Planning Around the Holidays in Israel
In planning your trip one of the first things you need to do is to select the dates for your trip. The rest of your plans will be built on this basis. There are a few things to be aware of when choosing dates, other than your personal considerations such as school vacations and time off from work. One is whether you are coming in high or low season, which we’ll address in a separate post. The other is to be aware of the many holidays in Israel. You may want to plan to be in Israel for certain holidays, and to avoid others, but they should have an impact on your planning in any case.
Holidays in Israel are easily broken down into 4 categories: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and national holidays. Most of this post will be focused on Jewish and national holidays because they have the biggest effect on most itineraries, but there will be some notes on Christian and Muslim holidays as well.
The Hebrew Calendar: Jewish and National Holidays (blue on the calendar)
The main calendar that defines life in Israel is the Hebrew calendar. Any Jewish holiday where work is forbidden by Jewish law is an automatic day off, with all public sites and most private sites closed. There are also ‘minor’ holidays where everything is open. One thing you’ll notice, especially if you’re not familiar with the Jewish calendar, is that there are a lot of holidays in Israel.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar which is slightly out of synch with the solar calendar. 9 times in 17 years a ‘leap-month’ is added to keep the calendar in synch with the seasons. This means that the dates of Jewish holidays migrate around the secular, solar calendar that most of us are used to. To know when a Jewish holiday is this year according to the secular calendar, you have to look at the calendar.
‘Major Holiday’: Shabbat and Yom Tov
The most important days to note are days when everything is closed. One of these occurs every single week, and is known as Shabbat (Sabbath). Every week, from sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday, all public sites and many public sites are closed. By law no employer is allowed to require a Jewish employee to work on these days. There are other holidays, know as a Yom Tov (literally ‘Good Day’), which are holidays other than Shabbat where work is prohibited. Below is a list of these days, starting with Rosh Hashannah, the New Year which usually falls in September or early October:
- Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year
- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement
- Sukkot, the Festival of Booths is a seven day holiday but only the 1st day is a Yom Tov, as well as the ‘8th day’ of the holiday known as Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah.
- Pesach, Passover, has a Yom Tov on the 1st and 7th days of the holiday.
- Shavuot, Pentacost
These holidays tend to be ‘high season’ with increased costs for air-fare and hotel rooms. In addition these are more days (in addition to Shabbat) where most sites are closed. So if you don’t observe these holidays you’re probably better off coming another time. However, for those who observe the holidays there is nothing like doing so in the Land of Israel, and that often justifies the higher cost.
There are also a number of ‘minor’ holidays throughout the year, including the religious holidays of Hanukkah and Purim (in Winter and Spring respectively), Tu B’shvat, Lag B’omer, and the national holidays of Independence Day and Jerusalem Day (both in Summer). There are several minor fast days and the major fast day of Tisha B’av, as well as Holocaust Memorial Day and the Israeli Memorial Day. You may want to check the calendar to see about special events or observances happening during your trip, but sites are all open as usual on these days, and they should not majorly disrupt your itinerary.
Muslim Holidays in Israel (green on the calendar)
Most sites in Israel do not close on Islamic holidays. However, there are some sites where arrangements are different or the site is closed on these days. These may include the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Temple Mount/Haram El-Sharif. These also tend to be times of relatively high tension between Jews and Muslims in Israel, so you should be aware of the security situation before visiting sites located within Arab communities such as the Mount of Olives.
Like the Jewish calendar, the Islamic calendar is lunar and is not in synch with the solar calendar. Unlike the Jewish calendar there is no interpolation of additional months so bring the calendar back in synch with the seasons, so Islamic holidays migrate around the year. Again, you will simply need to check a calendar to see when they are.
Christian Holidays in Israel (Western [Catholic and Protestant]=Yellow/Orange, Orthodox=Pink on the calendar)
Christian holidays in Israel are not national holidays. In most of the country you won’t notice when Christmas comes and goes. But in certain areas such as parts of Jerusalem and the church properties scattered throughout the country, you may need to know when Christian holidays are. Different sites have their own policies and churches are largely independent on when they are open and closed. Many of the churches which are also tourist sites are closed to tourists on Sunday. One notable exception to this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So finding the Western Christian or Orthodox holidays on the calendar may be a useful starting point, but to know which sites will be open and closed on which days you will need to visit the website of the Christian Information Centre and look through site by site.
If you’re not sure what to make of all these dates and what they mean to you, feel free to be in touch with us and we’ll help you design an itinerary that’s perfect for you.