A Tourist’s Guide to Shabbat (the Sabbath)

Some of the most frequently asked questions by first time visitors are: “How will the Sabbath or Shabbat or Saturday impact my trip to Israel?” “What happens?” “Can I move around?” “What will I be able to do?”

This is a short guide to help and to put things in context about the Shabbat or the Sabbath (the terms are used interchangeably.) For further information please consult our companion guides – A Guide to the Major Festivals and A Guide to the Minor Festivals.

Origins of the Sabbath – Shabbat

The origins of the Sabbath are in the Bible and are closely associated with the Seven Days of Creation, which conclude with Divine Rest on the Seventh Day. Observing the Sabbath as a religious commandment is mentioned in both sets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus & Deuteronomy.)

Shabbat observation is a complex process and the laws (or halacha) are derived from various commandments in the Bible, explained by the Oral Law & Tradition and have been updated in every generation to include the challenges of modern inventions and pressures.

When does the Sabbath happen?

The Shabbat happens every week and as the name implies it is basically “Saturday.” However, in Jewish religious practice a day does not run from midnight to midnight but from sunset until nightfall the following day. (This means that there is a period between sunset and nightfall which in certain religious contexts has an ambiguous context – but this is out of scope of this article.)

The Sabbath is very holy, so the religious practice is to observe the Sabbath for a few minutes longer. In practical terms, the Sabbath is observed from just before sunset on Friday to just after dark on Saturday – a total of around 25 hours.

What are the Laws of Sabbath Observance?

This is one of the most complex areas of Jewish religious law and a full answer is out of the scope of this article. However, in ordinary terms there are several main concepts with practical application to tourists:

  • It is forbidden to work.
  • It is forbidden to switch electricity on and off.
  • It is forbidden to travel in vehicles.
  • It is forbidden to cook food (although we do eat hot food).
  • It is one day a week dedicated to religious contemplation, taking stock of our daily grind and for meaningful interaction with family and friends.

Does everybody keep the Shabbat? Do tourists have to keep the Shabbat?

Israel has a very strong tradition of freedom of religion and of expression. Many Israelis keep the Sabbath very strictly; and equally many don’t keep it at all. There are many who keep several aspects of the traditional religious and family values but don’t keep the other aspects of the Sabbath. For everybody this is the weekend. Tourists are free to do what they please.

The centrality of the Sabbath has a big impact on the Israeli week and weekend and is easily and immediately observable by every tourist. It helps to understand in advance, but as a tourist you can decide how much impact the Shabbat is going to have on your trip.

Shabbat in a hotel

The hotels try and cater to the widest possible audience and so the Shabbat is observed. Here are some of the things that happen on the Shabbat in most hotels.

  • This is the weekend so the hotels fill up on Friday; with people having a weekend away either privately or in the context of work or social groups. Often there are large groups of extended family celebrating a family occasion.
  • Shabbat elevator/lift – As mentioned, it is forbidden to press electrical switches and so calling and selecting a floor in a regular elevator is impossible. The solution is an elevator that travels automatically, from floor to floor stopping for a minute or so on each one. It can be a slow process and there is often a line to get in. Each hotel will typically have one or two Shabbat elevators and the rest will operate normally.
  • Candle lighting – The beginning of the Shabbat is marked with candle lighting so there is normally a central place in the hotel where all those who want to light candles do light.
  • Food – Friday night and Shabbat lunch are traditionally the most important meals of the week in honor of the Sabbath. At many hotels you can expect a real banquet. As mentioned there is a prohibition of cooking fresh food on the Sabbath this impacts the menu with some traditional Sabbath foods and at breakfast you will notice there are no fresh cooked eggs, toast etc. The lobby menu will also have some Sabbath modifications. However, there are many ways to ensure that the food is hot and tasty.
  • Other aspects – In keeping with the religious freedom, the rest of the hotel will operate normally, from the reception to the pool to the parking there will be normal service.

Shabbat out & about in Israel

Shabbat observance is a matter of belief, so the impact out and about in Israel can vary widely. In certain cities (like Jerusalem), there is a greater impact than in others and in every city there are areas with greater impact.

Within most cities there is noticeably less traffic from Friday afternoon onwards. In some neighborhoods there is strictly no traffic. In other areas such as popular tourist spots there will be much more traffic and many more people.

In most cities mass transportation shuts down for the Shabbat (until just after the end of the Shabbat on Saturday night) but, there are taxis.

Most shops and restaurants are closed on the Sabbath. But again, this varies from place to place, but it is true as a general rule.  Many museums and tourist attractions are closed, whilst most of the outdoor places are open and busy.

Shabbat for tourists

Most tour groups are accomplished at working round the Shabbat and will build an appropriate program for the day. This may include some Shabbat aspects or may not. Some groups may offer this as a rest day.

As an individual tourist you can choose to make it a hang out day or to select your program based on your preferences. You are certainly free to drive your rented car or travel by taxi.

Things to do on Shabbat

Visiting Israel on the Shabbat gives you an opportunity to see the Shabbat close up. Enjoy the change in pace and see how quickly life restarts within minutes of darkness falling on Saturday night. We recommend wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem and Zefat to see people taking time with their families and dedicating themselves to prayer at the Western Wall or in the numerous synagogues. The service at dusk on Friday evening is particularly emotive, often with lots of singing.

Shabbat Shalom

The traditional greeting on the Shabbat (no matter how religious) is “Shabbat Shalom” (literally: “Have a Peaceful Shabbat.”) It is a very powerful message summarizing the holiness and unique blessings of the Shabbat.

After the Shabbat is finished, then use the greeting “Shavua Tov” – “Have a good week!”