Surviving the Sabbath


The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, extends from Friday evening to Saturday evening.  In Israel Shabbat is not observed in a fun way, like the weekend in America.  Shabbat is observed in a “let’s close everything you would possibly want to do on your day off” way.  It’s government imposed rest time.  The majority of restaurants, shops, and services are closed.  Can you return a dress to H&M?  No.  Can you get an iced cappuccino at Aroma?  No.  Can you take a bus to the optometrist?  No and no.

According to Jewish law, on Shabbat one cannot perform certain melakhah, “work” or “deliberate activity.”  The 39 categories of prohibited melakhah include:

“plowing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, scraping hide, marking hide, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object, and transporting an object (between private and public domains, or over 4 cubits within public domain)” (Wikipedia- Shabbat).

You’re thinking—“Fine.  I won’t put the finishing touches on that hide I was tanning today.  No problem.”


Unfortunately these activities have contemporary derivatives.  Extinguishing and kindling a fire is interpreted in the modern era as turning on and off electrical switches.  That means no using your cell phone, no driving, and no cooking (unless you lit the flame before Shabbat started).  Some strictly adherent Jews rip their toilet paper into squares ahead of time because tearing is prohibited (!).

There are ways that practicing Jews circumvent the restrictions of Shabbat.  People put automatic timers on lights to brighten and darken rooms at appropriate hours.  Elevators set on “Shabbat mode” open and close on each floor automatically.  Hey—you don’t have to push any buttons, so it’s okay to ride them!  Some Jews enlist the service of a Shabbos goy, which is a non-Jew paid to perform melakhah on Shabbat.

It must be like, “Hey Shabbos goy, move my kindling four cubits and respond to that text with a smiley face.”

Of course, I don’t have to observe Shabbat prohibitions.  However, most businesses and services are closed; ipso facto, I do observe prohibitions.  There are steel gates over the shop windows and eerily deserted traffic intersections.  It feels very Zombie Apocalypse.  A few cafes are open—staffed by Gentiles and secular degenerates—but they are insufferably crowded.  Everyone goes to the few places that are open because they open.

There’s just not much one can do on Shabbat.  Here’s how it typically goes for me:

I wake at 7:33 am to the hellish cacophony of a catfight, or cat sex, or both.  Somewhere below my window, the cats emit deranged moans and screeches as they tussle in the undergrowth.  I remember that I live in Israel.

I feel fresh and energized.  I am filled with that particular optimism, which comes when you wake early on the weekend, that makes you believe the day has infinite potential.  I’m going to accomplish a lot today.  I’ll put in a solid hour of practicing Hebrew.  Not now, but at some point.

I make a fried egg and cheese sandwich and check out what happened on the Internet while I was sleeping.  I wash my dishes and clean the counter meticulously, with spray cleanser and everything.  I put a load of clothes in the laundry machine.

I change from the sweat pants and tee shirt that I slept in to a different set of sweat pants and tee shirt.  I have Meditation Class at 9 am.  I only go to have something to do.  Something to get me up and out of the apartment.

A Korean post-doc leads a Saturday morning mediation class in the international student lounge, which is in a basement, next to the laundry room.  There’s an inexplicably depressing Ping-Pong table and a bookshelf with irrelevant paperbacks and manuals like Microsoft Excel for Dummies, 2004 edition.  There is one travel guide to Israel, also the 2004 edition.

The instructor is monotone with a bob hair cut.  She only smiles for a deliberate millisecond and then resumes an expression of dissatisfaction.

In meditation class we’re supposed to harness our chakras by slapping ourselves all over.  We slap our appendages, our chest (careful ladies!), our abdomen (this makes me have to pee), etc.  We hold an imaginary pulsating ball of energy.  We chant om.  Then we lie on our backs and hold our legs in the air for a strenuous minute or two.

Now it’s 10 am and meditation class is over.  I return to my apartment.  I hang the laundry on the drying rack.  I consider washing the dishtowels, but no, I’ll save that for next weekend.

I sit at my desk.  I open my Hebrew textbook and immediately postpone the task, in favor of writing for a couple of hours.  At lunchtime I move my computer to the kitchen table (approximately 2 meters away from my desk) and watch an episode of South Park while eating.

I say out loud, “Can you believe that South Park has been on for 17 years?!” and then get self conscious that I’m talking to myself.

I should call my parents.  It’s 12:20 am.  That’s 5:20 am East Coast Time.  Too early to call my parents.  I continue watching the episode, keeping all commentary in my head.

After lunch I move back to my desk and read some academic articles.  It’s important to have this change of location between the kitchen table and desk.  I’d go crazy working in one spot all day!


Caption: To spice up my day sometimes I work at my desk and sometimes I work at the kitchen table.

Hmmm.  2 pm.  There’s a lot of time to kill.  But still, I don’t feel like practicing Hebrew.

I snack on some olives.  They have great olives in this country.

I poke my head out the window.  It feels about 15°C.  I check the temperature on my Weather App.  It says 17°C.  Close enough.  I’m pleased because I’m learning to feel in Celsius.

I mop the floor.

I walk 20 minutes to the far grocery store that is open on Shabbat.  I don’t really need anything, but it’s something to do.  I buy three beers and cottage cheese.  The cashier gives me some coupons that I will never use.  I walk 20 minutes home.


Caption: My scenic walk to the grocery store open on Shabbat.

The floor is still wet so I scamper on tiptoes to my bedroom.  I change out of my meditation sweat pants and a tee shirt into spandex half tights and a different tee shirt.  I go running.  After, I stretch thoroughly.  Then I shower thoroughly.

Fuck it’s only 4 pm.

I venture out to read at a café with a cappuccino.  They have no open tables at the first place.  They have a few open tables at the second place, but wait, they are reserved.  There is no other place open in reasonable waking distance.

I return to my apartment and have instant coffee.  I Like some things on Facebook.  I look up plane tickets to Armenia.  I have a friend doing research there.  Maybe I should visit.

5 pm.  Is it too early for dinner?

I paint my nails light pink, then change my mind and paint them dark purple.

5:25 pm.  I can put rice on the stove.

I think you get the idea.

On Shabbat I can get listless and homesick.  These feelings seem to lurk in the corners and periphery, and only emerge to seize me if I’m idle.  If I stay busy, they stay away.  I try to occupy myself, but there is only so much mopping, running, and Liking you can do in a day.  There will inevitability be moments of inactivity, moments between the activities, when I think “okay what next?”  And that’s when I get sad.

But I still don’t practice my Hebrew.  I’ll do that later.

Shabbat shalom.

One response to “Surviving the Sabbath

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