Religious Holidays, Jerusalem
Good Friday, the day on which Jesus was crucified, according to the Christian belief, is a festive day in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Pilgrims from every continent flock to the Via Dolorosa Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
They carry wooden crosses of different sizes, small ones which they hold close to their bosom or huge ones which are a heavy load to carry.
Groups of pilgrims from different countries sing and chant their prayers in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish...
Either as a participant or a spectator, being in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem on Good Friday is a special experience.
I'm not Jewish so when traveling to Israel I kept hearing about "Shabat" or Sabbath in English.
It's an amazing experience and with a little planning your travel plans won't be interrupted too much.
From noon on Friday but officially at sundown until sun down on Saturday Israel (I was in Jerusalem) Is 90% closed. The streets were empty, bus station closed, and the city pretty much deserted so what does a tourist do? Well, not everyone in Israel is Jewish, there are Arabs, Armenians and Christians so the trick is to find a place where these groups are located. Fortunately, my hotel offered some great advice and pointed me to Zion square which is where a few restaurant and bars were located so I never went hungry during Shabat.
I did take a walk on Sat morning and was amazed at how few people and cars were out, the city didn't even begin to wake up until later in the afternoon and by evening the city's doors opened and everyone came out to enjoy the city and celebrate.
If you are in Jerusalem, the best time to see the Old City is on Sat morning because there are no crowds
The Holy Fire is described by Orthodox Christian believers as a miracle that occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the day preceding Orthodox Easter (Pascha).
Furthermore, in Russia, Greece, Georgia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon and Armenia, the Holy Fire is brought to the countries every year by special flights, being received with honors by state leaders at the respective airports.
On the Saturday before Easter the believers of the Ethiopian Church, dressed in white, flock into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They enter through a small door to the right of the main entrance, and climb the stairs to their section of the church: a hall that served as the knights' refectory in the Crusaders' period and now is an Ethiopian church, and the Holy Sepulchre church roof, with a dome in its center.
Prayers go on during the day, but in the evening the sacred fire ceremony starts. After some prayers, song and dance to the beating of drums, candles are distributed to everyone present, and the fire is passed from one to another. Soon the whole roof is glowing with lit candles, illuminating the participants' dark skins and white robes. The chanting is rhythmic and monotonous, a procession of priests and followers is going round and round the central dome, walking and dancing, and the crowd is getting more and more excited, esctatic.
The Ethiopians welcome visitors, and participating in this ceremony with them is a unique experience.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, the Saturday before Easter. Thousands of Christian Orthodox believers fill the church and the plaza outside, there is no room to move or to breathe. Thousands of others, less lucky, fill the narrow lanes outside, all the way to Jaffa Gate and the New Gate. They come from Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and from all over the world. They hold bunches of 33 candles in their hands (one for every year of Jesus's life on earth), look at their watches and wait impatiently for 2 o'clock in the afternoon, for the miracle to happen. The miracle recurs every year, at exactly the same time: Jesus sends a ray of light from heaven, which sets fire to the empty tomb inside the church.
The rules of the ceremony are very strict: only two men are allowed to be inside when this happens: the Greek Orthodox Patriarch (who is the first to enter) and the Armenian Patriarch. They light their torches from the fire and pass them through holes in the walls to the crowds impatiently waiting outside the chamber, in the main hall of the church. From then on, the ecstatic pilgrims rapidly pass the fire from one to the other, from inside the church to the outside, from the lanes of the Old City to the people waiting outside the gates. Lanterns are lit from this fire, which pilgrims will carry back home to their communities far and wide.
This is an outstanding ceremony, unique to Jerusalem. The Old City is transformed, with a truly international mix of faces, dresses, languages... The excitement can be felt all around.
If you are in Jerusalem around Easter, don't miss this unique experience!
