'Shomer Shabbat” restaurants that are open on Shabbat are on the rise in Jerusalem, largely with the social vision of providing the space and opportunity for religious and secular Jews to sit together over a Shabbat meal outside of the home.
At such restaurants, the customer prepays or is sent a bill after Shabbat, and food and drinks are prepared according to Shabbat laws, using hot plates and hot water urns – much like Shabbat meal preparation at kosher hotels.
Restaurant owners Yehonatan Vadai (Carousela and Bab al-Yemen), Hedai Offaim (Ofaimme Farm café and bar, Hadir) and Mark Leuria (Red and White) have recently begun offering Shabbat meals to customers, all while accommodating those who keep Shabbat. Additionally, they each share a strong desire for a new kind of Shabbat experience that they believe is bound to revitalize Jewish life in Jerusalem as a pluralistic and accessible city for a diverse population.
Jerusalemite Yehonatan Vadai opened Bab al-Yemen (Arabic for “Gate to Yemen”) on 29 Aza Street last summer. Serving kosher, traditional Yemenite Shabbat fare, the restaurant was inspired by Vadai’s roots and culture as a Yemenite Jew.
“The restaurant provides a gate to Yemenite culture,” said Vadai. However, he maintained, his main goal is to provide a gate to something entirely different – a gate to social change in the Jewish community: “the simple idea of sitting together, religious and secular, on Shabbat.”
Vadai believes that many Jews turned off by religious institutions’ insular ideas of the Jewish experience “are going outside of the tradition.”
“Our connection to Judaism needs to be more flexible and open in this era,” he explained. “The Jewish mind-set says there is a solution within Jewish law for everything, if you have the courage to look forward. We can keep kosher and not violate Shabbat – do everything by the books even more so than hotels – offering the atmosphere and service that religious customers require.”
So far, according to Vadai, Bab al-Yemen is doing just that, hosting lecturers on Shabbat afternoons about topics ranging from the weekly Torah portion to culture, poetry, history and social issues in Israel, and offering a place where “friends and couples who are ‘mixed’ – where one is religious and one is secular – feel at home sitting together.”
As opposed to hotels, which are given kosher certifications without a problem, said Vadai, at Bab al-Yemen employees refrain from working on computers and phones. The use of a “goy shel Shabbat” – a term Vadai said he does not like – is limited to writing down customers’ names and contact information so they can pay after Shabbat. Generally, said Vadai, people are respectful of this model of trust, with 95% of people paying on time.
Vadai was critical of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification, arguing that the religious institution “does damage to Judaism” through its financial corruption, monopolistic power, inflexibility and for “not doing its job” of providing proper oversight.
Over the years, Vadai’s other restaurant, Carousela, has changed kosher certifications – from the rabbinate to alternative kashrut organization Hashgacha Pratit and, later, Tzohar, but even alternative kashrut organizations refuse to give certification to restaurants that are open on Shabbat. Even so, Vadai said that he is already seeing some level of support from prominent rabbis. When he met with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Aryeh Stern, the rabbi said he “liked the idea and wanted to put in a recommendation that the restaurant be deemed kosher, but ultimately he said that his hands were tied by the rabbinate’s decision.”
Vadai expressed his hope that the idea of Shabbat restaurants will catch on, and he plans to fight the rabbinate in the Supreme Court to allow “shomer Shabbat” restaurants that open on Shabbat to receive kosher certifications. If that happens, Vadai said, he is sure that more restaurant owners who are afraid to open on Shabbat will do so.
SURE ENOUGH, some other restaurant owners are already following suit by opening on Shabbat, with modifications that allow religious Jews to take part.
Offaim, co-owner of the Ofaimme Farm for sustainable agriculture, opened Hadir – The Bar at Hansen (Hansen House, 14 Gdalyahu Alon Street) in summer 2018, a few months after Bab al-Yemen opened.
Ofaimme Farm, a “seed-to-table enterprise,” sources vegetables and dairy products for both the café and bar from its farms in the Arava and the Eila Valley. According to Offaim, his café and bar are “part of a greater vision as an environmental, sustainable and social farm with fair-trade agreements.”
Toward these ends, Offaim’s businesses keep to strict environmental and social standards, including the use of organic agriculture and solar energy, recycled water systems and ecological circles of livestock and plants on the farm.
All farm and bar employees, including café and bar waiters, make more than minimum wage, with full salaries and pensions, and their learning center in the Arava trains farmers from third world countries. There are no preservatives or additives in the food, and the farm is also involved in social entrepreneurship, partnering with the Leichtag Foundation, which, as a part of its Jerusalem Model initiative, hosts various civil projects at Hadir, ranging from empowering haredi women with education to building youth tech education in the Arab sector. A third partner, the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva, offers free cultural programs multiple times a week at the bar, including lectures, concerts, Kabbalat Shabbat services and DJ nights.
“Hadir is not only a place to have a beer at the end of the day,” said Offaim.
