Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, a 25-hour “day of rest” that begins at sundown Friday evening and ends Saturday night when, according to Jewish tradition, it’s dark enough to see three stars in the sky.
During Shabbat, Jewish people take time out from the busy workweek to light candles, eat a delicious meal with family and friends, perhaps attend services at the synagogue or just go for a long, leisurely walk. Shabbat is more than a “day off;” according to the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) it’s a holy day blessed by God.
“Shabbat is different in Israel because the entire country goes on pause for 25 hours.
Regardless of if you’re observant or not,
Shabbat feels different in Israel and that’s a special feeling”.
The Bible reminds us in Exodus 20:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”
The Torah says very little about how exactly Jewish people are supposed to observe Shabbat, but the great rabbis of the Talmudic period (roughly 70 to 500 C.E.) had plenty to say. In a thick chapter of the Talmud called “Shabbat,” the ancient sages trade opinions on the subtlest minutiae of Jewish law, resulting, for example, in the 39 types of work that are forbidden on Shabbat.
No cooking, no washing, no sewing, no planting, no reaping, no burning, no extinguishing, no carrying … it’s a long list. For the most strictly observant Jews, known as Orthodox, the faithful keeping of Shabbat means not violating any of these rules. In practice, that often requires some creativity, or at least a lot of planning ahead.
For example, you can’t tear paper on the Sabbath, which includes toilet paper. So Orthodox bathrooms are stocked with pre-torn sheets of toilet paper for Shabbat. You can’t turn on a light on Shabbat because electricity is akin to a “spark,” which is the same as fire. You know that little lightbulb inside your refrigerator that turns on when you open the door? You either need to remove that during Shabbat or buy a Shabbat-approved refrigerator that is programmed to turn off the light one day a week.
You can even purchase a Shabbat-approved toothbrush! Technically, you wring out the wet bristles when you brush your teeth and wringing falls under the same prohibited category as washing. The Shabbat toothbrush is made with rubber bristles that don’t hold water and therefore can’t be “wrung” out.
In some Orthodox communities, a non-Jewish person called the “Shabbat goy” (Yiddish for “Shabbat gentile”) is contracted to visit Jewish homes on the Sabbath to carry out prohibited tasks like turning on the stove or the lights.
The one exemption for all of the Shabbat laws is to save a life. Jews aren’t supposed to drive or work on the Sabbath, but if a doctor needs to rush to the hospital to attend to a patient, they can both drive and work without fear of divine retribution.
It’s easy to get caught up in the rules and restrictions of Shabbat and forget why those things were forbidden in the first place. “Shabbat should be a ‘holy’ day, which in Judaism literally means a day that is distinct and unique. We are commanded to work the other six days of the week, so what we do on the seventh day should be completely different.”
In other words, all of those prohibitions are highly specific and complicated ways of saying, “please don’t work.” Do something special on the Sabbath. Spend more time with your family, go to the synagogue and say prayers, eat home-cooked meals and unplug from electronics. It’s a day of physical rest, but also emotional and spiritual rejuvenation.
“In Judaism, when you wish somebody a happy Sabbath,
you say ‘Shabbat shalom,’
which means ‘Sabbath peace'”
So how does Shabbat affect our travel plans in Israel?
During Shabbat there will be noticeably less traffic in Israel’s major cities. However, due to the prohibitions on the use of engines and electricity, the hours leading up to and after Shabbat is usually peak travel time so we often have a shortened tour itinerary on Fridays.
While Israel’s airports still operate as normal during Shabbat, many public transport and domestic flight schedules will be affected. This can include total cessation of services from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening.
Border crossings between Israel and Jordan or Egypt are open but can become bottlenecked with traffic created in the lead up to Shabbat. The Allenby Crossing into Jordan does observe Shabbat and will be closed, starting earlier during the day on Friday than official Shabbat observance.
Because of the rules around conducting business during Shabbat, businesses owned by observant Jews may close to the public, including restaurants, bars and cafes. Like restaurants and bars, attractions and historical sites may be open depending on the city you’re travelling in. Major tourist sites may have altered visiting times or are completely closed.
Local Jews like to check in to hotels and enjoy Shabbat there. You will often find locals in the dining room on Friday night, not just eating dinner, but praying and celebrating the Shabbat traditions.Some hotels have Shabbat lifts which stop at every floor so that you don’t press the floor button (considered work), otherwise the lifts are closed and you need to use the stairs. Breakfast on Saturday morning will be a little different too, with no toasters or cooking and sometimes not even coffee!
This is all part of the rich and interesting experience that is Shabbat.
Most of the Selah tours, if in Jerusalem for Shabbat, will include enjoying Shabbat dinner with a local Jewish family. This is a truly enriching cultural experience – often a highlight of the visit to the Holy Land.