What You Need To Know About Shabbat In Jerusalem

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 family 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. 

Are you curious to find out more about Shabbat in Jerusalem and what to expect from it? Continue reading!

Jerusalem Western Wall
The Western Wall is a place of prayer for the Jews

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 light candles and then go to pray at the synagogue as Shabbat starts, on late Friday afternoon. After that, they will go home for the Shabbat dinner – a massive family meal that is usually prepared before Shabbat starts and kept warm. 

Religious people will visit the synagogue again on Saturday morning and one last time for the Havdalah, a service which marks the end of the 24 hours of Shabbat. They 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.

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, because that very act is forbidden. As pushing the button of an elevator is forbidden, throughout Israel buildings have what are known as “Shabbat elevators,” which stop at every floor so that observant jews can get in and out without having to press any button.

Religious Jews will also turn off their cell phones – don’t be surprised if your religious friends won’t answer your messages on a Friday evening!

Mahane Yehuda
Mahane Yehuda Market gets incredibly busy during Shabbat

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! 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 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? I am sorry to inform you that public transportation stops working completely during Shabbat, across the entire country. 

The cheapest way to move around Jerusalem during Shabbat is walking. Alternatively, consider using 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. Use the app Gett, which works all around Israel and is very similar to Uber. You just have to state your current location and the final destination, and pay by the meter. 

Orthodox Shabbat in Jerusalem
Going to prayer 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 when my mom was visiting me and we tried to make our way to a far away restaurant (one of the very few open in town during Shabbat) and the Palestinian driver accidentally drove through an Orthodox neighborhood.

Lots of police is generally around to prevent the protests becoming 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 close right before Shabbat starts and only open again for dinner on Saturday evening. Let me cut through the chase for you and point out the best restaurants in Jerusalem that are also open during Shabbat:

ADOM – 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).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 seafood. It’s expensive. 

CHAKRA – One of the trendiest restaurants in Jerusalem, it serves delicious food but it’s 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. 

Check out my post The 17 Best Restaurants In Jerusalem.

A Shabbat dinner with Betzavta
A Shabbat dinner

But you can have a family style dinner

If you would like to have a more traditional Shabbat dinner experience, instead of eating out you can opt to join a local family. There are many companies in Israel that offer this kind of experience and strive 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. Book it here

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 dish (often chicken) and an incredible array of vegetable sides – cauliflower seems to be a favorite. 

Kubana is a traditional bread usually eaten for Shabbat breakfast in the Yemenite Jew community – 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 and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, 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). There you’ll also find many food Palestinian eateries.

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) 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 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 your Shabbat tour 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 it for personal reasons (ie text messages) as long as you are close to the wall. 

Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is a must see in Bethlehem

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 – most 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.

Alternatively, simply rent a car before Shabbat starts and you will be completely free to do what you want!

Check out my post A Guide To Renting A Car In Israel.

Further Readings About Israel

If you are traveling to Israel, make sure to read my other posts:

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Discover everything you need to know about Shabbat in Jerusalem - via @clautavani

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