Shabbat means “rest” in Hebrew. Shabbat is also the name for the Jewish day of rest, which falls on the seventh day of the week. It is observed from before sunset on Friday to after sunset on Saturday; observant Jews refrain from work activities and spend time relaxing with family and friends. Shabbat honors the story of the biblical creation of the world, how God rested on the seventh day after his hard work. I also heard shabbat used in reference to electronic devices — at Lady Davis, the I.T. guy told us that we should “shabbat” the water heater when we weren’t using it.
Before coming to Tel Aviv, I read up on what to expect on shabbat in the city. Most resources said that Tel Aviv was such a modernized, international city that you would barely notice shabbat, that most shops and restaurants and attractions stayed open and nightlife still thrived. So you can imagine my surprise when on Friday afternoon, I walked around the downtown area to find that none of the clothing stores and barely any of the restaurants were open. Some of our friends who were teaching in Northern and Central Israel had come to hang out and explore Tel Aviv, and we had nowhere to go and nothing to show them. I considered grabbing a few bites to eat at the supermarket — the supermarket couldn’t possibly be closed, right? — only to find that it, too, had locked its doors. I sadly went back to the hotel, ate leftover falafel pita, did a bit of schoolwork, and went to sleep.
Late Saturday morning, I walked down Dizengoff Street and Rothschild Boulevard, two of the liveliest streets in Tel Aviv, to join a tour of Bauhaus architecture in the city. I had walked down Dizengoff countless of times before, crowd watching and window shopping. This time, though, the streets were absolutely dead, and it was frightening. There were almost no cars on the road, nobody walking about, and everything was closed and boarded up. A few stray cats darted across my path, but there were almost no other signs of life. I felt very creeped out, and was so relieved to finally run into a few other tourists who had also shown up for the walking tour. When our native Israeli tour guide showed up, I commented on how quiet everything was, and she said that not only was it shabbat, but it was also “freezing”. I’d like to point out that it was a balmy mid-40 degrees (F) out — nothing to complain about! As the tour went into the afternoon, I saw more people about — parents walking with their children, young adults meeting up with coffee shops — but nothing compared to the usual hustle and bustle of the city. It was an amazing contrast.
I’ll never forget that eerie silence on that shabbat morning. I never knew it was possible for a city to shut down so completely, and the closest thing I’ve ever experienced was when I stumbled across an actual ghost town in an island near Hong Kong while backpacking (which is a crazy story itself). I was awed by the power of religion and tradition in this country. It is an amazingly strong force binding the people together, and I have a better appreciation now for the driving force behind the pursuit of a Jewish homeland, a place where Jewish religion and traditions such as shabbat can thrive, embraced and uninhibited.
Originally published at shalomsohard.wordpress.com on January 21, 2015.