I am planning to travel around Israel (from Oct 19 to Nov 5th), and I am wondering what effect the Sabbath will have on transport, restaurants and the sights. Should I be planning to not do anything from Friday night to Saturday night?
It has an impact, but it isn't problematic. The Sabbath runs from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, though in practice it could extend from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. In planning your trip, it is much like planning in other countries where shops are closed on Sundays or museums are only open on certain days. The key thing is to plan your time carefully around these limitations.
From our trip to Israel, I was probably most surprised by the fairly large Arab population. Since their holy day is on Friday, their shops are open on Saturday during the Sabbath and the Jewish shops are open on Friday when the Arab shops are closed. At least in the places we visited, there was always something that was open.
I think the most problematic aspect of the Sabbath in our trip planning was public transport. However, we ended up renting a car, so it wasn't a concern for us.
The Shabbath (pronounced Shabbat in Israeli Hebrew) imposes some travel limitations but offers some exciting experiences. If you plan your trip correctly, you can greatly benefit from it.
The first important thing to know about Shabbat is that its character varies greatly among different areas in Israel. Ultra religous quarters in Jerusalem (like Mea Shearim) are literally closed for any transportation, and either smoking, talking on cellular phones will cause anger and irritation. In the mostly secular Tel Aviv, shops, night clubs and restaurants are open, there is reasonable public transportation and Shabbat is the unofficial hangout day.
- Buses and the Israeli Railway don't operate in Shabbat. However, share taxis operate normally in Tel Aviv, and Taxis operate everywhere.
- Private transportation is unrestricted except some religious neighbourhoods.
- Most shops are closed, especially in religious areas and Jerusalem. Most non-Kosher restaurants are open, and you can find a large variety of restaurants anywhere, Jerusalem included.
- The main weekly prayer in Synagogues and in the Western Wall is on Saturday morning.
- Arab villages, neighbourhoods and cities in Israel (not to mention Palestinian Authority regions) are fully opened.
So, what can you do?
- Visit a synagogue. Try to ask a Jewish friend to find a synagogue that will welcome you, and ask for the behavior rules beforehand. Don't bring any electrical device, including a cellular phone - it's considered extreme rudeness in most synagogues. If you can't find one, visit the Western Wall early in the morning.
- Spend a day outdoors with a rented car. You can visit all the main highlights like Massada, Dead sea or Makhtesh Ramon.
- Urban tourism: Tour the Old City of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tel Aviv (or any other city) by foot. Taxis are not too expensive, too.
- Visit an Arabic or Druze village like Abu Ghosh or Pekiin. You'll probably need a rented car or an expensive long-distance taxi.