In Jerusalem, there is very little that shouts "Christmas.” The stores are not decorated with inflated Santa Clauses and tinsel, and you won’t hear an endless loop of Christmas carols playing over the PA system. But if you pay attention, there are subtle hints of the holiday, which has its historical roots just a few miles from here. On Christmas eve, restaurants in Jerusalem are full. On the front page of the newspaper this year I saw an ad for a Christmas
Dinner at one restaurant that included a "Bloody Marry" (sic...). There is a kind of buzz in the air as people head for midnight Mass in the churches of the Old City and Abu Ghosh. The YMCA building is strung up with lights, illuminated dramatically against the dark sky.
On a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day before Christmas, I went up to the roof of the church, where the Ethiopian Christians live in huts (quarreling endlessly with
the one Copt who lives there). All of a sudden, I heard the sound of booming drums emanating from some invisible source. Opening the newspaper the next morning, I read that there had been a Christmas parade in Bethlehem. Mystery solved. It must have been a school band practicing for this event.
A day before Yom Kippur (day of atonement) there is a night of atonement (layla slihot) on the western wall (Ha'kotel Ha'maaravi).
A lot of people come to pray for god and the Jewish quarter is full with people.
Even if you are not a religious person it is a fascinating thing to see and if you want to pray it is a powerful experience.
Arriving on Friday afternoon in Jerusalem was a strange experience. First of all, I did not expect to see so many Orthodox Jews. I always thought, ok, Jews were religious, but to follow the traditions of dressing and hair-cut nowadays, I did not expect. The other thing I found amazing, is that there is no public transportation after 4pm on Friday and the most of the Jews walk. It was so quiet on that Friday night and on the next day, which is quite not normal for a big city nowadays.
But on Saturday night the young people were out, having fun on the street. They must find it difficult to go on a party all night and on the next day, on Sunday, to go to work in early hours.. What a life style... Anyway, it is kind of charming to see people following their traditions that have lasted for millennia.
Sukkot is an happy festival lasts 8 days. Jewish people - not only religious, and especially the children or for the children - build sukkot (booths) and decorate them with fruits of the harvests.
The pic shows a special giant sukka built by the municipality of Jerusalem and elictricity company of Israel.
SUKKOT - Feast of Tabernacles, a 7-day festival of which only the first day is Sabbath-like, i.e. no public transportation or shopping (and, of course, being a week-long holiday, there is usually a Sabbath somewhere in the middle - unless the holiday begins on a Sabbath). Special features: Many families (more common in religious neighborhoods) build little booths - sukkot - from every material you can think of, hang all sorts of decorations from the rafters, which are covered with green leafy boughs or bamboo mats, but open enough so you can see the stars (paper chains and sparkly Christmas-like decorations are popular...), and eat their meals there all week. Some of the very religious even sleep in them. Symbols of the holiday: the lulav and etrog, bought at special markets before the holiday and taken to synagogue for a procession - a palm frond bound together with sprigs of myrtle and willow, and a bright yellow citron. A blessing is recited over the lulav and etrog every day by each member of the family.
All kinds of festivals and happenings are held during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Children are off from school all week and families often take their vacations at this time. The weather is usually beautiful, although there is a chance of rain (the first rains start somewhere around late September - early October).
The Jerusalem March, ending in a colorful parade through downtown Jerusalem, is an annual event . Every year, organized groups of marchers - Jews and Christian supporters of Israel - come from all over the world. They sing and dance in costume, and hand out flags and candies to the bystanders. I try not to miss it. It is incredibly moving to see all these people who come to Israel to express their solidarity and bring joy to the streets.
PURIM: The Feast of Lots, celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people from a tyrant who was out to get them in ancient Persia, is usually celebrated in March. This is actually a one-day holiday which has been stretched into 3 (the Fast of Esther and then two days for Purim because it is celebrated a day later in "walled cities" like Jerusalem and Safed). All the shops are open and the buses run as usual. Basically, it is a kind of carnival day, with masquerade parties and parades in some cities. The Megillah (Scroll of Esther) is read out in the synagogues on Purim eve, and many people come dressed in costumes or at least funny hats. When the name of the bad guy, Haman, comes up, everyone boos, stamps their feet and makes noise. There is a special noisemaker for Purim called a "ra'ashan" (or a "grogger" in Yiddish). The custom on Purim is to send plates or baskets of goodies to one another. Sweet triangular pastries called "oznei haman" (Haman's ears, or "hamentashen" in Yiddish") traditionally filled with poppy seeds or prunes are eaten (although there are lots of other fillings nowadays). On Purim day, many families get together for a festive dinner - "se'udat Purim." You can see kids dressed up all week long because the schools hold costume parties before the holiday.
