In Israel on Sabbath? What to do When Most Everything is Closed

The Romans knew how to live!
Floor of bathhouse where hot water flowed at Bet She’an

Staying in Israel over a Friday night? Unlike any other place, around 3PM on Friday, the streets start to look a lot less crowded. People are beginning to get ready for the Jewish Sabbath which begins at sunset Friday night and lasts until sunset Saturday.

In most Christian nations, everything used to close down for Sunday. In Israel, the Sabbath is the day of rest, and things haven’t changed much since ancient times. Everything closes on the Sabbath. Most restaurants are closed. Most grocery stores are closed. In order to receive certification as kosher (a requirement for most of the people in Israel to shop in your store), you have to be closed.

When I was recently in Israel, I noticed that the McDonald’s restaurants were still open on the Sabbath, as are some convenience stores run by Arabs. But if you think you need milk, for example, don’t wait until the Sabbath. In Tel Aviv, the super-modern city on the Mediterranean, things are a little less religious. There you will find some restaurants that can survive without being kosher. So, they are open on Sabbath and may even serve non-kosher food as well.

So, if you are touring Israel and don’t want to sit out the day of rest, what should you plan to do?

Well, surprisingly, you can visit some of the many kibbutzim. The kibbutz movement was begun by mostly non-religious settlers, so many of them do not close down for Sabbath. Some may allow you to poke around, but most want you to make an appointment. We stayed in a huge hotel that was run by, and was on, a kibbutz near Tiberias. Obviously, if you are in the hotel business, you have to stay open.

Museums—closed. Retail—closed. You can, of course, visit a mosque or church.

But one of the best things to do is visit a national park. For some unexplained reason, all of Israel’s national parks are open during the Sabbath. Many Israelis use the Sabbath to get away to the parks.

I had the opportunity to visit 2 of the national parks on the Sabbath.

One is South of Tel Aviv, between the Gaza Strip and the Judean Hills, called Bet Guvrin-Maresha. The park is in an area rich in archaeological finds, as the area was occupied at different times by Jews, Christians, Byzantines, and Egyptians. In 2014, the park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its caves where ancient humans lived from the eighth century before Christ to the tenth century after Christ, one of the longest cave dwelling periods known to man in the world.

The park brochure lists 9 different cave sites and a number of ancient sites, such as a church, amphitheater, and bathhouse to visit. But the park has a lot of natural beauty as well. Take care to avoid the areas designated as “firing zone” as these areas may be dangerous, given the park’s proximity to politically charged areas.

The second national park I visited on the Sabbath is Bet She’an, located South of the Sea of Galilee. Again, Bet She’an was under control of a number of different groups at various times, but was a major Roman city. Excavations here have unearthed fantastic ruins including a large theater and colonnade. There are so many ruins here that it is easy to imagine the grandeur of this city in Roman times. Of particular interest to tourists are the public lavatories and the bathhouse, both of which are especially well preserved.

Ancient ruins show life in Roman times
Main street of Bet She’an (left) and public toilets (above)

 

These are but two of the many facilities run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Head to one of them on the Sabbath when nearly everything else is closed.

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