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Observing the Jewish Sabbath while traveling

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Many Jewish people observe the Sabbath (Shabbat or Shabbos) in some way. Orthodox Jews follow all the religious laws completely, and even many non-orthodox Jews mark the Sabbath somehow. A fully observed Sabbath includes synagogue attendance, rituals, and activity restrictions.

Understand

The Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest. Its origins are biblical, based on the fact that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. Keeping and remembering the Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments.

Many people believe that Jews observe the Shabbat on Saturday. The truth is that Shabbat begins on Friday night at sunset (with candles being lit no later than 18 minutes before sunset), and ends the following day about an hour after the latest candle lighting time. In all, it is observed at least 25 hours. Jewish days of the week change at sundown, and therefore, Shabbat is officially the seventh day of the Hebrew calendar.

The exact time Shabbat starts and ends varies by location and time of year. Shabbat starts and ends earlier during the winter months, and later in the summer. In some places, this could lead to odd starting times. For example, in some polar regions, Shabbat could start around noon Friday and end early Saturday afternoon at some times of year, and then start early Saturday morning after Friday midnight and end early Sunday morning at other times of the year.

Rituals

Some of the rituals practiced on Shabbat include:

  • Candle lighting: Candles are lit no later than 18 minutes before sunset on Friday evening. This is generally done by the head woman of the household. In the absence of a woman, it is done by the head man.
  • Kiddush: A blessing is recited on a glass of wine or grape juice. This is done once Friday evening and once Saturday morning or early afternoon.
  • Lechem Mishna: Two loaves of bread (challah) are placed on the table and covered. All present at the meal wash their hands and a blessing is recited for the handwashing and then the bread (this is a normal practice in Judaism when consuming bread). This is followed by a meal. Three such meals are eaten on Shabbat, one Friday evening, one Saturday around lunchtime, and one Saturday evening before dark.
  • Havdallah: At the conclusion of Shabbat, a prayer is recited with a glass of wine/grape juice, a multi-wick candle burning, and a fragrant spice.

Restrictions

There are 39 biblically prohibited restrictions on Shabbat, which lead to the prohibition against many other activities. When modern life is practiced, some of the common ones include:

  • Writing
  • Making monetary transactions
  • Operating lights or electronic devices
  • Cooking
  • Driving
  • Using hot tap water
  • Carrying in the public domain (see eruv)

Most labor and forms of employment cannot be practiced during the Shabbat. A notable exception is for those who save lives, including physicians, nurses, and paramedics. When a human life is in danger, all Shabbat restrictions are suspended until the emergency is stabilized. 

Finding a synagogue

Attendance at the synagogue (or temple) is central for many Jews on Shabbat, and for some Jews on all days of the week. Synagogues can be found in many places around the world, even where Jewish populations are very small. Various directories can help identify the locations of synagogues, including GoDaven, Orthodox Union, and Chabad for orthodox, USCJ for conservative, and URJ for reform congregations.

Staying near a synagogue

Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Shabbat, thereby necessitating being within a reasonable walk of a synagogue for Shabbat. Unless one plans to pray without a congregation, finding a place to stay close to the synagogue is essential.

One who is looking for a place to stay near the synagogue can do their own research and compare the locations of synagogues and hotels. Or calling the area's rabbi or someone else in the community with the expertise may enable one to get this help.

In some communities, it may be possible to arrange to stay with a community member in lieu of staying at a hotel. This can be a good arrangement for one who does not mind staying in a stranger's house, allows flexibility when to check in and out that is unlike that of a hotel, and best of all, is free. Additionally, one's host will most likely provide one with meals.

Issues a traveler may face when attempting to keep Shabbat

Eruv

An eruv is a boundary placed around a seemingly public area so it is considered private under Jewish law. This allows those inside the eruv to carry during the Shabbat. Many large Jewish communities have an eruv in the areas where the Jewish population lives. An eruv is typically made of existing structures, such as fences of estates, businesses, and farms, utility lines, or railroad overhead lines. 

