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How Does Shabbat Affect Life in Israel?

Hadracha Aleph Chanich Max Leof explores how life in Israel is affected by Shabbat.

Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, is certainly a unique place with numerous quirks. We have all experienced special moments in this one-of-a-kind country, whether it be walking down Rothschild Avenue and feeling a peculiar sense of peace, right in the middle of Israel’s largest city, a bustling metropolis. Or how about Shabbat in Jerusalem, seeing people of all denominations, religions and races going about their daily business, rushing to the Cotel, or doing some final Shabbat preparations.

One of the more significant quirks is how normal life pauses as the Sabbath begins. The question I imagine most of you will be asking is, why, to some extent, does life in Israel effectively pause due to it? What implications does this have on the lives of all Israeli citizens? This article will seek to answer these questions.

Firstly, in Judaism, there is, of course, a core belief that God created the world in six days, with the seventh day, the Sabbath, being taken as a day of rest.

The Torah says that one must keep this day holy and not do any work. However, as with any other religion, certain people obey its laws more than others, and some do not at all. This means that some problems are caused as a result of the weekly nationwide shutdown.

In order to understand the impact of Shabbat in Israel, we must first understand its people. In Israel, there are typically four groups of people:

• The Chasidim/Orthodox Jews – roughly 10% (0.9m)

• Traditional Jews – roughly 25% (2.25m)

• Secular (Non-religious) Jews – roughly 40% (3.6m)

• Non-Jews – roughly 25% (2.25m) 80% of the Non-Jews are Arabs (1.7m)

As you can see, over half of Israel’s population are either non-Jews or non-practising Jews. In addition, many traditional Jews do not fully observethe Sabbath and may only do a Friday night dinner/ service. Therefore, it can be deduced that only a small tranche of Israel’s population wholly obey all the mitzvot associated with the Sabbath. Nevertheless, most others have been forced to observe it, in some way or another, especially if they live in Jerusalem. This is because, during the day of the Sabbath, all kosher shops (90% of shops in Jerusalem), public transport links, and many Jewish-owned businesses are closed. The only active parts of the city during Shabbat are the Arab and Christian quarters in the old city. This is an attempt, not just by the authorities but also by residents, to maintain the city’s status as one of the holiest cities in the world.

In other cities, some authorities are not as strict regarding public services over Shabbat. However, every kosher restaurant – about 75% of all restaurants in Israel - is shut due to the various laws of Kashrut they must follow to keep their restaurant in compliance with the Beth Din (Jewish Court).

Although some authorities will open the tram and train lines at peak hours, for the majority of the day, there are no vehicles on the road to allow for a quiet and peaceful Saturday.

So, what do people do on a Saturday in Israel if so much of the city is closed? Whilst some people may use the time for religious activities and praying, others may decide to spend time at home with their family or attend various sports matches. People can take a step back from work and peacefully relax without the commotion of the outside world. Having a day of rest can be beneficial as it can help alleviate the stress and uncertainty felt by many of the country’s inhabitants.

When I was in Jerusalem for Shabbat over the summer, on tour, I greatly appreciated the peace that the Sabbath brought, as I’m sure I’m not alone in occasionally feeling overwhelmed by how busy life can get, and it is beneficial to sometimes take a step back from the hustle of everyday life. I’m sure I would be in agreement with many FZYniks when I say that having an equivalent day of rest would be a very attractive suggestion. It is not often that we have the opportunity to take a whole day to step back, relax, and refocus on the finer things in life.

However, not everyone has the same opinion. Many Israeli citizens feel as if they are being forced into observing Shabbat. Despite not being religiously compelled to, it is still taboo in many communities to engage in acts such as driving or handling money out of respect for the most religious in society. In response, some schemes have been implemented to alleviate some of these inconveniences. For example, some businesses (mainly restaurants) now use systems that allow you to pay for your meal on the day before or after Shabbat. Systems like these are becoming increasingly common as they allow secular Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis to go out and enjoy what, for them, is just a regular day off work.

To conclude, Shabbat affects the lives of Israelis in many ways. For the very religious, it is seen not as a weekend- or a day off- but as a sacred day to connect with and improve their relationship with God by resting and praying. Traditional Jews and Chasidic Jews see it as a day where they can spend time bonding with their family without the distractions of social media or other activities getting in the way. However, to the rest of the Israeli population, it is a day which, to them, has little meaning but one that can affect them in a multitude of ways.


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