Giving in to the Sabbath

It’s Christmas here in west Jerusalem. Like every week. I know I’m seriously mixing up my religions, but there‘s something … Continued

It’s Christmas here in west Jerusalem. Like every week. I know I’m seriously mixing up my religions, but there‘s something about the Sabbath, Judaism’s holiest day, that reminds me of Christmas in the States.


Witness Friday morning in my west Jerusalem neighborhood: Hair salons are full of women getting their hair and nails done, getting ready for the evening. Fresh flowers dot every storefront. Streets are clogged with people doing last-minute shopping. Friends meet up for lunch in the neighborhood cafés.

Then, at about 3 p.m., give or take a few minutes, it’s all over. The whole place closes down. Until Saturday evening. Like, 26 hours later. For observant Jews, until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday night.

When I first got to Israel a couple months ago, I rebelled against this weekly enforced idleness and closure of all things commercial. It felt like something out of the 15th century. I mean, when was the last time your local CVS was closed for 26 hours? And every week?

My husband and I started our time here in west Jerusalem frantically seeking out the (very) few places that were open on the Sabbath, determined to find somewhere nearby to go on Friday night or during the day Saturday. Friday had always been our night out.  

On our first nice Saturday afternoons here, we drove out to the Arab villages near town — Ein Kerem, Abu Ghosh — packed with secular Israelis looking for something, anything, to do.

That’s all before, though. Now, I’ve just given into the Sabbath. And I’m finding that if I don‘t fight it, I can even like it.

I scurry around every Friday morning now too, in anticipation, like everyone else, picking up a fresh bouquet for the apartment and doing last-minute shopping. (Don’t you always need stuff when the threat of 26 hours of closure is upon you?).

We — or even just I — may go out for Friday lunch too. Love Friday lunch in Israel. So many people out. Feels like a holiday.

Until the stillness descends. Then go home. And hibernate for the next day.

I’ve taken to cooking on Friday winter evenings here in Jerusalem, which isn‘t technically right, so you’ll have to excuse me.

Orthodox Jews don‘t cook or bake after sunset on Friday, although food, especially Friday night’s festive dinner, is a big part of the Sabbath. A lot of the food is slow-cooked — or reheated.  Cooking is one of the 39 activities the Talmud prohibits on the Sabbath, called “Shabbat” in Hebrew, “Shabbos” in Yiddish. For observant Jews, there’s also no TV, no driving, no shopping, no cleaning and no writing, among other things.

Although there are strict rules about what not to do, Shabbat’s spirit is essentially joyful. It’s a day of rest, and freedom from everyday responsibilities. An oasis of calm to spend with family and close friends. A day to get dressed up, eat well (under Jewish law, every Jew must eat three meals on the Sabbath), take a nap, have sex with your spouse, go for a walk, play with the kids. Strolling and playing are encouraged.

Orthodox Jews look forward to Shabbat every week. At the same time, a lot of secular Israelis bristle at its limitations — the streets cleared of buses and the shuttered grocery stores and businesses.
No public buses or trains operate on the Sabbath throughout Israel; only private or group taxis are available. In west Jerusalem, almost all restaurants and shops are closed. (In Arab east Jerusalem, businesses operate normally). In Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, many shops are also shut, although many food outlets — cafes, bars and restaurants — stay open.
An Israeli café owner in my neighborhood, whose small café is becoming ever more popular, told me he’d gladly be open on the Sabbath if only he could. No one would come any other day, though, if he did, he told me. Jerusalem is becoming more and more religious, he said.
For me, as an expat outsider, it’s a case of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’
So Shabbat Shalom, I say!

I’m staying home tonight, making beef stew. Sleeping late tomorrow. Going for a long walk later. Not much else to do in the ‘hood.

  • WmarkW

    Shabbat is a great concept, but should be interpreted for modern times.

    See a movie or play, eat a good dinner, play a round of golf, take your kids to the park. A modern Shabbat for modern man.

  • catneth

    It takes an expat to see a place with clear eyes. This is a window onto everyday Jerusalem life that never makes the mainstream news and gives me a real feeling for how big Friday/Saturday is over there. I have many Jewish friends in Sydney, some of whom observe Shabbat with a family meal – and one who abstains from her computer/pad/phone for the duration – a tough call for her! Your cafe owner’s take on Israel becoming more religious is the big teaser. I’d like to know more!

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