Israel: Shalom and Shabbat

By Damien Grant

Thank God it's Friday takes on a different meaning in Israel, says Damien Grant.

Floating in the dead sea is relaxing, but make sure you don't shave beforehand. Photo / Thinkstock
Floating in the dead sea is relaxing, but make sure you don't shave beforehand. Photo / Thinkstock

"Can you see the Shabbat Clock? The hotel guide says every room has one."

It seemed a fair question, I was not sure what a Shabbat was, possibly a lost tribe with its own time zone.

Shabbat, I was informed with sad resignation by my travelling companion, was the Jewish Sabbath. I felt I should have known this but in my defence the travelling companion had read the Lonely Planet book, which I feel gives her an unfair advantage in these situations. Interesting, so where was the clock?

We were in the modern Israeli desert town of Beersheba and Shabbat runs for 24 hours, starting at sundown on Friday night.

Everything shuts down; it felt like a scene from The Quiet Earth, or worse, Palmerston North on a weeknight.

More people live here than in Hamilton but the only thing open was a secular pub and only in Israel can you even think of calling a pub secular.

We had started the day with a swim in the rapidly disappearing Dead Sea, floating in the oily water as several Israeli jets buzzed overhead. You are not meant to shave before entering the Dead Sea as the salt aggravates even minor abrasions. Sadly, the guide books do not mention jock itch, a significant oversight in my view.

Israelis have a passion, it appears, for resorts that offer all-you-can-eat buffets, and it is not a bad deal. The Dead Sea resorts pumped heated salt water into internal swimming pools, so you got the Dead Sea experience without the overhead jets, although it all got a little crowded.

Israelis in large numbers can be a confronting experience. They have crammed seven million people into a country smaller than the Waikato, and two-thirds of that is uninhabited desert.

Concepts of personal space are a little different from what we're used to. Still, we negotiated our way out of the resort and spent the day at King Herod's desert palace, Masada.

Herod had a busy life. He built Caesarea, a massive Mediterranean port, whose impressive ruins we had yet to see, and renovated the Second Temple, of which only the Wailing Wall remains. He backed Cleopatra and Mark Anthony in the Roman civil war then grovelled successfully at Octavian's feet to retain his kingdom.

Masada is better known though for a thousand Jewish rebels who for three years held out in the mountain top palace before committing collective suicide on the eve of defeat. The massive ramp the Romans used to wheel up the siege engine is still in evidence. There is a cable car option to get to the top but the 30-minute walk was hardly arduous, or so the travelling companion told me afterwards.

Shabbat, however, was still upon us the next day as we drove the short distance to Jerusalem.

We could not check into our hotel room until 6pm. Shabbat. We could not gain access to the parking building. Shabbat. We could not get something to eat. Shabbat. We could not buy a newspaper. Shabbat. Shabbat. Shabbat. Even the hotel had a Shabbat lift. What was a Shabbat lift?

Jerusalem's old city, we soon discovered, has a heavy Arab influence, so it was open for business. Allah be praised!

The old city is protected by 4km of impressive stone wall - built by the gloriously named Suleiman the Magnificent 500 years ago and is still in excellent condition. There are half a dozen gates that control access to the city and inside is a blend of overlapping religious sites, some of them literally on top of each other, which has not historically lent itself to religious harmony. The Dome of the Rock is by far the most intense.

Jews believe this is where the world began, where Adam was created and subsequently the spot Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Muslims believe this is the spot where Mohammad ascended into heaven and after their conquest in 691AD they erected a massive dome over some rocks where the Second Temple once stood.

It is literally a large rock with a massive dome over it surrounded by a courtyard; the centre of the universe and a place school boys play soccer. Access to the site is strictly controlled by the Israeli Army, unless you look Muslim, in which case you can just wander in, apparently to prevent rambunctious Jews stirring up trouble by praying.

Christians are too busy prostrating themselves at the nearby Church of the Nativity, where they believe Jesus was crucified, to be bothered.

By the end of our tour it was dark, Shabbat was over.

A week later, the travelling companion and I were in Tel Aviv experiencing our second and I'm sure last-ever Shabbat, when on the Friday afternoon we witnessed a city of three million souls descend into itself.

The lights were on but the city was closed and the hotel lift worked by itself, stopping at every floor.

The Torah lists 39 activities Jews must not undertake during Shabbat, and lighting a fire is one of those. That's not a major inconvenience today unless you smoke, but flipping a light switch or pressing an elevator lift can create a spark, rendering such activities forbidden.

Thus, Israelis pre-programme their lights using a timer, a Shabbat clock.

Elevators run continuously and stop at every floor and Arab-owned restaurants do a roaring trade.

Damien Grant paid his own way to Israel.

- Herald on Sunday

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