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Keeping It Holy: The Shabbat in Israel and Around the World

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested [shevatceased] from all His work [melakah—workmanship, creative activity].  Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done.”  (Genesis 2:2–3)

In cities and villages throughout Israel, life seems to come to a standstill on Friday nights.  As the cool of the evening sweeps in, the Shabbat begins and a calm announces the seventh day—a day of rest.


A sunset in Israel:  Since the day begins on the prior evening according to the Jewish calendar, Yom Shabbat (Sabbath Day or Saturday) begins as the sun sets on Yom Shishi (Sixth Day or Friday).

Prior to sunset in Tiberias, Israel, the Chabad loudspeakers (an Orthodox sect of Judaism) can be heard throughout the city playing Sabbath songs to greet the Sabbath bride (the Jewish People traditionally consider themselves the groom of the Shabbat), welcoming this most sacrosanct of days.

“In Tiberias—the city I live in—the men go to the synagogue as the sun sets on Friday evening, and the Shabbat siren blasts one long blast announcing that the Sabbath has begun,” Barry Silverman said, adding that many Messianic Believers heed the siren, as well.

“As Messianic Jewish Believers, after the Shabbat evening meal, we attend Shabbat worship on Friday night, and on Saturday morning,”

Jewish Family-gathers-Shabbat Dinner

A Jewish family gathers for the Shabbat dinner on Friday night.

Keeping It Holy

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work [melakah], but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work [melakah]….  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  (Exodus 20:8–11)

The Shabbat (Sabbath) is truly the holiest day of the week.

With it, God set us apart from the animals and gave us a day in which we could honor him with our prayers and our rest.

Horse-Cabin-Zimmers-Bed and Breakfast-Shabbat

Many Israelis choose to get away for the Shabbat, staying at bed and breakfast cabins called zimmers.  Some zimmers are lavish alpine retreats in northern Israel’s Golan Heights.

When it comes to keeping the Shabbat, in Israel there are essentially three groups of Jews

  • The Orthodox, who closely keep the Biblical and oral Sabbath laws, the oral being a legal commentary on the Torah;
  • The traditional Jews, who stay close to keeping these laws but might break a few by watching television on Friday night, using electric lights, and possibly traveling on the Sabbath day; and
  • The secular, who are not concerned about keeping the laws and observing the Shabbat.

But in Israel, generally everyone keeps the Sabbath in some way, as almost all shops and restaurants are closed.

There are exceptions to this and, for that reason, keeping the Shabbat has become something of an issue in Israel.


A family in Jerusalem heads to the synagogue on the Shabbat.

Breaking the Shabbat in Israel: Fines and Barriers

“The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.  It will be a sign between Me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.’”  (Exodus 31:16–17)

In Jerusalem, the majority of the population is either Orthodox or traditional; however, while shops are closed, traffic continues to flow on the Shabbat in many areas of the city.

Some Jerusalem neighborhoods, in which Orthodox families are the majority, have taken to placing barriers on their streets, cutting off all traffic into their neighborhoods during the Sabbath hours.

Jaffa Road-Jerusalem-Shabbat

Jaffa Road in Jerusalem on the Shabbat

In Tel Aviv, the most secular of Israel’s cities, keeping the Shabbat has become a real issue as illustrated by the Supreme Court decision ordering the city to take action against those businesses that continue to operate during the Shabbat hours.

Tel Aviv, which seems to model itself on New York and Paris, boasts that it is “The City that Never Sleeps.”

It presents itself as being the most cosmopolitan city in Israel, the only one where you can shop 24/7.  (Times of Israel)

Unfortunately, this practice conflicts with the culture of the larger society and actually breaks the law, which states that one cannot operate a business from sunset on Friday throughout the Jewish Sabbath.

Those who do have been paying a small fine of several hundred shekels, which is essentially less than a slap on the wrist for the larger chains; however, small businesses argue that the fines place them at a disadvantage.


Tel Aviv: the city that never sleeps.

The court ruled that the fines are only symbolic and that real enforcement of the law is required.  The decision directs the municipality of Tel Aviv to come up with a more equitable policy or one with more teeth.

Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor noted that the larger chains continue to operate on the Sabbath seeing the “ridiculous fines of a few hundred shekels per week” as a cost of doing business.

Interestingly, the court is not saying that the city must ban businesses from operating on the Sabbath, but is leaving it to the municipality to come up with a policy that does not favor one interest, the larger chains, over another, small businesses.

Noting that the present policy allows the Tel Aviv municipality to make money off of its own regulations while not enforcing the Sabbath law, Naor said that the municipality could decide whether or not it wants to allow businesses to remain open on the day of rest, but then it “must change the municipal law.”  (Times of Israel)

street-Tel Aviv

A street in Tel Aviv

The issue is problematic.

MK (Member of Parliament) Nitzan Horowitz of the left-wing Meretz party wrote on his Facebook page that while he wanted to “safeguard Saturday as a day of rest,” it is still necessary to take into consideration the wishes of those who want to use this day for shopping and other activities.

For instance, even in strongly traditional communities like Tiberias, one can visit water parks and beaches that remain open, as well as many restaurants and gas stations.

Essentially they stand at risk of being fined, but the municipalities overlook these infringements of the law.


Tiberias, Israel

Who works on Saturday is yet another issue in Israel.

