Blogging on the road: Sabbath in Jerusalem

Blogger Steve Kelman observes some of the interesting Sabbath customs in Jerusalem.

There are two elevators in the hotel, and first I thought one was on the blink after I went inside the open door and couldn't press the button for the ground floor, nor did the door close, so I used the other elevator. I was later told that this second elevator was for guests observing the Sabbath who didn't want to walk: It was pre-programmed to go from floor to floor at regular and unchangeable intervals, with guests have no ability to call it or influence its path up and down the floors. I don't know why it was acceptable to have one normally functioning elevator, presumably for non-Sabbath observing guests, while it was not acceptable to have a coffee machine for the same group. Strict religious interpretation, I guess, has its strange ways.

The work of the public-policy program review committee I have come to Israel to chair was stopped after lunch on Friday, when Israel (especially in Jerusalem, where I have been staying) starts closing down for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins sundown on Friday. (Interestingly, Israelis don't actually have a full two-day weekend: They are typically off part of Friday and all day Saturday, then return to work on Sunday, although some get all day off on Fridays.)

Before sundown, I walked from my hotel towards the King David Hotel, the luxury hotel from the 1930s perhaps a half-mile up overlooking the Old City. To my surprise, the four flags around the front desk, each on its own flagpole, were from Israel, the United States, the European Union and...China. And, indeed, in the veranda café, which has a spectacular and amazingly peaceful view of the walled Old City, I found three Chinese men and a middle-aged Israeli woman, possibly a guide, speaking with the guests in Chinese. I remembered that when I visited the Shanghai Expo last June, the two pavilions I saw staffed by country nationals who spoke Chinese were those from the U.S. and Israel.

It was also interesting to observe a stylish Arab couple getting pre-wedding pictures taken in a park between the King David and my hotel. The park features the so-called Montefiore Windmill, which was originally built in 1857as a power source for the first Jewish settlers in Jerusalem outside the walled Old City. The groom was wearing a stylish black suit and the bride a dress that was white but which looked more like a classic ballet tutu than a typical American wedding gown; a few women, wearing headscarves, watched the photography session with happiness.

Jerusalem goes more or less dead from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It is hard to find an open restaurant, although there are a few. There are no newspapers -- including no Saturday edition of the International Herald Tribune, which is printed in Israel. Although taxis Israeli busses don't run (though intercity Arab buses, coming from Arab Jerusalem and going to other West Bank cities such as nearby Bethlehem, for which the fastest route goes through Jewish Jerusalem, regularly passed my hotel). There was actually more car traffic on the street than I had expected.

Practices at my hotel were interesting. The hotel gym was closed. My room was cleaned -- but by a non-Jewish employee. A sign in the restaurant informed guests that due to rabbinic ruling, only cold food could be served. The coffee machine was closed -- but there was hot water in a coffee pot, along with teabags or Nescafe. The difference? The water in the pot had been boiled prior to the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown, and the heat kept on the whole time. (The coffee machine makes a fresh cup each time, and therefore falls under the no hot food prohibition.)