Saturday, 7 July 2012

Sabbath food in Israel

The Sabbath menu, chalked onto the wall at Friday night concept dinners, a supper club in Tel Aviv. Shishi is Hebrew for Friday.
Young Hassidim at the cholent (traditional stew for Sabbath) shop.
In Judaism they start the Sabbath, the day of rest, on Friday. Preparations begin Thursday night: for nothing, not an oven or a light nor an elevator button, may be switched on from sundown Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Pressing buttons is considered work, likewise shopping and cooking, which is forbidden during this period. Even tearing off a sheet of toilet paper is work and pre-cut sheets are provided.
Dishes such as cholent (a stew) are slowly cooked before, so that there is some warm food for the meal. The bread is bought before dark. Candles are lit. 
On Thursday evening, I visited Bnei Brak, the Haredi orthodox Jewish quarter in Tel Aviv. I was warned: don't touch the men, DO NOT shake hands. Wear modest long clothing, cover your arms down past your elbows. Scratching my head at the limited contents of my suitcase, I resorted to wearing my nightie with a borrowed shawl. 
L to R clockwise: pickled herring plate; ultra orthodox deli, noodle kugel cake, salads.
After bundling into a delicatessen, it's fluorescent lit fridge shelves lined with colourful salads, pickled herrings and cottage cheese, I moved onto a bakery where the plump white Sabbath loaves, Challah, were plaited, sprinkled with seeds, baked and bagged. If you arrive early and snag a little raw dough, you can make a wish. Later, down the dark back streets, a hole in the wall cholent joint, brown gunk in a plastic bowl, served by a patriarch with a lingering accent trace of Brooklyn, accompanied by sour pickles and brown wedges of noodle kugel. Orthodox kids asked 'Where do you come from?' in Yiddish. The guide, Dorit Barak, granddaughter of one of the founders of Bnei Brak, explained 'They ask everybody that. Even Israelis. They live in a separate world. The ultra orthodox kids don't know anybody outside their area exists, they are so isolated.' Ultra orthodox Jews do not use the Internet without filters and certain Israeli phone companies cater for them with basic mobile phones which are not Internet enabled.
L to R clockwise: the challah bakery, young couple waiting for a piece of raw dough so that they can make a wish (probably for a baby); spreading seeds on a large celebratory bread; 6 plaits for a challah, two loaves served equals 12 strands (the numerology of the Kabalah), young Palestinian worker baking the bread.

I was surprised at the hostility from ordinary Israelis towards the ultra orthodox. "They don't work" "The men just study all day" "The women work all the time and have lots of children". And, most damningly, from an ambitious people that believe in working hard: "They live on donations." Because of their dedication to their religious life and rejection of the daily struggle for material wealth, the Haredi form the poorest Jewish communities in Israel.
Haredi shop; Torah scroll embedded in the doorway of the bakery; sabbath elevator; sink to wash hands at the entrance of a kosher restaurant; a dish of chickpeas represents fertility, many children; donation boxes on the street for the Haredi Jews of Bnei Brak.
The Haredi are nicknamed 'penguins' for they wear only black and white. Having separated from mainstream Judaism in the 18th century, their clothing retains a romantic costume drama bravura influenced by Poland, Turkey and Babylonia: tall black hats, long black Prince Albert style coats, white shirts without neck ties. On the Sabbath, slip-on shoes are worn (for knotting laces is work) and fur hats. 
While the Israeli state is secular, all hotels in Israel are kosher except for the Scots hotel. Many hotels will have two restaurants: one for meat and another for dairy. Our driver would never touch dairy, out of the two, he chose meat at every meal.  Every hotel restaurant has a sink outside where observant Jews can wash their hands three times before entering. Some elevators are designated as Sabbath lifts, they stop at every floor, taking you to your destination without having to press a button. 
L to R clockwise: In the cholent shop; young men paying; vegetarian cholent with potato kugel (tasted better than it looks); 
I was also privileged to be invited to an Israeli supper club in Tel Aviv: 'Friday night concept dinners' run by three friends, designers and architects, Dorit Chesler and Gili Shapira of Two Arch and a designer, Tal Zur of Trixie design studio and their buddy, Chen Shadmi of Shadmi-Design.
In a stylish flat and courtyard, we had a friendly and relaxed meal, as if we were with old friends, which revealed an intriguing marriage of design innovation and Jewish tradition, one of the highlights of my trip to Israel. The table itself was cobbled together half an hour before our party arrived, from MDF and sticky-back plastic, mimicking the traditional white tablecloth laid for the Sabbath meal. The kiddush cup, which is passed from person to person during prayers, was a specially designed glass that fitted into the top of a kosher wine bottle. The tearing (never cutting) of the challah bread was achieved via an ingenious ceramic chain. One's prettiest tableware must be presented for the Sabbath dinner; this time via originally designed water jugs and unusual rectangular white dishes. Wine was provided by Flam winery. I had no idea Israeli wine had improved so much, this was a revelation throughout my trip. I also tried Arak, a pastis style liquor, as a digestif, from Ierous, a Jerusalem Arak distillery
Challah bread, home baked at Friday night concept dinners.
The Kiddush wine cup
If you have forgotten your kippah, small hat, then people use a serviette or even their hand to cover their head during prayers.
Appetisers of Arak shots with watermelon, mint and feta.
The courtyard apartment where Friday night concept dinners was held.

Chen bringing out the glasses
Bottles of IerosArak and small glasses of sorbet
A big fish stew/ Friday night concept dinners.
For dessert the table was removed. We chillaxed in the courtyard with shots of Arak.
A creative way to make a chocolate bowl, see below picture.
Designer Chen Shadmi made these brownies in eggshells and used eggshells to make the above rectangular container. Ingenius!
Even the WC was conceptual: an installation from toilet rolls.
Gili, Dorit and Tal.