When arriving in a place to spend Shabbat, one should try to determine if there is an eruv, and if so, what its exact boundaries are. If one is accustomed to having an eruv, but there is none, proper adaptations must be made to walk outside within an eruv.

If one is staying in an area with no eruv in a hotel with rooms that open to the outdoors, one is without an eruv from the moment they leave their room.

Electronic room keys

Most hotels now have electronic keys that must be inserted into a door to unlock the door. Since use of electronics is prohibited on Shabbat, inserting the key constitutes a violation.

If one is spending Shabbat in such a hotel, it is permissible to ask the management before the start of Shabbat to unlock the doors at certain times when one expects to return to one's hotel.

Keep in mind that it is not permitted to have a Jewish employee perform this task. It is not uncommon for a hotel located in a Jewish area to have one or more Jewish employees.

Checking in and out

Typically, hotels and motels require guests to check in no earlier than around 3 PM or so and to check out no later than 11 AM or noon. This poses a problem for the Shabbat observant who wish to leave immediately after Shabbat. Shabbat ends Saturday evening, long after the latest customary checkout time.

In most cases, guests will be required to stay over until Sunday morning. If one really must leave Saturday night, some options are to pay for Saturday night but leave early, or to ask the hotel to hold your luggage until a later time and find a place to hang out. If you are staying in a Jewish community, it may be worth asking to find some accommodation at the home of a community member; contact the area's rabbi for such assistance.

In Israel, many hotels allow late checkouts on Saturdays, sometimes for the payment of an additional fee less than the full cost of the night of a room. Such arrangements can occasionally but rarely be found elsewhere.

Candles

Candles are lit at the beginning of Shabbat, and then allowed to burn to the bottom, which is usually several hours. At the conclusion, a multi-wick candle is lit for Havdallah, then extinguished upon the conclusion of Havdallah.

Some hotels and other places may have restrictions on the use of candles, especially in a non-smoking room (even though the use of candles does not constitute smoking). In other places this can be dangerous.

Most rabbis permit the use of electric lights in lieu of candles. One option are tea lights, which can be found at many supermarkets and other similar stores; these battery operated lights can remain on for several hours. As a happy coincidence, many models are also set to flicker and jump like a candle's flame, which may help you to appreciate the ambiance of an actual candle.

Wine/grape juice

Wine or grape juice are generally used for Kiddush and Havdallah. But most wine and grape juice is not kosher. Finding kosher wine or grape juice outside of an area populated by Jews is difficult.

In the absence of wine or grape juice for evening Kiddush, a second set of bread loaves can be used. For daytime Kiddush and Havdallah, other types of juice or hard liquor can be used. 

Food

Obtaining meals for Shabbat may be difficult while traveling, especially when staying outside of a Jewish community. If a community is around, there is a good chance one may find accommodations with food provided. Some synagogues offer meals to congregants.

Food cannot be cooked on Shabbat, but may be heated before Shabbat begins, and then eaten soon after the start of Shabbat while still hot.

For Saturday meals, it is possible to eat cold foods that have already been cooked. If you have access to a device that keeps water hot, you can get soups, noodles, and other types of meals that hot water is added to and they are instantly ready.

When transferring hot water to the other ingredients to be consumed, it is necessary to first pour the water into another vessel (known as a kli sheni).

Elevators

Most elevators cannot be used on Shabbat due to the fact they are electronic. In some places populated by Jews, a special Shabbat elevator exists that operates automatically.

If walking steps is hard for you, consider asking the hotel for a ground or lower level room.

Escalators may be used on Shabbat provided that a Jew did not turn it on during Shabbat.

Hygiene care

Bathing/Showering

Since the use of hot water is prohibited on Shabbat, bathing or showering with hot tap water is not permitted. Bathing in a full tub of water is also not permitted because it is akin to swimming, which is also prohibited.

It is permitted to take a cold water shower, or to was oneself in an underfilled tub, to which water preheated before Shabbat is added.

Use of bar soap is not permitted. But liquid soap is permitted, and many hotels provide this to guests. Sephardim do permit a bar of soap.

