April 9, 2009

Israel is a Little Strange
Giv'atayim, Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Israeli is a country where there is practically zero separation between church and state. It's a place where religious doctrine blends freely into state law.

There are aspects about this country that can make it unsatisfying for some individuals traveling within it, especially for folks like myself who are very tolerant of faith, but quite the opposite when it comes to organized religion (and fanatical religious types).

For example, let me point out one of the big ones for travelers in the Holy Land: the Sabbath.

The term "Sabbath" derives from the Hebrew shabbat, "rest" or "cessation", which was first used in the Biblical account of the seventh day of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3). Observation and remembrance of Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments (the fourth in the original Jewish, the Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant traditions, the third in Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions).

Shabbat is the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaism. It's observed from sundown Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. The exact time, therefore, differs from week to week and from place to place, depending on the time of sunset at each location.

Shabbat is considered a festive day, when a person is freed from the regular labors of everyday life, can contemplate the spiritual aspects of life, and can spend time with family.

So the two most important things to take away from that little Wikipedia blurb is that the Jewish calendar is based on the moon, not the sun (meaning a new day of the week technically starts each day at dusk), and that Friday night (Saturday in the Jewish calendar) until around sunset the next day is when everything will be closed.

And when I say closed, I mean like shut down. Commerce on Friday night in Tel Aviv looks like 7:00 on a Sunday morning in the rural Midwest. Want to do or buy something on Saturday? Well, it's pretty much tuff shit buddy until nightfall.

But most importantly—and inconveniently—the public transportation infrastructure practically shuts down from mid-day Friday until Sunday morning! Good luck with that bus you wanted to take in, around, or out of town.

So what's a good Jew suppose to do with their Sabbath time? Well, perhaps it's best to explain what 39 things they can't (or at least shouldn't) be doing:

Planting; plowing; reaping; binding sheaves; threshing; winnowing; selecting (filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish); grinding; sifting; kneading; baking; shearing, washing or beating wool; dyeing; spinning; weaving; tying; untying; sewing at least two stitches; tearing for the purpose of sewing; trapping; slaughtering; flaying; salting meat; curing, scraping or cutting hide into pieces; writing two or more letters; erasing; building; tearing something down; transferring between domains; applying the finishing touch; and igniting or extinguishing a fire.

Many average Israelis abstain from driving and turning on (or using) the television or computer during this time—opting to spend the time chatting and playing simple games with their family.

Then there are the moderately extreme Jews that don't use electricity or or answer the telephone.

Then you've got some really extreme Jews actually pre-tear their toilet paper on Friday afternoon, because breaking it would be considered creation or effort (or something along these lines), and therefore breaking the shabbat.

Ancient Jews weren't allowed to light candles, so modern-day Jews think they can't turn on the lights in their home. They unplug the fridge or unscrew the lightblub in the appliance so if they open it the light won't go off automatically.

It's forbidden to ask someone else to turn on a light for you, but if someone offers, it's okay. So you can be like, "Wow! It's really dark in my apartment," and a neighbor who doesn't follow the shabbat could come in and say "Can I turn your lights on for you?"

There are some extreme Jews that have no passport, don't vote, etc. because they believe that the Jewish people are not to have a state or nation until the messiah returns, and that one should only stay at home and pray until this day comes. Some even are extreme enough that they'll go to Iran and actively help to overthrow the Israeli government because they believe the formation of this state was against the divine will, and the messiah is angry with them for having done so.

Kosher pizza (like this) means you'll never see a slice of pepperoni and cheese.

Oh, and here's my favorite: Kosher. I'll be writing more on this later, but a part of it means no mixing meat and milk. That essentially means never eating or serving cheeseburgers or pizza with cheese and meat mixed together. That also means that you need to wait—get this—four hours after eating meat before you can drink a glass of milk… and two hours to eat meat after drinking a glass of milk. Hilarious!

Ah, but then there's the excellent hummus and cute teenage girls carrying around automatic rifles—HOT. More on that soon.

Comments:

The United States

Matt

July 26th, 2009

…Good thing they never visited your apartment in Phoenix with the motion-sensing bathroom light.

The United States

Peter

July 26th, 2009

Some multi-story apartment buildings in New York that have significant number of Orthodox Jewish residents have an elevator set to "Sabbath service," meaning that it stops on every floor without any buttons having to be pushed. Chances are some buildings in Tel Aviv do likewise.

The United States

Katie

July 27th, 2009

It seems like it takes a lot of effort to be effortless. Have you ever seen a Kosher kitchen? Two of everything. Craziness.

The United States

Chris

July 27th, 2009

Sounds like cultural OCD.

Thailand

Craig | travelvice.com

July 27th, 2009

@Matt: wow—I'd completely forgotten about that. (because of an oddly-placed lightswitch that guests could never find, I installed a switch with a motion detector built into it that flipped the lights on as soon as you entered). Wow, that takes me back—years ago.

@Katie: I've got several uncomfortable stories to tell about Kosher kitchens during our time in Israeli….

The United States

Dalair

July 28th, 2009

Sound like fun…How long could you run around doing stuff on shabbat before people get mad at you.

Thailand

Craig | travelvice.com

July 28th, 2009

Dalair, you're more likely to encounter like-minded people on that particular day, as those who abide by the religious law are often indoors/out of sight. I've got a decent photo that I'll eventually get up of me standing the middle of a busy Jerusalem street, empty on the sabbath.

The United States

elizabeth

March 8th, 2011

I love Israel. Every time I go back, my soul feels alive again. Plus Kosker pizza rocks.

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

David

June 28th, 2012

As an American-Israeli Jew, it's interesting to hear how others percieve our religion.
I'd like to point out a few things: First, Israel was originally founded as a country for jews, a place where they can never be persecuted again. Being surprised by some of our country laws alligning with our religious ones would be similar to wondering why the Vattican's laws are so similar to the Christians'…
Next, there's a rather large number of secular jews in Israel (about 70% of us), and some of them obey the jewish laws partially or not at all. In accordance, businesses in Israel are free to choose whether they're open on Shabbat or not, and whether or not they keep a kosher kitchen. Mostly, these decisions are made according to the intended consumers. A resturant in Jerusalem, for example, will usually prefer to be Kosher, as the city has a large concentration of religious people who'll never eat there otherwise. On the other hand, a resturant in the largely secular Tel-Aviv would rather stay open on Shabbat, it's a very active day for them.
Third: Shabbat is not intended to be a day of misery, but a day of peace. How we rest is probably supposed to differ in order to accomodate modern technology, and I agree that we may be exaggerating with the lights (Note: Lights are forbidden as part of activating electric circuits, not because they used to be candles).
That said, not using electricity directly on Shabbat is essential to taking a day off, especially in our modern world with smartphones, internet, WiFi, etc… Today, if you look around you (anywhere), you'll see at least 30% of the people around you on their smartphones. This includes people on dates, in meetings, with their kids, at public events, and so on. Shabbat is a time to be ONLY with your family. With the PEOPLE around you. In order to do that properly, you HAVE to disconnect from your phone, your car, your computer. Just stay at home.

Try it once. I guarantee you'll love it. ;-)
Come visit again!

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