Israel: How to Know When the Sabbath Has Left the Building (and Other Useful Sabbath Info)

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?



  1. I spent a month in Israel in 2010, and I knew about the Sabbath, but got conflicting stories on what I would and wouldn’t be able to do. I went hungry on my first Saturday there, but managed the rest of the trip with more reasonable expectations for Sabbath.

    Great post. Super informative!
    Erik recently posted..New Zealand- Chapter 15- Meandering up the West CoastMy Profile

    • Thanks Erik! People going hungry on Sabbath was my concern 🙂 I guess it depends on where you are and if you have the ability to get to a restaurant (or a grocery store where such stores are open, like in Tel-Aviv). Glad the rest of the trip didn’t leave you hungry!

  2. This article was fascinating to me, Ayelet. I had no idea the extent to which Sabbath-keeping permeated Israeli society. 🙂 I’m SO glad I found you and your blog to follow. 🙂 I’m learning so much about your amazing country. 🙂
    Krista recently posted..Celebrating A Year of Recovery in Australia and A GiveawayMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for your warm words, Krista! 🙂 You definitely feel it in some areas more than others. I hope you get to come here one day 🙂

  3. This is absolutely fascinating and so informative. I’m dismayed I didn’t see this when you first posted it! I have tons of questions and comments.

    The no electricity rule is for secular as well as religious Jews? I know that the religious don’t use electricity on Shabbat, but my secular friends use it just as they do any other day of the week.

    I actually would be disappointed to see bus service on Friday nights and Saturdays. Although it’s a little of an inconvenience to me sometimes, I really like the idea of bus service shutting down on these days. It’s so respectful of the Sabbath.

    I have one friend who’s a real estate agent who always starts working Saturday nights, letting people into the apartments he’s rented them, etc. It’s always seemed to me it would be difficult for people to really relax on Shabbat, knowing they have to go back to work Saturday nights, but as you said, not everyone goes back to work tat night.

    As far as bus companies stopping their buses an hour or more ahead of the sun going down, I thought this was so that if a bus broke down shortly before Shabbat, no one would have to work after the onset of Shabbat to get the bus repaired or off the road, and to get the people transported to their final destination. I’m glad you let me know that it’s not for this reason that buses stop running early but so that everyone will be home or wherever they want to be by the time Shabbat begins.

    I just loved being in Israel for Yom Kippur, when no one drives! Is it actually illegal to drive that day or just forbidden by religious law? It must be illegal because no one does it. On Yom Kippur I walked all the way down the mountain into downtown Tiberias, staying right in the street the whole time because I knew know cars would come along. It was quite cool!

    And yes, the whole working on Sunday thing is still quite shocking to me 🙂 I’ve never quite adjusted to it. Arab countries also begin work on Sundays, although they take both Fridays and Saturdays off. Interestingly, on my last visit to Oman I discovered that their work week begins on Saturday! Can you believe it? Thursdays and Fridays are their days off!

    Yes, you really should try taking weekends off instead of just Saturdays. They are, as you say, real relaxing. 🙂 I don’t know what I’d do without them. I wish all of Israel would take both Fridays and Saturdays off. I think it would really help people to destress more effectively.

    Excellent post, Ayelet!!
    Sabina recently posted..A Very Sweet Middle Eastern Holiday – Eid al AdhaMy Profile

    • Thanks for all your questions and comments, Sabina!

      1) The no electricity rule is only for religious folks. Secular people turn on the lights, drive cars, etc.

      2) I worked Saturdays in the past, yet never had a job that required me to come in for 2-3 hours on a Saturday evening and that’s it. I would probably be reluctant at taking a job like that, yet many jobs do require it…

      3) I can only imagine the discomfort for religious people if they get stuck on a bus on Friday afternoon, and then have to make it home while it’s already Shabbath and they’re not “supposed” to use cars/buses.

      4) I like walking in the middle of the road on Yom Kipur too – unless there are too many bycicles there, of course 🙂 To the best of my knowledge, you are allowed to drive a car on Yom Kipur as far as the law is concerned. If one doesn’t mind facing rage from the crowds and maybe even getting physically hurt (depending where you are and who you encounter), one can try and drive a car on Yom Kipur. Of course, some roads are closed and people do walk on highways, so I don’t think someone can be too successful at that anyway.

      5) Beginning the week on Saturdays is interesting!

      6) Many people already do have both Fridays and Saturdays off, I’m sure it will keep spreading. There was once talk (for a VERY short while) about turning the work week to a four day week and take Sundays off too…. but I guess that’s too much 🙂

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