There is talk in Israel however, of moving the Sabbath to Sunday. Having Friday as the day off means that they lose a day of business with the rest of the world. In a recent poll, 56% of Israelis supported this move. It seems a shame to abandon this distinction in a country which revived a dead language, Hebrew, turning it from a written text in religious books to a living, evolving language.


  1. Fascinating post, I could just dive into the watermelon and feta! Thanks for sharing your trip!

  2. Fascinating post, I could just dive into the watermelon and feta! Thanks for sharing your trip!

  3. Awesome, always a bit fascinated with Orthodox Jewish culture. That veggie cholent looks great, nice bit of stodge there.

  4. Me too! I think they look kind of cool, a bit like cowboys.
    The veggie cholent was ok but I preferred the potato kugel. It didn't look great but tasted fantastic. Lovely stodge!

  5. Great post, though not every hotel in israel is kosher. Also not all restaurants have sinks specifically for washing, which Jewish law only requires washing ones hands before eating bread. Pressing an elevator button on the Sabbath is prohibited because of the electricity. As well, the Sabbath is not going to be moved to Sunday, the Sabbath is always on Saturday, what is being discussed is having the weekend be both Saturday AND Sunday, now it is only Saturday. Sounds like you had a great time in Israel

  6. Ms Marmite Lover - I LOVE that photo of the Hassidic boy you took at the cholent shop!

    And you were a fun travel buddy :)

  7. Anon: re hotels being kosher, that's what I was told. Shrugs!
    So you only have to wash your hands before eating bread?
    It seems like there are lots of details in Judaism that no everybody knows.
    We were also told that if you have an inbetween course, something 'parve' or neutral such as fruit or vegetables, you can actually eat dairy and meat in the same meal.
    Elevator it's not the pressing but the electricity. However the elevator is still using electricity to go up and down...
    I think the point about the Sabbath starting on Friday is that Israel takes at least half a day off on Friday which is a business day in the rest of the world.
    I had a great time, it's a very interesting country and culture. I've got so much more to report on there.

  8. Loved following your travels, looks like you had a great time. I've also enjoyed your write-ups, that you enjoyed your time there, without getting side-tracked into politics (although I fully accept that life & politics are inextricably linked in Israel.

    You're right that there are lots of rules lots of people don't know. That's partly because some of the rules are tradition, rather than rules: just one example, some people leave 3hrs between eating meat and then having milk. Others (particularly of Dutch heritage) leave 1hr.

    The elevator issue is one of many examples of work arounds. These are the cause of much debate and argument in the community. Some consider it a cop-out, others swear by it. Like so much in religion, it's all about perspective!

    You can eat milk before meat with something parve in between. This relates to say having a cup of tea before dinner. Lots of people leave about 30mins plus a glass of water between doing the two.

    However, it would be exceptionally unusual (I've never seen/heard/read about it) for it to be in one meal i.e. a creamy soup followed by a steak. There are several reasons for this. First, logisitics, milk and meat require different cutlery, crockery and cooking utensils and the religious keep them well separated. Second, there's the risk that you might mix the two, or someone might see your meal and assume you're mixing the two.

    One thing you can be sure of is that you could garner multiple views on these points without getting a consistent answer. (see above on perspective)

  9. I only got to see the touristy non-food side of Israel ... before I became a food-obsessive. It all looks delicious and I love the photos.

  10. Thanks Anthony.
    I'm going to write more about Israel and its food. There may be some politics involved because the food we eat cannot be extricated from culture, heritage, family, love, life and politics! That's what makes it interesting.

    Judaism is the one religion where you are encouraged to argue, to debate, to question so it's no surprise that all of these rules and traditions are constantly revised and haggled over!

  11. "I think the point about the Sabbath starting on Friday is that Israel takes at least half a day off on Friday which is a business day in the rest of the world."

    Just so you know, we work until 2pm on Fridays, and Sundays here are like the rest of the world's Mondays, so for Israel in general there is just one full day without work which is Saturday, and all shops and restaurants even then open on Saturday nights.

  12. Well since its Israel everything will at some point come back to politics, even food, just as long as you dont bring up the inane arguments about who "owns" which foods I think you'll be fine (see the debate over falafel). How someone can think regional foods are created in a vacuum is ridiculous.

  13. Its always interesting to see our culture from fresh eyes! Thanks for sharing your trip and experience with us.

    Just a side note, you stated early on that we celebrate the Sabbath on Friday...then define accurately that as Friday sundown until Saturday night. Just a clarification. We celebrate the Sabbath on so-called Saturday. Its just that in Jewish tradition and Calendar, the day begins at sundown and ends as the sun goes down. So "Saturday" begins on "Friday night" after the sun goes down. I'm only pointing this out because Friday is a Muslim day of rest. So the statement could be a bit misleading...

    Thanks! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog :)

  14. Great post. The supper club sounds fabulous.

  15. a tramp through Taiwan: HI, I've changed the post to 'starts' on the Friday.
    Kosher camembert:Yes it was a great supper club, original, creative and a warm welcome.

  16. Been reading all these blogs on the Israel trip. Very glad you all had such a good time, and the food looks great. But boy oh boy -- if you want information about Judaism, secular Israelis are the LAST people to ask!!!

  17. it all sounds wonderful. do you have the contact of the ladies who run the supper club? we will be in tel aviv in february with our dinner project and would like to get in touch. thank you!


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