Shabbat in Jerusalem can be an interesting and pleasant experience – if you know what to expect.
Starting on Friday afternoon and lasting around 24 hours, Shabbat is an intrinsic part of life in Israel. To the vast majority of Israelis, Shabbat simply means a Friday evening reunion, preferably in front of an abundant meal. To others – the most religious ones – it means disconnecting from every day life, avoiding the use of things such as phones, cars and electricity, and making an effort to rejoice with God and their soul.
Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or – like me – simply an atheist – Shabbat in Israel can be quite an ordeal, especially when you are in Jerusalem.
In this post, I will do my best to explain the basics about Shabbat and tell you what you can expect when you are spending Shabbat in Jerusalem. Hopefully this will make your experience better!
What Is Shabbat?
For Jewish people, Shabbat (sabbath) is the day of rest. It starts at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. During this time, observant Jews are meant to pray. They will first light candles and then go to pray at the synagogue as Shabbat starts on late Friday afternoon; go again on Saturday morning and one last time for the Havdalah, a service which marks the end of the 24 hours of Shabbat.
After the Friday prayer, they will go home for the Shabbat dinner – a massive family meal.
Religious Jews won’t work during the Shabbat, and they are not supposed to use any electronic equipment, to drive or ride cars and bikes, and even to cook.
Practicing people will turn off their cell phones – don’t be surprised if your religious friends won’t answer your messages on a Friday evening. Their houses are equipped with systems that switches the lights on and off at regular intervals so they don’t have to push the buttons. Shabbat elevators stop at every floor, so that observant jews can get in and out without having to press the button for a specific one. Food is cooked and kept warm before hand.
Continue reading to discover what you need to know about Shabbat in Jerusalem.
13 Useful Things To Know About Shabbat In Jerusalem
You’ll be greeted with a Shabbat Shalom
Shabbat Shalom is the most common greeting among Jews right before and during Shabbat and you will certainly hear it a lot if you spend Shabbat in Jerusalem. It literally means “Shabbat of peace.” Towards the end of Shabbat, the common greeting is “Shavua tov” – which means “good week.”
People shop like mad before Shabbat starts
Right before Shabbat, the streets and markets of Jerusalem are bustling with life. If you happen to visit Mahane Yehuda on a Friday morning, you will see many locals going from one stall to the other storing on fresh food before Shabbat starts. It’s a fun experience, and I can’t think of a better place to capture a bit of the spirit of Shabbat.
Public transportation in Jerusalem stops entirely
Wanting to get to the other side of the city on Friday evening and hoping to use public transportation for that? Sorry to break the news, but public transportation stops working completely during Shabbat in Jerusalem, and in fact, not just there – that’s for the entire country.
The cheapest way to move around Jerusalem during Shabbat is walking. Alternatively, you can get a city bike.
Public transportation will start working again soon after the end of Shabbat.
But you can rely on Palestinian taxis
To cover longer distances, you can still rely on Palestinian taxis and buses. They certainly have a good business on Friday evenings! The best way to get a taxi is via an app called Gett, which works all around Israel and is very similar to Uber. You just have to state your current location and the final destination. You will pay by the meter.
Come to think of it, Gett is the best app for taxi service throughout the week, not only during Shabbat.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews may try to stop traffic
The streets of Jerusalem are eerily empty during Shabbat. If you happen to walk or drive around close to the Orthodox neighborhoods you may even observe riot-style uprising by the Ultra-Orthodox, who often stop the cars (at times even throwing stones) screaming “Shabbat, Shabbat!”
It happened to my mother and I as we tried to make our way to a far away restaurant (one of the few open) and the Palestinian driver took a wrong turn. It was interesting for sure!
Together with the Ultra-Orthodox rising against cars during Shabbat, there will also be lots of police around to prevent them from being a nuisance.
Most restaurants close
Looking for a place to eat during Shabbat in Jerusalem? You will have to research and plan this very carefully, as most restaurants in the city close right before Shabbat starts and only open again for dinner on Saturday evening.