(For more on Purim see the local customs tip on my Israel page).
Rehearsal for an easter passion at the Christian quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. I saw this walking on the rooftops of the old city.
See the Christian quarter travelogue for more.
Chanukka is an eight days Jewish holiday in which candles are lighted every night. starting with one, adding one each day, until there are eight candles in the last day. As, like the other Jewish holidays, it follows the Jewish lunar calendar, there is no fixed date for Chanukka. Anyway, it is usually falls in the end of December. One of the nicest trips in Jerusalem is walking the old neighborhoods at night looking at all the lights. Tradition dictates that the lights should be visible from the outside, so they are usually put on the window or out of the door. Good places to see the lights will be the Nachlaot area, or the more religious parts around Mea She'Arim. See more at the travelogue.
HANUKKAH: Feast of Lights, an 8-day holiday, usually in December, around Christmas time, celebrating the victory of the "few against the many": The Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, drove out the Syrian occupiers of Jerusalem and the Temple in 167 BCE. When the Temple was cleansed and rededicated, only a small jug of ritually pure oil was found to light the candelabra. The quantity was sufficient for one day, but miraculously lasted for eight. So a special Hanukkah menorah called a "hanukkiah" that holds eight candles plus an extra one (the "shamash," used to light the others), is placed on a windowsill where people outside can see it, (to "publicize" the miracle) and one candle is lit every night, until there are eight. This is not a Sabbath-like holiday, which means everything is open and transportation operates as usual. Kids are off from school that week. In Israel, it is traditional to eat jelly doughnuts, although the idea is to eat something fried in oil -especially latkes - potato pancakes, topped with sour cream or applesauce. In a spin-off of Christmas, the children get presents or Hanukkah gelt (money). Another feature of the holiday is the Hanukkah top - "sevivon" in Hebrew, "dreidel" in Yiddish." It used to be a simple wooden affair with Hebrew letters on each side but nowadays there are souped-up battery-powered versions.
(For more on dreidels, see the custom tips on my Israel page).
TISHA B’AV (the Ninth of Av), which comes out in July-August is a kind of catch-all day for tragedies in Jewish history. According to the Talmud (Ta’anit 26b), five calamities befell the Jews on this day:
1) The Israelites were denied entry to the Promised Land.
2) The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (568 CE).
3) The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans (70 CE).
4) The Bar Kochba revolt was crushed and the city of Betar - the Jews’ last stand against the Romans - was captured and liquidated (135 CE).
5) The Roman emperor, Hadrian, plowed up Jerusalem and turned it into a pagan city – Aelia Capitolina - which the Jews were forbidden to enter.
Other catastrophic events said to have taken place on this date were the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492); the outbreak of World War I (1914), when Germany declared war on Russia; and the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, en route to Treblinka (1942).
Today, Tisha B’av has become a day for soul-searching, for thinking about why these tragedies happened.
This is a fast day, similar in many respects to Yom Kippur, but not as strict. Some people only fast half a day. It is not a Sabbath-like day: Stores are open and public transportation operates as usual. For three weeks leading up to Tisha B’av, very religious people will avoid swimming, going to the movies or having haircuts. On the nine days before the fast, it is customary not to eat meat.
Before sundown, a dairy meal (“se’uda mafseket”) is eaten. As night falls, the Book of Lamentations – Eicha – is read out in synagogues around the country, as worshipers sit on the floor or on low stools. Leather footwear is not worn. It is customary to hold the service in semi-darkness, using candles for illumination. In Jerusalem, hordes of people head for the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple, to recite Lamentations there.
Some more offbeat places for donning “sackcloth and ashes” are the Chamber of the Holocaust on Mt. Zion and Yitzhak Rabin’s gravesite on Mt. Herzl.