If you’re new to Shabbat, it’s the day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the Saturday after nightfall. As you can imagine, celebrating Shabbat in Israel was a big part of my time abroad with USAC in Haifa, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Before I even came to Israel in for my Birthright my perspective on Shabbat was going to Temple/Synagogue with my mom on Friday, seeing the community and then going home. Being a reform Jew the term of “keeping Shabbat” for me was simply going to services, I never really understood the other levels of practice.
Fast forward to now and it is almost second nature for me to understand the practices and conditions of Shabbat while living in Israel. Whether you are planning a trip to the Holy Land or it is a pocket of unknown information, understanding how Israel works on Friday and Saturday is an important thing.
Shabbat or Sabbath is also known as the day of rest or prayer before the start of a new week. Most people usually have Shabbat dinner with their family, typically around three o’clock on Friday you will start to see shops closing up, the shuks (markets) will begin closing stalls, and transportation will slow down.
Depending on what region or city you are in, your Shabbat in Israel experience will likely be different. There are reasons that attribute to this from background of the local population, to the history of the region itself. It is important to keep these things in mind when trying to figure out what you want to do on the weekend. Below is a small explanation of the three main cities:
Haifa is where I have been located for my semester abroad, the city itself is actually rather accessible on Shabbat in comparison to its bigger relations. There are a few buses that run every hour throughout the whole day, making it easy to get around downtown and do things (especially if you don’t have a car or other means of transportation). Many shops remain open, or close only for a few hours on Fridays so that families can eat dinner together and then reopen after 9pm for drinks.
I have less experience with Shabbat in Tel Aviv, however, I do know that there are many restaurants and convenience stores (am:pm) that stay open through Shabbat. It is likely because Tel Aviv is the relatively young and popular scene for nightlife and clubs. Due to it’s popularity many places stay open for that business, however it is important to mention that transportation is not up to speed with Haifa and if you need to go anywhere far, plan to spend 30-50 Shekels on a taxi so you don’t try and walk somewhere for 45 minutes in heels (yes you can do it, but trust me you don’t want to).
Here is the big guy. The home of Shabbat. I send my love to the Western Wall. There truly is nothing like celebrating Shabbat in the holiest city of them all, however, there are things to keep in mind (especially if you are going the route of a hotel instead of an Airbnb). There is no public transportation, you will see many of the more religious Jews walking as a family to the old city or their own synagogues. Most businesses close due to the larger population of Haredi or Orthodox Jews within the community; you may be lucky to find some places open. I recommend heading over to the Old City and go to any of the quarters to find food or souvenirs.
If you are Jewish there is no place like going to the Western Wall for Shabbat, it is truly one of my favorite experiences. However, if you are not Jewish the Old city also has much to offer for you. From Dome of the Rock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there is plenty to do. Just figure out how far away it is from where you are planning on staying, because walking is exhausting especially when the weather is warmer.
During my time in Jerusalem I was reminded of the many aspect of celebrating Shabbat in Jerusalem. If you are staying in a hotel, there will likely be a Shabbat setting in the room that will have the lights on an automatic setting (only if you press it), this is for practicing Jewish families that stay at the hotel.
The most significant aspect is the Shabbat elevator(s), if you are on the 24th floor, good luck to you. The Shabbat or Sabbath elevator runs through certain hours of what is considered the times of Shabbat typically around sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. The designated Shabbat elevator will stop on every floor going up and down because it is viewed as the day of rest practicing Jews who keep Shabbat often do no work at all, this includes pressing buttons. There may be other elevators that go up, where you can press the button, and it will go up as a standard elevator, but the majority of the time when you are planning on coming down you should pack your patience.
Plan where you are spending Shabbat in Israel strategically, if you have tours planned know where and how to get there. No trains run throughout the country on Shabbat so traveling from city to city is not really possible unless you have rented a car. Check to see what is around where you are planning to stay, and what will be open or closed. In simple terms, doing your research will help you not get stranded! Good luck, and Shabbat Shalom!