Since I have been to Jerusalem a bunch of times during Shabbat, I have done all the research and selected the best restaurants that stay open. Here they are:
ADOM – This probably is my favorite restaurant in Jerusalem. It’s stylish, easygoing and the food is delicious. It’s located inside the First Station (Jerusalem old train station). Make sure to reserve in advance as it is very popular. It’s on the expensive side.
SEA DOLPHIN – Located on a narrow alley close to Jaffo Street, it mostly serves food. It’s expensive.
CHAKRA – One of the trendiest restaurants in Jerusalem. Food is delicious. Much like the others, it is actually quite expensive.
ZUNI – Another one close to Jaffo Street, it’s a very easy going place where you can have anything from chicken to fish to steak. It has a good selection of wines.
But you can have a family style dinner with Betzavta
If you would like to have a more traditional Shabbat dinner experience, instead of eating out you can opt to join a local family. Betzavta, which means “together” in Hebrew, strives to bring together local families with people traveling around Israel, so that they can get to know the local culture and way of life and gain an insider’s perspective.
You will have to send your request a bit in advance so that there is enough time to find a family to match your needs.
Traditional Shabbat food is actually delicious
Shabbat food is unique, and actually very tasty. Each family has its own recipes – varying depending on where the family actually comes from. A Shabbat dinner usually has a meat or chicken dish and an incredible array of vegetable sides – cauliflower seems to be a favorite.
Kubana is a traditional bread usually eaten for Shabbat breakfast by the Yemenite Jews – it’s greasy, but full of flavor.
The Old City remains open
Despite public transportation closure during Shabbat, Jerusalem still remains a pleasant place to visit. The Old City, with the market, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and all the other attractions, remains open and buzzing with life – so it’s a safe bet to go there if you want to be surrounded by people (most of them tourists).
Keep in mind that you won’t be able to access Temple Mount on Friday, as that’s the day of prayer for the Muslims, and on Saturdays.
Museums are closed
Most museums such as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum is one of the best in Jerusalem are closed on Shabbat. They may as well be as they are not in the center of town and you’d have to get a Palestinian taxi to get there.
You can have a Shabbat tour
One of the most interesting things to do during Shabbat in Jerusalem Shabbat is a guided tour that can teach you a lot about the main aspects of Orthodox Judaism. The tour lasts about two hours; it goes through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City – including the Hurva Synagogue – and other synagogues. You can book it here.
You can’t take photos of the Orthodox (or use the phone)
You aren’t supposed to take photos of Orthodox Jews during Shabbat. In fact, if you venture towards the Western Wall, a place of prayer for the Jews, you will be summoned to put away your camera and your phone. You can’t even use your phone for personal reasons (ie text messages) as long as you are close to the wall.
You may be better off getting out of the city
Shabbat in Jerusalem may be an interesting, educational experience but if this is not your idea of fun, you may want to get out of the city. You can take plenty of tours outside of town during Shabbat – most of them will be in the West Bank, run by Palestinians. You can book your West Bank tour here.
If you don’t want to join a guided tour, you can take bus 231 or 234 from the bus station near Damascus Gate (it’s a Palestinian bus, so it will be working) and go to Bethlehem.
Make sure to read my post “Everything You Need To Know Before You Visit Palestine.”
Further readings about Israel
If you are traveling to Israel, make sure to read my other posts:
- The 10 Best Places To Visit During A Trip To Israel
- A Complete Guide To Israeli Food
- 29 Things To Do In Jerusalem You Can’t Miss
- Where To Get The Most Impressive Views Of Jerusalem
- What You Must Know Before Visiting Temple Mount And Dome Of The Rock
- 21 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Tel Aviv
- Where To Stay In Tel Aviv: Recommendations By An Almost Local
- Tel Aviv Vegan Food Guide: The Best Vegan Restaurants In Tel Aviv
- A Guide To The Things To Do In Haifa, Israel
- 17 Truly Unmissable Things To Do In Eilat, Israel
- Everything You Need To Know To Hike The Jesus Trail
- Masada Sunrise Guide: Hiking The Masada Snake Path
- The 13 Best Day Trips From Tel Aviv
- 9 Fantastic Day Trips From Jerusalem
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