God(dess) said, “You shall work 6 days a week!”
Startled, the donkey went, “Eee!!”
God(dess) said, “And on the seventh day, you shall rest”.
The donkey breathed a sigh of relief, “Aaahhh”.
And that’s why the donkey is now known for saying “Eee-aahh”.
Or so kids used to tell each other when I was a kid.
This story might be made up (or not!), yet it is based on a very real fact: As we approach 2013, the Sabbath – Saturday, if you will – is still pretty sacred in Israel. Most businesses (including buses and trains) shut down for Saturdays – or they’ll pay a big fine. Some people like to work Saturdays in workplaces that enable it because they get a 150% of what they would have gotten paid on a regular day.
Others rejoice at the chance for a break. If God(dess) worked for 6 days to create the world and then got to rest on the seventh day, why shouldn’t they take the day off as well?
The Sacredness of the Sabbath and the New, Opposing Voices
People are not supposed to do anything on Sabbath – they’re not supposed to work or drive, or even turn on the electricity. Electrical inventions make life easier on some Sabbath-keeping people, enabling them to pre-set machines to warm up food or a room so that they may eat and stay warm. Yet debates still persist on the legitimacy of using these machines on a Sabbath.
Some believe that violating the Sabbath is one of the worst sins a person can make, and s/he who violates the Sabbath deserves the worst kind of demise. The Sabbath is meant for holiday-like meals and prayers. The only time when it is OK in the eyes of Sabbath-keeping folks to break the rules is when a human life is dependent on it.
At the same time, others are seeking a more secular Israel, one that fits the 21st century Western World they believe we are part of. For example, a big campaign is going on these days to promote buses on Saturdays. Service cabs (“moniyot sherut”) are an expensive alternative that isn’t available everywhere. Where they are available, they charge much more than midday rates (2.5 to 3 times as much on one route I know), leaving the poorer parts of society unable to commute for 25 hours or so.
Yet the official “Sabbath” doesn’t start on Saturday morning and ends on Sunday morning.
In fact, many businesses close down for the weekend early on Friday. Some open back up on Sunday morning, yet many open back up on Saturday evening. I know people who go into work for 2 hours on Saturday evenings! Talk about things not making sense financially for the employees, especially if the pay is minimum wage – as it usually is in stores and customer service and many bus driver positions, for example.
Many times, there’s a rotation and different employees work different Saturday eves. However, by the time these businesses open back up, they are not obligated to pay their employees a 150% – because the Sabbath has “exited”.
How to know when the Sabbath has entered the building
Businesses who work Friday mornings will usually close as early as 12:00 noon. Sometimes it’ll be 11 AM, sometimes 1 or 2 or 3 PM. Buses’ schedules change depending on when the Sabbath “enters”.
The Sabbath’s “entrance” changes all the time, since it is dependent on when the sun sets. Usually, after the stars come out, it is for sure the Sabbath. Some say three stars, some say more. Additionally, to show the Sabbath it matters, some start calling it a Saturday twenty to forty minutes ahead of time.
Businesses usually close anything from an hour to a few hours ahead of time, to enable their employees – religious or not – to arrive home before the Sabbath enters. This is especially important if one is religious – or if one uses public transportation, whose own employees call it a Saturday early each Friday.
When I was in boot camp – you know, in the obligatory military service we have here – and it was time to head home for the weekend (my group was lucky, we got to go home each weekend), the first people to be let out were the people who lived the furthest away. It was always a Friday when commanders let us go home, and it was their responsibility to make sure soldiers left early enough to make it to the Sabbath on time.
Happy Thursday Holiday
Friday might be a shorter work day for many, yet as the years pass, it’s becoming a no-work day for many more. Offices are closed, university classes are not given (unless there was a strike and professors need to make up for lost classes) and even some schools for pre-18-year-olds now give their staff and pupils the day off on Friday.
Even though I have worked and studied 24/7 for the past few years, I do like the idea of a 5 day work week and two days off to read books, connect with others and travel.
It it understandable, then, why every Thursday people start wishing each other Happy Thursday Holiday. Status after status on my Facebook feed celebrates the end of Thursday and the beginning of the weekend.
Rumor has it weekends here are real enjoyable, so I’ll have to try them one of these years.
How to know when the Sabbath has left the building
Knowing when the Sabbath “exists” is very similar to knowing when it “enters”, and it’s simple too – just look at the sky!
As the sun sets on a Saturday evening, wait for the darkness and notice the stars. If you want to do your good Sabbath deed, you’re absolved of Sabbath duties once the stars are decorating the sky.
However, if you want to show you really care and you’re not just waiting because you have to, you’ll wait longer. You’ll extend your Sabbath by 72 to 92 minutes, maybe even by a few hours.
Businesses will usually not open right when the Sabbath “exists”, yet it’s usually not for religious reasons. They have to give their employees time to catch a bus if needed, and therefore need to take under consideration not only the commute time but also the operating hours of public transportation.
Bus drivers are many times picked up for work by a company shuttle if they don’t have a car, or don’t wish to drive it on a Saturday. They are picked up when there is still light outside and the Sabbath is in full swing, so that they may start working when the Sabbath has faded into the sea.
How should you act on a Sabbath in Israel?
Obviously, if you’re a religious Jew, you won’t have any challenge here. But what if you believe in another religion or you’re plain secular, even an atheist?
Israel’s got a diverse population that contains all these different belief and disbelief systems, so in most areas, you’ll be able to enjoy yourself almost as if it were a regular day.
It might be more challenging in Jerusalem than in Tel-Aviv and you might need to stock up on food for the weekend in advance (especially if you’re in Jerusalem or if you don’t intend to eat in restaurants). You also won’t be able to go to the post office or hit local shops.
However, besides being a religious day, Saturday is many people’s day off and many attractions are open to lure in individuals and families when they’re not busy earning a living. Spending opportunities exist in shopping centers, restaurants, tourist attractions, museums and national parks – among others. Not all of them, so you’ll have to verify in advance – or take your chances if you prefer spontaneity.
Buses and trains won’t work, service cabs will. Except for very specific places, like Jerusalem’s ultra-religious 100 She’arim (100 Gates) neighborhood, feel free to drive anywhere you want. Just don’t expect any rental car agencies to be open on Saturdays. Rent in advance.
Note that if you only need the car for Friday and want to return it after the Sabbath has entered the country, you will be told in advance – I hope – that you will need to keep the car throughout Saturday (and pay a weekend fee), only to return it on Sunday morning.
You can take taxis (unless you’re in bizarre, taxi-less areas in beautiful northern Israel), just know they’ll be more expensive and less frequent than usual.
The only time of year you absolutely, positively, without a doubt should never, ever drive is on Yom Kipur, the holiest day of the year. Unless, of course, a life is dependent on that. Even then, consider calling an ambulance instead of driving yourself.
The shocking truth about Sundays
Lastly, I cannot end a 1600 word post on the Sabbath without revealing to you the shocking truth about Sundays.
I might have mentioned it here and there, yet I emphasize it now because it’s always fun to see how shocked people are to discover this truth – and because I really do think it’s an important piece of information for folks who intend on traveling through Israel…. and might want to avoid Sunday morning’s horrible traffic. You see….
Sunday is Israel’s first day of the week. It is the day soldiers go back to the base, workers to work, children to school, adult students to colleges and universities…. It is the day that exists to remind everyone they better create a life they enjoy, because they’ll have to live with it for the rest of the week.
To me, Sunday is the day in which opportunities blossom.
Have you ever traveled in Israel during Sabbath? Do you have any other tips? How about your own country – is there something a traveler must know?