Under the Hours of Work and Rest Law, it is against the law to require a Jewish person to work on the Shabbat, and many of those who do work at establishments that remain open are Arabs; however, many Jews also work and this is apparently ignored by the authorities.

Additionally, there are many private businesses such as beaches, that are owned and run by Jews and, again, their infringement of the law is ignored.

In spite of this, the entire country noticeably slows down on the day of rest with the exception of tourist locales that are bustling.

Tourist-Jerusalem-poster shop

A tourist in Jerusalem

The Shabbat: An Unbroken Chain of Observance

Despite the varying levels of observance, there is nothing that more personifies Judaism and the Jewish People than the Jewish Sabbath.

This is exemplified by a scene in the classic film called “A Majority of One,” currently playing on Israel’s Hot cable television network.


After lighting the Shabbat candles, the woman of the household covers her eyes and recites the traditional blessing over the candles.  They are lit no later than 18 minutes before sundown.

In the film, Rosalind Russell portrays a Brooklyn Jewish widow being courted by a Japanese widower.  In one scene, she lights the Shabbat candles and says the blessing over them, epitomizing what is unique to every Jewish family, the sanctity of the Shabbat.

The Shabbat has been kept as the one day of the week devoted to rest ever since it was given as law to the Israelites by Moses.

Imagine the joy they had when they received that commandment.

As slaves, they had been forced to work day in and day out.  This type of thinking was likely deeply ingrained in them.

The Sabbath is an emancipation from the slavery of continual work and a safeguard of the humanity and dignity of the worker.

It protects our relationship with our families and the God of Israel, and serves as a weekly reminder that we belong to the Lord.


The Sabbath is a powerful declaration that God is the Creator, and many Israelis take a moment on this day of rest to enjoy some time outside the home, often an afternoon walk.

Shabbat Traditions

Traditionally on the Shabbat, the worldwide Jewish community remembers the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days and the Exodus from Egypt.  They also look forward to the coming Messianic age.

The Friday evening dinner is often an opportunity for the extended family to get together, although these days, at least in the United States, fewer and fewer families live in the same geographic vicinity.  This is less true here in Israel.

The meal begins with the traditional Kiddush or blessing over the wine and is followed by the blessing over the Challah, special loaves of braided egg bread.


The blessings for the wine and the bread (challah) before the Shabbat dinner are not recited until the family returns from a brief evening service at the synagogue.

Often the head of the family will then use this time to bless his wife and children with a special Sabbath blessing, as anyone who has seen “Fiddler on the Roof” might recall.

To make a further distinction between the Shabbat and the rest of the week, the Shabbat ends with a special Havdalah (separation) ceremony which ushers in the new week.

A braided candle is lit, spices in an ornamental spice box are sniffed by those attending, and the Kiddush blessing is made over a cup of wine.

The following is one version of the blessing central to the Havdalah ritual:

Blessed art thou, God, our Lord, King of the Universe who distinguishes holiness from the everyday, light from dark, Israel from the nations, the seventh day from the six workdays.  Blessed art thou, God, who distinguishes holiness from the everyday.

Havdallah set-spice box-kiddish cup-braided candle

The spice box (left), kiddish cup (middle) and the braided candle of the Havdalah set.

The Shabbat in the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant)

In the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) Paul teaches that we may already enter that Sabbath rest by faith:

“Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it….  For we who have believed do enter that rest.”  (Hebrews 4:1, 3)

That is not to say that the Sabbath has been taken away as a special day of rest, as Yeshua (Jesus) plainly said that He came to fulfill the law and not abolish it.

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”  (Matthew 5:18)

In fact, throughout the Book of Acts, the early Believers visited the synagogues on the seventh day of the week.  Paul, of course, was the prime example of this.  Yeshua also kept the Shabbat and attended the local synagogue.

Jewish-children-Jerusalem-Jewish Quarter-Hurva

Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem

It is also written that the early Believers had the tradition of meeting together for a meal on the first day of the week.

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.  Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.  (Acts 20:7)

Some believe that the Roman emperor Constantine, in AD 321, enforced Sunday (the venerable day of the sun) as the Sabbath because the early Believers met on the First Day (Yom Rishon).

Nevertheless, even if Constantine made the decision based on that tradition, it likely would still be wrong according to the Gregorian calendar’s reckoning of time.

Since the day begins on the evening of the prior day according to the Jewish calendar, the “first day of the week” probably refers to Saturday evening, when the early believers met together in praise and fellowship.


The interior of Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem

 Although the Bible calls the Shabbat a lasting covenant, and it has been observed in some form by the Jewish People since Moses, there is a Christian tradition that observing the seventh day is no longer necessary.

Holders of that tradition cite Paul’s exhortation in Romans 14:

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike.  Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”  (Romans 14:5–6)

It remains to each Believer, therefore, to prayerfully search the Scriptures and conclude which day is holy.  As Paul also said,

Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Messiah.  (Colossians 2:16–17)


A group of family and friends take their time over the meal and linger at the table to talk at the end of the Shabbat dinner.

In making that decision, it should be remembered that the commandment is to cease from work on the seventh day, not the first day of the week.

Even on the Gregorian calendar, Sunday is listed as the first day of the week and not the seventh.

While society is by and large leaving behind the observance of a day of rest, most Believers would agree that it is important to set aside at least one day of the week as sacred to the Lord and as a day of rest.

This separates us from slavery.  It allows us to focus—at least for one day—on the Lord and function as the divine children of God that we as Believers are.

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