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October 2, 2005 - The Seventh Day

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The Seventh Day

By Sylvain Ubersfeld

Saturday, October 1, 2005


As a command from God, it is said that the people of Israel should rest on the seventh day. (1) 


Creating the world in six days can be a very taxing experience and I will be the last one to blame Him for granting Himself some time off, especially knowing that he had just opened up a nice leisure park called Garden of Eden (possibly located somewhere in the East!) and to which he had assigned a couple of (unpaid) newly hired guards named Havah and Adam.


Just like no one can feel what it is like to float amidst the waters of the Dead Sea until one has experienced it, it is also impossible for an outsider to realize how the "seventh day" can change things in the land of Milk and Honey.


Shabbath starts on Friday evening. The official time is determined by a calendar indicating exactly when religious families should light the two candles indicating that rest time has come. The first visible sign is obviously the slowdown in traffic.  Whereas European countries get some of their peak activity with the oncoming Friday evening dedicated to restaurants, movies, going to shows and other niceties, Tel Aviv slows down its breath as the day ends and the streets becomes silent.


Crossing Tel Aviv by car during the week can take up to 50 minutes, but on Friday evening, as the dedicated hour for "receiving Shabbath" draws near, it will take only about fifteen minutes.  In Paris, Amsterdam or London it would be the opposite.


The second sign is a direct result of the slowdown of the noisy traffic.  One can indeed hear domestic noises associated with preparing the evening meal during which some families will gather together.  Pots and pans are moved in kitchens, some electrical appliances can be heard; fantastic smells coming from near-by kitchens will invade my apartment and stimulate my appetite.  When night comes, a simple stroll in one of the quiet Ramat-Aviv streets will convince anyone that something special is taking place.  There are conversations heard through the open windows (2) - there are candles lit on family tables (3) - there is silence in the streets except for the occasional cat fights and the howling of car anti-theft devices triggered by them (4).  During the afternoon, housewives will have rushed to do their Shabbath shopping before the supermarkets close.  One can feel the sense of urgency as the official time draws near and cars are parked just anywhere regardless of the coming and going of the municipal police distributing tickets for unruly driving or parking.  The urge is in the air: Jewish mothers must have everything perfect for dinner to night.  Then indeed, the time comes and Shabbath is here, received "officially" in the family and celebrated by lighting candles and toasting religiously through the "Kiddush" after the traditional prayers.  Indeed on the seventh day, people get ready to rest and God is possibly smiling and thinking that His People ( \5) have finally come to be obedient.


But it's not THAT easy!


Quite a few people are convinced that Israel is above all a Jewish country instead of being a country for the Jews!  As a result of the interference of religious and rabbinical authorities, it is said that the law of God must be followed in public affairs.  And this is costing the country a great deal both in terms of politics and economy.  Religious Jews believe that any Jew living in Israel must obey the rules of the faith, and secular Jews, who are in vast majority, believe that Rabbis and religious parties should not have a say on the affairs of the state, and successive governments are yet counting on religious political parties to reach power and balance the budget.  As a result, most of life stops for Shabbath, including transport system and much needed road work; shops are closed except for the Kiosks (6) who must have the rabbinical approval to stay open - and passengers at the Ben Gurion airport traveling during Shabbath are often deprived of food as a result of coffee shops shutting down (7) - while El Al flights are brought to a full stop.


Meanwhile, Shabbath is the only day when one can cross Ibn Gvirol street (8) outside of the zebras and traffic lights without putting one's own life at risk!


Whoever has not yet experienced the weird feeling of waking up in a dead city should open his eyes on a Saturday morning in Israel.  One will wake up to deadly silence, one will walk in empty streets, one will look desperately for heavy traffic without finding it, while in some orthodox areas such as Mea Shearim in Jerusalem or Bnei Barak in Tel Aviv, whoever drives through the streets in a car will take a chance of having his vehicle stoned for violating the holy rule of Shabbath.


To most of the population Shabbath is simply the equivalent of the "week end," but the religious and orthodox see it as "the" Holy period breaking the week and  strictly follow biblical rules: no work can be performed, no fire can be lit, and no electrical appliance used.  In religious families, the food consumed during Shabbath is kept warm during this Holy period with the help of electrical or gas devices lit before the official starting of Shabbath (11).  One will not go to a swimming pool, one will not turn on or off any light switch while in hotels, some of the elevators dedicated to religious customers will be switched in the "Shabbath mode" (9).  Like it or not, religious faith will interfere with your life - like it or not Shabbath is here to stay.  Like it or not, some people will even use Shabbath as a good way of making additional money - some parking lots owners in Tel Aviv, certain of receiving more customers on Saturdays, simply double-up their prices!


Because the state of Israel is connected to religion as much as it is connected to "Judaism," some traditions weigh heavily upon most of the population.  One must remember that "civil" marriage does not exist here and a marriage can only be a "religious" one.  Hence the large number of secular Israelis escaping the intolerance  to get married abroad (10), and we are not even talking about the intricacies of divorce in a Rabbinical Court!


Jewish religious tradition suggesting that the seventh day be dedicated to both pleasure and studies, one can very well assume that it was on a Shabbath that our couple in the Garden of Eden followed these instructions.  It is entirely possible that after a torrid night of pleasure, and without anticipating that their action would trigger a tragic chain of events, both Havah and Adam, who were hungry but still wanted to study, ate for breakfast the apple from the Tree of Knowledge!


We all know now the rest of the story.





1. I am referring to the Bible. This is not necessarily my point of view

2. Except during winter, windows stay often open to ventilate apartments

3. Two candle are lit for the "reception of Shabbath" by the woman of the house

4. In an effort to fight against car theft, alarms are installed in vehicles. However the devices are so sensitive to movement that any cat jumping on a car will cause the device to trigger the anti-theft siren. There are PLENTY of cats in Tel-Aviv (!)

5. It is said that the Jews are the people chosen by God. See (1)

6. Small shops open during Shabbath. One can find chewing gum, cigarettes, water, soft drinks and warm cashew nuts and almonds.  My dedicated kiosk is open twenty-four hours, seven days a week!

7. Only Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) can grant opening during Shabbat. Opening of a location, shop, or restaurant depends on religious decision.

8. One of the busiest avenues in Tel Aviv crossing from East to West

9. Never get caught in a Shabbath elevator. It is programmed to stop at each and every floor so that religious users do not have to touch the commands in order to go up or down

10. Cyprus is usually the place where such a wedding takes place

11.  In the Ashkenaz communities living in Eastern Europe it used to be very common to have a "Shabbes Goy" (a non-Jew) spend Shabbath in a Jewish family in order to perform the tasks not allowed to be performed by Jews. The Shabbes Goy would usually receive some money in return.



Ramat Aviv During Shabbat - No Traffic
Ramat Aviv During Shabbat - No Traffic

Text and Photo Copyright 2005 – Sylvain Ubersfeld


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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