What is Shabbat?

Shabbat is the seventh day of the Jewish week. In Hebrew, “Shabbat” comes from the verb “Lishbot,” which means “to stop working.” According to the Bible, GOD created the world in six days and then stopped working and rested on the seventh day. So on Shabbat, Jewish people rest from their everyday work and remember the six days of creation.

Is Shabbat on Saturday? Not exactly. In Judaism, each day begins when the first three stars appear in the night sky. It happens about 25 minutes after sunset. So, the seventh day begins on Friday eve, a short while after sunset, and ends when three stars appear in the sky on Saturday eve.

Israel is a democratic state but is also a Jewish state. That is why many services are not available on Shabbat. Public institutions are closed, most stores and restaurants are closed, and there’s almost no public transportation. But what about the people? What does the individual Israeli do during Shabbat? Well, it depends who you ask.

Post last updated on 12 September 2021.

Table of contents:

The non-religious Shabbat experience:

I am a non-religious Jew, which means I do not perform all the obligations of Judaism. For me and many others, Shabbat is a perfect time to see friends and family. Most people in Israel don’t work on Saturday because of the Shabbat. Friday is usually a half working day, but some people don’t work on Friday at all. So, most people are free on Shabbat and use this time to catch up on relationships. 

Sometimes, I take a bus or drive to my parents’ house before the Shabbat enters. During the week, my parents eat dairy-based food for dinner, but on Friday eve, they make meat or fish. That’s because the Shabbat dinner is supposed to be the grandest feast of the week. I’ll tell you more about that later. 

When I’m not visiting my parents on Shabbat, I usually stay at home. Sometimes my friends suggest to go out and explore nature together. I don’t have a car, so if they offer me a lift in theirs, I’m always happy to go breathe some fresh air. Usually, the national parks and picnic areas are packed with secular families during the weekend. 

The Shabbat dinner:

To distinguish Shabbat from other days, we usually eat a grand feast on Friday eve. Many Jewish people do this, regardless of their level of faith. The Jewish law states that you must enjoy the finest food on Shabbat, food that brings you pleasure. For most people, it’s meat or fish. But if you’re vegetarian, it might be other things. My family also makes a grand feast on Friday eve, with many types of dishes and meat. On other days, as I said, we eat simple dairy products for dinner.

The Shabbat dinners vary from one family to another. Most non-religious Jews will only eat something special, but some will also add some blessings and rituals. Religious people will sing all the hymns, bless all the blessings, and do all the rituals, but the way they do it might vary from one family to another. So… Here are some of the main rituals connected to the Shabbat dinner:

The lighting of the candles:

A few minutes before Shabbat enters, the women light the two candles of Shabbat. Back in ancient days, there was no electricity, and the fire of the candles was the only source of light. By lighting the candles, the family could see the food they were eating and truly enjoy it. 

Singing hymns:

After people come back from the synagogue, the family gathers around the table and sings “Shalom Aleichem,” which welcomes the angels and requests their blessings. Then, the father reads “Eishet Chayil, a tribute to his wife, who works hard to keep the family together and the home warm. We once hosted a friend of mine for Shabbat dinner and explained to her that “Eishet Chayil” is meant to thank the wife for her hard work. So, she asked if we have a tribute for the husband, too. “We don’t say thank you to the husband because he doesn’t do anything,” my husband joked. 

The Kiddush: 

The ceremony host recites a blessing called Kiddush over a full cup of wine. Then, the cup is passed between everyone, usually from the oldest to the youngest, and everyone takes a sip. In Hebrew, “kiddush” means “sanctification.” The blessing over the wine sanctifies the Shabbat from the rest of the weekdays. 

The eating of the challah:

After the Kiddush, people will do a ritual hand-washing. Then, they will keep quiet until the host will take hold of the two challahs and recite another blessing. The host will cut small pieces of the challah, dip them in salt, and pass them around the table. After eating the challah, people can talk again. 

The challah is a traditional bread connected to Shabbat and Jewish holidays. There are several reasons for dipping it in salt before eating it. One of the reasons is that the challah is like a meal offering to GOD. Since the offerings were dipped in salt in the Holy Temple, we dip the challah in salt too. 

If you wonder how you can make challah at home, here is a short video by The Cooking Foodie:

Want to take attend a Shabbat dinner during your stay in Israel? You can try Shabbat of a Lifetime.

Shabbat for religious people:

The restrictions of Shabbat:

When I served in the army, I served with religious people. There are all kinds of religious Jewish people in Israel, some very-very religious and some less. Sometimes we stayed in the base on Shabbat. Then, I had a chance to experience a bit of the religious Shabbat atmosphere.

According to religion, you need to rest from everything on Shabbat. There are many things you cannot do on Shabbat. You can’t drive, can’t use your phone, can’t work on the computer, can’t watch TV… In fact, you can’t use any electronic device. Some rabbis say that when you use an electronic device, you create an electrical circuit. It is forbidden to create anything on Shabbat, so that’s why they forbid it. Though, if you create the electrical circuit before Shabbat enters, that’s ok. In the army, we had an electric water boiler that we could use only because it was on “Shabbat mode.” That’s how we could make ourselves tea and coffee. We switched it on before Shabbat and didn’t touch the switch till the holy day ended.

Also, religious Jewish people can’t eat food cooked during Shabbat. Because if you cooked it on Shabbat, it means you worked and turned on electronic cooking devices. So how do you eat warm food on Shabbat? You cook the food before Shabbat and warm it up using an electric heating platter (called “plata” in Hebrew), which you plug into electricity before the Shabbat enters. 

There are many more restrictions. If you want to learn about them all, read about the 39 forms of work on Wikipedia.

The end of Shabbat:

When I was in the army, my favorite time was when the Shabbat was about to end. Not because it was about to end, but because I loved seeing my religious friends getting ready for the upcoming week. There’s this beautiful little ceremony called “Havdalah” (meaning “separation” in Hebrew) that marks the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. In the ceremony, we sip from a cup of wine, light a long candle, and smell the strong aroma of a spice. I loved the smell of the spice. Some blessings are said, and the Shabbat comes to an end until the next one.

Visiting Israel on Shabbat? Here are some practical tips:

How to get around Israel on Shabbat?
Shabbat in Jerusalem: What’s Open?

Have a peaceful Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom (:

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Yours,

Lior

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