Planning Around the Jewish Calendar

When choosing dates for your Israel trip there are a lot of factors to consider, including costs, cultural events, and making the most of your time here. Awareness of the Jewish calendar is necessary for all three.

The Jewish state has been blessed with a plethora of holidays, mostly based in Jewish tradition with a few modern national holidays added to the mix.

Looks like a lot of holidays, right? IT IS!

These holidays will determine what is open or closed on which days of your stay, the price of hotel rooms and other accommodations, and what’s going on in terms of entertainment and cultural events, both secular and religious.

But why is it so hard to figure out when the holidays are? Because the Hebrew calendar is a mix of lunar and solar. The months go according to the new moon. Therefore it is not in sync with the solar, secular (Gregorian) calendar used throughout the world. I can’t tell you which day Passover starts on every year, because on the secular calendar it moves around. It may be March 10 one year and April 20th the next. But before I explain where and how to find those dates, let me tell you why it matters.

You may be thinking, “Yay! Lot’s of chances to check out local culture!” That’s true, but it’s not the same as national holidays in other places. On many Jewish holidays, in religious parts of the country such as Jerusalem, pretty much everything shuts down. Halacha, Jewish religious law, forbids doing business,  driving a car, flipping a light switch, and many other activities on certain holy days, including Shabbat (the Sabbath) which happens every week, and holidays considered a ‘Yom Tov’ (Good Day). So unless you’ve come specifically to observe these special times in Israel you will probably want to avoid them. But this is only true of specific days, not all holidays, and not all days of all holidays. And if you are here, you may choose to be in the Tel Aviv area for holidays and/or Shabbat, where life goes on much as normal.

Lucky for you there are a number of easy ways to look up the dates of Jewish holidays. The best resource I’ve found is HebCal.com. Follow this link which will show you the timing of all the religious and secular holidays in Israel. Beware, if you go to Rabbi Google for this information, that you may have a problem because some of the dates are a tiny bit different in Israel and outside of Israel. Make sure the calendar shows the dates for holidays IN ISRAEL.

What Closes and When

The usually bustling Mahane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem, closed for the Sabbath. (Image by Utilisateur:Djampa  CC BY-SA , via Wikimedia Commons)

In more religious areas of the country, most notably Jerusalem, almost everything in the Jewish parts of the city shuts down from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday night EVERY WEEK. Days on the Jewish calendar begin and end at sundown, not at midnight. So on Friday afternoon, a couple of hours before sundown, shops and other businesses start to shut down, public transportation comes to a halt, and the city gets very quiet. In the winter this shutdown can start as early as two or three in the afternoon. From then until sundown the next night the only restaurants open will be in Arab East Jerusalem, the few non-kosher options in the capital, and hotel restaurants. Some museums and the national parks are still open, but you will need to take cabs or have rented a car to get to them. The same holds true for all the following holy days:

  1. First day of Passover
  2. 7th day of Passover
  3. Shavuot (Pentacost)
  4. 2 days of Rosh Hashana (New Years)
  5. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
  6. First day of Sukkot (Festival of Booths)
  7. Shemini Atzeret (AKA 8th day of Sukkot)

Note that whatever date is marked on the calendar means things will shut down the evening BEFORE that date and the evening of that day things will reopen. If one of these days falls on a Friday or a Sunday, that will result in everything being closed at least two days. If Rosh Hashana falls on Thursday that means three days of closures, including the two days of the holiday followed immediately by Shabbat (Saturday).

But if you’re not an observant Jew and you’re going to be in Israel for these days, you can simply plan to be in Tel Aviv or other secular bastions of the country on those days. In those places restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and much else is open as usual. Contact me to help arrange these details.

The Jewish Calendar and High Season for Travel Prices

For the most part seasonal prices for tourism in Israel follow the same calendar you may be familiar with. During the summer, and over winter break at the end of December are peak seasons for tourism and prices for flights, hotels, and more jump accordingly. But in addition we have the Hebrew calendar, which sometimes overlaps with that other calendar and sometimes does not. In addition to July and August and the last 2 weeks of December, the period from Rosh Hashanna through the end of Sukkot and the week of Passover are also high season, as well as a week or so before and after each. Hanukkah, which sometimes overlaps with the end of December and sometimes not, is also high season.

Where to Learn More

I’m so glad you asked! My wife happens to write an amazing, fun to read blog, letterstojosep.com, which features articles about all the Jewish and Israeli holidays, as well as this overview of the Jewish calendar, the calendar graphic on this post, and much else about Judaism and life in Israel. It’s all available in book form too! And of course, you can get in touch with me to help you plan your trip and save yourself the headache of figuring this out on your own. 😀

 

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