how would you describe the current chapter that you are in? What title would you give this chapter? What would you title the chapter that is coming next?

A person wearing glasses with long hair looking out the window

Turning Inward: Prompts for Reflection

Shabbat Shuvah is a liminal time, a special threshold. It is a chance to contemplate the year that has passed and the year that is about to begin. (In 2022 • 5783, Shabbat Shuvah starts on Friday night, September 30, and ends on October 1.)

This Shabbat, consider creating space for teshuvah-themed reflection at your Shabbat dinner table. You might kick off the conversation with one of the following prompts or one of your own! We’d love to hear how you use them or what you come up with.

  • What were some of the highs and lows of the past year? 
  • How did you spend your time? Who did you spend time with? Is there anyone you’d like to spend more time with in the year to come? 
  • What is going well in your work life? Personal life? Family life? Are there any of these areas that might need a little extra loving attention or TLC?
  • Are there any intentions that you would like to set for the year ahead?

Wishing you a meaningful teshuvah journey ahead!

Our Shabbat Shuvah guide will help you host a Friday night dinner on Friday, Sept. 30, creating a sense of holiday-inspired wonder at your table. Share your reflections with us on social @onetableshabbat.

Headshot of Tova Markenson, OneTable's Jewish Learning Consultant
Photography by Ted Ely, makeup by Jody Formica, and styled by Camille Mana.

About the Author

Tova Markenson, PhD (she/her) is the Jewish learning consultant and has been with OneTable since 2022. Her work grows out of 10+ years of experience and research in the fields of collaboration, communication, and creativity. She has designed and taught courses on mindfulness, storytelling, and Jewish history to non-profit professionals, rabbinical and cantorial students, young adults, and life-long learners.

OneTable empowers people who don’t yet have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. The OneTable community is funded to support people (21-39ish), not in undergraduate studies, and without an existing weekly Shabbat practice, looking to find and share this powerful experience.

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