Shabbat Of A Lifetime, A Unique Jerusalem Experience


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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.

Challah, or Shabbat bread (Creative Commons photo)

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.

Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem
The Machane Yehuda Market is full of last minute shoppers

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.

Pinnable image of Shabbat of a Lifetime with a bowl of chicken soup and a dumpling
Pinnable image of chicken soup with matzo dumpling

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.

Of course, when it is not Shabbat, there are lots of opportunities to enjoy a range of cuisine in Jerusalem. Read more about Eating Out In Jerusalem.

Thanks to our hosts, Nicky and Jonny, and to Shabbat of a Lifetime and the Jerusalem Convention Bureau for providing this unique experience.


6 thoughts on “Shabbat Of A Lifetime, A Unique Jerusalem Experience”

  1. I have family in Israel, so I got to spend two shabbats with them this visit. It’s always a joy. Normally, at home, dinner is a relatively short occasion; we eat, clear our plates and then go about our business. We might talk over dinner, but never for long. On shabbat, though, even the kids stayed around the table, talking with their parents and other relatives. It’s a warm, loving weekly tradition! I’m glad you got to experience it!

    1. One of the things that most impressed me was the inclusion of the children as equal members of the conversation. Apparently they had been heard telling someone that they really enjoyed the shabbat because everyone put their phones away and had time to talk!

  2. Shabbat of a Lifetime sounds like a wonderful program. I remember seeing an example of the Shabbat rules one Friday night in our hotel elevator, when observant Jews riding with us relied on us to push the buttons.

  3. A great experience you had and thanks for sharing it with us. Maybe we all should try one of those disconnecting 24-hours from electronics and just talking with each other — sounds curiously refreshing!

  4. We were just discussing the Jewish Sabbath in church in connection with Easter; excellent article! What a fantastic experience for you!

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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