The Sabbath (or Shabbat) is a unique time in Jerusalem. Families come together and all work stops for twenty-four hours. One of the most important elements of the Sabbath is the Friday evening meal. I was privileged to experience this at first hand with Shabbat of a Lifetime, a programme that matches visitors to Jerusalem with local families.
The Sabbath in Jerusalem
The Jewish day runs from sunset to sunset, so the Sabbath is from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Anyone who has been in Jerusalem at this time will be familiar with the routine. First there is the rush for provisions on Friday morning, and the shops and markets are packed with people. Then, at thirty-six minutes before sundown, a siren sounds to remind everyone that the Sabbath will soon begin. Then the cars start to disappear from the streets and the city settles into an unaccustomed silence.
For those who observe Shabbat, not only cars but all forms of technology are forbidden. Phones and computers are switched off, public transport grinds to a halt, and the Friday night meal must be cooked before the sun goes down. (Even cameras are forbidden, which is why this post has no photographs from our Shabbat meal.)
Of course, with so many different communities in Jerusalem, not everyone observes Shabbat. But religious Jews, and many secular ones, do follow the custom. This means that it can be difficult for tourists to find food or entertainment on a Friday evening (other than inside the Old City where Christian and Palestinian restaurants are open as usual). Shabbat of a Lifetime is a way of bridging the gap, allowing visitors to enjoy a traditional meal while participating in the rituals of a family Shabbat.
Experiencing Shabbat of a Lifetime
We were at the home of Nicky and Jonny in Gonen, a quiet residential area of the city. It was a large party: apart from our group of nine travel writers there were Nicky and Jonny’s three children, and five of their friends and neighbours of assorted ages. I got the impression that they frequently hosted large gatherings like this.
We were not just observers. We took part in the rituals, starting with the handwashing, rinsing three times to the left and three times to the right. We listened to the songs and the blessing of the children, then remained silent until the bread had been blessed and everyone had taken their first bite. Jonny explained the significance of each song and ritual as we went along.
Food and Conversation at a Shabbat Dinner
We started with dips and salads. Then it was chicken soup and dumplings, perhaps one of the most archetypal Jewish dishes. There were meat and fish, too, and options for the vegetarians and vegans amongst us.
One thing that surprised me was that, although we were a large group, all of the conversation involved the whole table. Jonny started by asking questions of each person in turn so that everyone, including the youngest child, had a share of the conversation. I don’t know if this was a custom of this particular family, or if it is typical of Shabbat meals. However, I suspect the latter. As Jonny explained, Shabbat is the time when families and friends come together, when they put aside technology and other distractions, and focus upon themselves and upon one another.
Thanks to our hosts, Nicky and Jonny, and to Shabbat of a Lifetime and the Jerusalem Convention Bureau for providing this unique experience.