On Jewish holidays, use of hot water is permitted.

Oral care

The use of a toothbrush is permitted, but toothpaste is not. Mouthwash or liquified toothpaste is permitted as a substitute. Sephardim do permit toothpaste.

Hair care

The use of a brush or comb is generally not permitted due to the risk of pulling out hairs.

Shaving

Shaving is not permitted on Shabbat.

Near the international date line

The international date line that everyone knows lies in the Pacific Ocean between North/South America and Asia/Oceania. But in Jewish law, the international date line is exactly halfway around the world from Jerusalem. This, according to some rabbinical opinions, makes the actual Shabbat fall on Friday in some places, including parts of Alaska and Hawaii. According to some opinions, Shabbat, or at least its restrictions, need to be observed on both days while in these places.

Flying/sailing into Shabbat

There are times when it is Shabbat east of the international date line while it is Sunday west of the line, or that it is Friday east of the line and Shabbat west of the line. This could pose problems for one who is traveling eastbound on a Sunday in this region or westbound on a Friday.

For one who catches an eastbound flight on a Sunday from the Far East or Oceania or a westbound flight on a Friday from the Pacific coast of the Americas, this could lead into "flying into Shabbat." An observant Jew generally avoids doing this unless it is absolutely necessary. It is not easy to determine in such a situation when it would be Shabbat in one's location since it is not always possible for an airline passenger to know a plane's location during a flight or the exact location of the line.

For one who is on a Pacific cruise, the same issues are faced in which one could "sail into Shabbat" and not know the ship's exact location.

On cruise ships

Ship travel is permitted on Shabbat, provided the ship is not initially boarded on Shabbat.

Observing Shabbat on a cruise ship is not easy. Even "kosher cruises" are not always Shabbat friendly.

Selecting a cruise

When selecting a cruise, be sure that it does not start or end on Shabbat or any Jewish holiday. Also be mindful of what ports of call the ship will stop at on Shabbat; you may want to schedule a cruise so you don't miss something you want to see.

Some rabbinical authorities do not permit boarding a cruise that begins later than Wednesday.

Knowing when Shabbat starts and ends

It is difficult to know the exact start and end time of Shabbat while on a ship due to the fact that the ship's location will change over the course of Shabbat.

Electronic doors

Electronic room keys are just as much a part of cruise ships as they are at hotels on land, and this issue must be addressed. The very cards that allow you on and off of the ship and to make onboard purchases also function as the keys to your room, Asking your stateroom attendant in advance of Shabbat to unlock the door for you at specific times may be necessary.

There are also plenty of electronic doors in common areas. It is permissible to walk through such a door after a non-Jew unprompted by you triggers its opening, then walk through directly behind the non-Jew as if you are a single unit. This will not trigger the door's electric eye to keep it open for longer.

Meals

Presumably, if you are observing Shabbat, you are also observing Jewish dietary laws.

Be sure to ask the kitchen staff to prepare your meal and finish cooking it before Shabbat.

On many ships, hot water, tea, and coffee is available from dispensers. If the majority of people on the ship are not Jewish, and the staff involved in its operations are not Jewish, it is permitted to use these.

Exiting the ship on Shabbat

While you will not be able to take an excursion, you may wish to exit the ship on Shabbat to walk around. This is possible, provided a tender boat is not required to reach land. In order to do this, you must be sure you are carrying nothing, since the likelihood of there being an eruv is almost non-existent.

Ask the front desk to punch a hole in your stateroom card. This will allow it to hang on a string, which you can wear around your neck like a pendant. 

As you head to the gangway, your stateroom card must be clearly visible to staff. This way, the crew member will incidentally scan it as you walk by without your involvement or solicitation of this activity. You must ascertain that this staff member is not Jewish. You must repeat this when reboarding.

It is permitted to pass through a metal detector on Shabbat, provided you can be sure you will not trigger the alarm. Metal detectors are used at the Western Wall on Shabbat.

