The electric atmosphere makes the air sizzle in the hours leading up to Shabbat in Jerusalem. Before the western side of the city shuts down for a full 24 hours from Friday evening to Saturday evening, bakeries are cranking out the last of the rugelach, a popular Jewish pastry made by rolling a triangle of dough around a filling, and locals are running last-minute errands. Observers of Shabbat are getting ready to spend some much-needed time with family.
Travellers often hear about the annoyance of visiting during Shabbat, as transport is disrupted and shops close across Israel, but it doesn’t have to put a damper on your plans. As long as you’re prepared, experiencing Shabbat like a local can help you get even more out of your trip to the Holy Land.
Choose a place to stay in Jerusalem's Old City to be close to the action of Shabbat © VanderWolf Images / Shutterstock
Stay close to the action: pick accommodation in the Old City
To ensure an authentic Shabbat experience, it’s best to stay in or near Jerusalem's Old City. In particular, stick around the Jewish Quarter because this district is unsurprisingly lively and the centre of action during Jewish celebrations and holidays. You’ll see families heading to the Western Wall and children playing in squares after mealtime. Its central location is also ideal because public transportation doesn’t run on Shabbat, and it’s sometimes even a challenge to find a taxi (and if you do find one, prices are 25% higher).
Don’t rely on public transport
During Shabbat, most public transportation shuts down: trains, buses and even El Al flights. Try to plan so that your travel days don’t fall during Shabbat, but if your plans can’t change, sheruts (shared taxis) still run. It’s easiest to hire a car, though this too is best arranged in advance, and you’ll likely pay a premium for the convenience. Instead, plan ahead and enjoy a traditional Shabbat in town travelling on foot. It’s a great time to explore East Jerusalem, the predominantly Palestinian part of the city, where shops remain open and taxis are more plentiful.
Stock up on supplies
Shabbat is a time to rest from work and spend time with friends and family, so the majority of businesses close sometime on Friday, including the reception desks at some hotels. When exactly they close varies by the time of year; it's traditionally around lunchtime in winter and a bit later in the afternoon during the summer. After Shabbat ends on Saturday, businesses tend to reopen in the evening and are open late so that people can shop before the start of the new week.
Praying at the Western Wall ushers in the arrival of Shabbat © Dan Hallman / Getty Images
Visit the Western Wall on Friday night
One of the best reasons to stay near the Old City during Shabbat is to be in close proximity to the Western Wall, which borders the Jewish Quarter and upholds the Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif. All are welcome to visit the Western Wall, but men and women have separate areas, and visitors should dress modestly: women should cover their legs and shoulders, and men should cover their heads. During Shabbat, religious Jews at the Western Wall mark the beginning of the celebration at sundown on Friday in prayer. Visitors are welcome to offer their own prayers, either vocally or on a piece of paper placed between the cracks of the wall.
Traditional challah bread for sale at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem © chameleonseye / Getty Images
Eat with a local Jewish family
Even if you haven’t made friends with any Jewish residents yet, services such as Get Shabbat and @EatWith Jerusalem act as resources to connect visitors with local in-home chefs who will whip up a homemade kosher meal. Traditionally, Shabbat meals begin with the lighting of the candles just before sundown, the kiddush (the blessing over the wine) and the prayer over the bread. The quintessential Shabbat bread is the challah, a braided loaf that symbolises the miraculous ‘bread from heaven’ that fell on Fridays during the biblical 40 years of desert wandering. Beyond that, the menu can vary widely.
Eat at a hotel
Even though most businesses will be closed, it is possible to have a traditional Shabbat meal at your hotel or hostel, and sometimes you can even help cook. Most hotels serve a buffet-style Shabbat dinner for a flat rate, which is easier than family-style gathering since each guest can take what they wish without needing to worry that there will be enough of a specific dish for others at the table. One of the most popular options is the Shabbat dinner at Abraham Hostel for 50NIS, where you can meet other travellers and make new friends. The high-end King David Hotel is also known for its Shabbat meals, and the lunch will set you back 420NIS per person.
Shabbat is a time to spend with friends and family, not to see what filter looks best on a picture of candle-lit challah, so put down your phone and spend some time with loved ones or new friends instead. There are, of course, no strict punishments for updating your social media accounts during Shabbat, but the authentic experience should not include checking your feed every ten minutes. The purpose of the sabbath is to rest, and switching off during Shabbat can be a rejuvenating mini digital detox.
Visitors are invited to explore Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, such as Mea She'arim © sanchezgrande / Getty Images
Visit an Orthodox neighbourhood
To gain an even deeper understanding and appreciation for Jewish life and culture, consider visiting one of Jerusalem’s Orthodox neighbourhoods. In Mea She'arim, one of the oldest areas, life revolves around Jewish law, prayer and the study of religious texts. It’s fine to visit alone, but you may get more out of your visit with a local guide; check with your hotel for a recommendation. Be sure to dress modestly; you’ll see posters reminding visitors of this requirement throughout the neighbourhood. Women should wear knee-length (or longer) skirts and shirts with sleeves and without plunging necklines. Men shouldn’t wear shorts or sleeveless tops, either. During Shabbat, refrain from smoking, taking photos, driving and using mobile phones in Orthodox neighbourhoods.