In Jerusalem, Shabbat is a totally unique experience. Starting from early on Friday afternoon, businesses, shops, and most restaurants, begin to close up. Some non-Kosher restaurants remain open during Shabbat, as do a very limited number of businesses in the West of the city.
Public transportation (buses and light railway) do not run at all in Jerusalem during Shabbat, and services end in the hours leading up to sunset. Shared taxis and private taxis do continue to operate. Because the sunset varies throughout the year, so do the closing times before Shabbat on Fridays. In the winter, businesses close around lunchtime, with some restaurants not opening at all for lunch. In the summer, businesses close later, although times vary significantly between businesses.
What can I do during Shabbat in Jerusalem?
While most businesses are closed, Shabbat is a great time to explore Jerusalem with the city much quieter than usual and almost no traffic on the streets. The Old City, of course, is open as usual and it is particularly interesting to see the religious Jews mark the start of Shabbat at the Western Wall on Friday evening. Some of Jerusalem’s museums are open on Saturday, including the Israel Museum, others such as Yad Vashem are closed.
The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most intense places on Earth! At the heart of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions, this walled one kilometer area in the center of Jerusalem is beyond words and cannot be missed. The Old City is home to the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall and in Hebrew- Kotel). This is the last remaining wall of what was the Jewish Temple, and is today the holiest site in the world for Jews. Above the Western Wall lies the Dome of the Rock important for Muslims as the site where the prophet Muhammad is said to have risen to heaven.
And, just a few minutes walk away, lies the Church of the Sepulchre, where some believe Jesus was crucified and buried. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters; The Jewish Quarter, The Armenian Quarter, The Christian Quarter, and The Muslim Quarter. The walled city is entered by one of seven entry gates, although the busiest for tourists is the Jaffa Gate next to which is the Tower of David Museum, providing the history of Jerusalem within the Old City Walls. Each quarter has its own unique atmosphere and observations, sites and smells, and experiences.
In the Jewish Quarter, for instance, the narrow alleyways are lined by the homes of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish families, and Yeshivas (schools for Torah study). Walking and observing the residents of the Jewish quarter rush about on their daily life, whether teenage students in the Yeshivas who are often here from around the world for extended periods of time, children as they walk with school between lessons, or the men, as they rush around between places of worship, and the Western Wall. The houses of the Old City, and the Jewish quarter in particular, are for good reason, hotly contested real estate, and command spectacular prices when they rarely trade hands.
The Jewish Quarter’s narrow alleyways open up as you reach the Western Wall Plaza and the wall itself. At times of Jewish festival the wall can be crowded, and observing the tourists brushing alongside daily prayers here is an interesting site. Anybody can go up to the wall, although men and women have separate areas, and men should cover their heads, and women wear modest clothing. It is customary to place a small prayer on a piece of paper within a crack on the wall. Amazingly the vast Western Wall represents just a tiny percentage of this elevation of the Temple, and the Western Wall Tunnels accessed via the plaza, allow visitors to see even more of the wall underground. Also interestingly, within the Muslim Quarter is whats known as the Little Western Wall where the wall is once again exposed and visible. This is argued to be holier than the iconic section of wall because it is closer to the ‘Holy of Holies’ – the holiest part of the Temple.
The Dome of the Rock sits above the Western Wall Plaza and whilst non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the building itself, tourists are able to tour the compound and nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Moving into the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, there is yet another change. Home to about 40 holy sites to Christians, in the streets here you will see priests and pilgrims from around the world. This quarter was constructed around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried. Within this hot patch of real estate, even the Church is divided, with different parts controlled by different Christian sects, meaning that there are often disputes over maintenance and some parts are in poor condition.
For a great overview of the Old City, walk along the Ramparts Walk – along the walls of the Old City.
Where can I eat on Shabbat in Jerusalem?
Eating in Jerusalem during Shabbat in the Western part of the city can be tricky – there are some non-kosher restaurants which remain open. In the Old City, the Arab shuk remains open as usual, as do businesses in East Jerusalem.