Shabbat is a unique experience in Israel and a great way to see Jewish locals practicing their faith – but if you don’t plan ahead it can also cause many headaches!
Shabbat is a weekly religious tradition and, with 75% of Israel’s population being Jewish, there are clear knock-on effects for local transport as well as how travellers eat out and explore Israel’s historical cities.
Here’s the lowdown on Shabbat so you can be one step ahead of the befuddled crowds.
What is Shabbat?
Shabbat is the name for the day of rest observed by religious members of Judaism. It is typically a time for family and close friends, and observant Jews will sit down together on a Friday evening to light candles and share a meal. Shabbat, known also as the Sabbath, occupies a similar territory to that of Sundays in Christian countries.
During Shabbat observants will refrain from performing the 39 ‘creative activities’ outlined in the scriptures, including lighting or extinguishing fires, using electricity, driving a car or motorbike (or anything with an engine), writing, cooking, baking, sewing, conducting business, handling money and more.
On Shabbat morning, religious Jews visit their synagogue for a morning service, and again in the evening for the Havdalah service to mark the end of Shabbat and the start of the new week.
When does Shabbat begin and end?
Technically speaking, Shabbat begins 18 minutes before sundown on Friday and finishes an hour after sundown on Saturdays. This is when three stars can be observed in the night sky, which is when the Jewish holy texts say Shabbat comes to an end.
Local businesses tend to open about one hour after Shabbat ends, and stay open until late, so people can shop and eat before the new week begins.
How does Shabbat affect my 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 period. To avoid congestion and delays, it’s generally a good idea to plan travel a few hours before or after Shabbat.
While Israel’s airports still operate as normal during Shabbat, many inter-city and metropolitan bus and train schedules will be affected. This can include total cessation of services from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening. Some local buses may still be operating in mixed Jewish-Arab cities like Haifa. There will also be noticeably fewer taxis and you may need to pay a premium rate.
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. Arrive extra early or cross the day before where possible.
Because of the rules around conducting business during Shabbat businesses owned by observant Jews may close to the public, including restaurants, bars and cafes. Many businesses are good at advertising whether they will be open during Shabbat. Be mindful that fewer restaurants will be servicing the same number of travellers and this means they can fill up quick, so it’s always a good idea to reserve a table in advance if possible.
Keep an eye out for local restaurants offering special Shabbat meals to travellers – it’s a perfect opportunity to grab a meal and also share in the Shabbat experience.
Like restaurants and bars, attractions and historical sites may be open depending on the city you’re travelling in. Major sites, like Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, may have altered visiting times. Check the websites of the places you’re interested in visiting for information on whether they will remain open or not.
The beauty of travelling to ancient cities like Jerusalem is that they are also open-air museums, where the old-world can be found – for free – down every street. Even if major attractions do close, the city does not and this can be a great time to explore without the crowds. Walking tours and day trips outside the city also continue to operate.
How is Shabbat observed in Israel’s cities?
Because Israel is so religiously and culturally diverse, Shabbat is observed differently depending on which city you might be travelling in. We’ve broken down the impact of Shabbat in the major cities below.
If your plan is to observe a traditional Shabbat, you could not do better than Jerusalem. At sunset you can hear sirens echoing down the stone streets signifying the beginning of Shabbat, and you’ll find Jewish locals dressed in their best attire carrying picnics or congregating with friends to visit the West Wall. If you can’t make it to the West Wall, you can visit a local synagogue and respectfully observe a service.
Shabbat begins a little bit earlier in Jerusalem than in other Israeli cities – usually 36 minutes before sunset instead of the traditional 18 minutes. Across Jerusalem you will find pockets of observant and non-observant Jews, meaning Shabbat does not affect the city equally across the board.
Generally speaking, most of the eateries in West Jerusalem will close. Some hotels and restaurants do offer travellers the chance to participate in special Shabbat meals, so keep your eyes peeled!
Hotels may also restrict their front desk services during Shabbat. If you are due to check out during this period, your hotel may ask you to settle any remaining accounts in advance. Don’t be surprised if you’re directed to use the stairs – the prohibitions on the use of electricity means elevators are typically switched off for the duration of Shabbat.
Buses do not run during Shabat, but taxis do. Expect to pay up to 25% more for a cab fare during Shabbat. If you’re travelling on a budget, Jerusalem is a relatively small city and it is easy to cross it on foot. You could also hire a bike in the lead up to Shabbat and make the most of the empty roads.
It is recommended to avoid visiting Jerusalem’s more orthodox neighbourhoods, like Mea She’arim, where curious tourists can be seen as intrusive and disrespectful of local observance. Don’t be surprised to discover streets into these neighbourhoods are barricaded.
Major tourist sites, such as the Jewish Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, will close early on Fridays and remain closed on Saturday. Major gateways into Jerusalem’s Old Town will, however, remain open and present a good opportunity to freely explore the city’s different quarters.
As you might expect from a city that built a reputation around its nightlife and beach culture, Shabbat observance in Tel Aviv is more relaxed. That’s not to say you won’t see the effect of Shabbat: streets can be quieter and bus services are sometimes downgraded to sheruts (small vans). Transport to the airport is more restrictive so be prepared to book a taxi in advance. Most bars and restaurants will remain open. Most of the impact of Shabbat is noticeable on shop opening hours, so don’t expect to grab any bargains during this time.
Since Nazareth is a predominantly Christian area, everything will be open including tourist sites around the Sea of Galilee. Remember that Christian businesses close on Sundays. If you plan to visit nearby Tiberias during Shabbat, expect most places to be closed (with the exception of a few eateries).
Acre has a predominantly Muslim population, which means the impact of Shabbat is minimal.
While Tsfat is the home of mystical Judaism, otherwise known as Kabbalah, and has a relatively freer spirit than traditional Judaism, Shabbat is still keenly observed. Shops and eateries will be completely closed, including the surrounding wineries.
As a major tourist attraction, the Dead Sea is completely untouched by Shabbat. Almost everything is open, including restaurants, shops and beaches.