Some ports of call are in industrial ports, and all that can be seen for a significant distance are cargo ships and shipping crates. If this is the case, you may want to reconsider exiting the ship on Shabbat.

Buying souvenirs on shore

You may arrange in advance of Shabbat for a non-Jewish traveler on your cruise to purchase souvenirs at a port of call on your behalf.

Camping

Camping is possible on Shabbat and is enjoyed by some people as a way to spend Shabbat. There are ways in which camping can be done so that Shabbat can be observed at the campground. It is preferable to camp in groups of observant Jews in order to make the experience more pleasurable.

Since the campground does not have an eruv, it is necessary to build one around the campfire before the Shabbat begins. This can be done with a series of stakes and a string, or similar materials. This allows for the handling of objects within the campsite. Without an eruv, it is not possible to move any type of object, so take special care not to damage this makeshift eruv.

A hot meal can be enjoyed on Friday night that is cooked prior to the start of Shabbat. Cold foods can be eaten during the day. It is difficult to keep a flame burning all of Shabbat.

Jewish holidays

Several Jewish holidays take place during the year with restrictions similar to those of Shabbat. These holidays, which can fall on almost any day of the week, include:

  • Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year, which occurs in September or October, and lasts for two days
  • Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement, which occurs in September or October, and lasts for one day
  • Sukkot: Tabernacles, in September or October, which lasts for seven days, with the first two days (first day only in Israel) being a holiday with similar restrictions to Shabbat
  • Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah: One the day following Sukkot (two days outside Israel), with restrictions similar to Shabbat
  • Passover: In March or April. Is seven days in Israel, with the first and last days being like a Shabbat. Is eight days outside Israel, with the first two and last two days being like Shabbat.
  • Shavuot: In May or June. One day in Israel, two days outside Israel, being like Shabbat.

On these holidays, restrictions are very much like Shabbat, except that the eruv is not required to carry, cooking with existing heat is permitted, and drawing hot tap water is permitted, unless the day coincides with Shabbat.

Rituals are similar to those of Shabbat, with variations. On some holidays, extra rituals are performed and extra prayers are recited.

Yom Kippur is a fast day, with no eating or drinking. Leather shoes or not worn. During all seven days of Sukkot, meals are eaten in a sukkah (a temporary booth). On Passover, leavened grain products are abstained from.

Traveling to/from Israel

In Israel, all holidays except for Rosh Hashanah are observed for just one day. Outside Israel, all holidays except for Yom Kippur are observed for two days. These guidelines are followed in accordance to the land one considers one's permanent residence. So when visiting one of these places different from one's residence, the guidelines of one's home must be followed.

If a non-Israeli resident is visiting Israel, two days of each holiday must be observed, even though a second day is not in Israel. Some communities of Israel cater to such visitors, offering second-day services and meals.

When an Israeli resident is visiting a place outside Israel, it is not permitted by Jewish law to perform forbidden acts in public. They may be performed in private.

Building a sukkah while traveling

It is possible to construct a sukkah while traveling for temporary use.

The walls of a sukkah can be made of virtually anything. You can use pieces of cardboard for this purpose and form a square out of them that provides enough room to sit inside for as many people as are present. In the absence of a table, spreading a blanket or tablecloth on the ground is ideal.

The roof of the sukkah (schach) must be made of a plant material that has not been altered from its natural form. This is easily attainable by picking up branches and leaves that have fallen on the ground and placing them on top of the cardboard or other wall material.

Another option for a traveling sukkah is if you have a vehicle with a sunroof. You can open the sunroof and place plant materials on top of the vehicle for an instant sukkah.

Passover resorts

Many resorts offer for a fixed fee accommodation for the entire holiday of Passover. This is an option to consider for those who find cleaning their homes for Passover and other holiday preparations too stressful. The cost is quite high, often several thousand US dollar per person. Then again, this could be partially offset by the costs of spending Passover at home, since these offers are generally all inclusive. If you plan to accept one of these offers, let them know of any special needs you have (e.g. dietary).

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