“It’s a place that allows the community to find a home here.”
While Tzohar certifies the café as kosher, the bar has no kosher certification, as there is a selection of wines and spirits that are not kosher. Even so, points out Offaim, the food is kosher and the bar’s cook is a religious mashgiah (kashrut supervisor).
Offaim decided to open the bar on Shabbat for their “many friends who keep kosher and Shabbat.” Shabbat fare includes wine and halla, smoked and cured fish, kugel, pastries, sandwiches and farm cheeses. Unlike Bab al-Yemen, music plays on Shabbat inside the bar (but not in the outside seating area), and customers are given the choice to pay on the spot, in advance or after Shabbat. Offaim, too, reports good results in terms of the honor system, without a single customer to date who has not paid.
Offaim believes that in Jerusalem, providing different options on Shabbat is good for many people, though admitting that being receptive to Shabbat restaurants requires “openness and inclusivity.” When he announced Hadir’s Shabbat opening, he said, some religious friends said, “Great, I’ll see you on Shabbat,” while others said, “I can’t be there on Shabbat, but I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
During the week, said Offaim, one can witness the great diversity that Jerusalem represents, with “haredim sitting next to young hipsters, next to older Hebrew University professors, next to Arabs from east Jerusalem.”
“And on Shabbat, what happens here also paints a beautiful tapestry,” he said. “You can find religious and nonreligious people sitting together, one paying with a credit card, having a latte from the coffee machine, and the other having black coffee and paying after Shabbat.”
Offaim views this system as reflective of his grandparents’ generation. “My grandmother kept kosher, and any religious person ate at her house knowing she was a kosher person. If it was good enough for you, great. If not, that’s also okay.”
WINE BAR owner Leuria spoke similarly of his desire for a more inclusive Shabbat environment when describing his goals in opening his wine bar, Red and White (8 Shlomo Hamelech Street), for prepaid Shabbat dinners.
“Opening Red and White grew out of being a new immigrant in Jerusalem and wanting a place for self-reflection and meaningful social connectivity,” he said.
Offering guests Shabbat dinner at his wine bar was an extension of that goal. “Jerusalem is a beautiful city, but its society is often perceived as fractured; because of that, there are people who fall between the cracks. Red and White appeals to a niche of people who don’t fit into existing places.”
“I think there’s a need for a quality, spacious, affordable venue for people to socialize and feel comfortable on Shabbat. Not everyone likes to squeeze into someone’s apartment or attend community meals that are stiff and structured,” he added.
Leuria, too, mentioned a vision reaching farther than the food and wine. “It’s not only about wine, but experiencing a place that is a conduit to being human. I created the place for intimacy, conversation, hospitality and aesthetics, to provide a place where people can reflect and have real conversations.”
Like both Vadai and Offaim, Leuria described his customers as open-minded. While his bar used to have the rabbinate’s kosher certification, he decided to drop it “at the point when they couldn’t help me accomplish my goals to expand my venue on Shabbat.”
“Hospitality is central to our religion, but from what I see, true hospitality is in short supply,” he explained. “Ironically, many guests feel alienated from community on Shabbat while in the very midst of a social practice that is specifically designed to be inclusive and enriching,” adding his hope that on Shabbat he might help facilitate the “journey of every soul” yearning to grow and explore.
Red and White’s Shabbat menu includes halla, salad, a main course of salmon, organic black rice, a glass of wine and dessert for NIS 119, but Leuria is open to groups of eight or more calling in ahead of time to curate their meal.
WHILE THE three restaurants open on Shabbat boast a sizable and encouraging consumer base, some traditional and religious Israelis are skeptical of whether these supposedly shomer Shabbat restaurants follow the spirit and laws of Shabbat.
Zev Shochet, although identifying as a secular Jew, maintained that if there are people working – Jew or non-Jew – this is not true to the spirit or laws of Shabbat, and to call the place kosher is just an “Israeli combina [shady business practice].”
For some, the absence of kashrut supervision is out of their comfort zone, but they choose to support such restaurants because of the social change the restaurants seek to make.
Jerusalemite Zev Stub said, “My family went to Bab al-Yemen last summer. I have mixed feelings about the halachic aspects of it because the restaurant doesn’t have kashrut certification. In addition, the wine they provided for kiddush was served in large wine glasses that were too big for the amount of wine, and for hamotzi we were given Yemenite pitot instead of halla. But we appreciate the social change aspect of it and wanted to support it. It’s a nice idea that we would like to spread and become less taboo.”
Others point out that the concept is no different than prepaying and eating Shabbat meals at hotels.
Reflecting on the social vision of the trend that he is trailblazing, Vadai expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to provide something new for the Jerusalem public. After several months of Shabbat operation, he is still reminded every week of its novelty and importance.
“I am lucky to have the opportunity to change something in the way that we think,” said Vadai. “I see that the religious public needs this – they want something beyond what the religious institutions are providing, and understand that we can still be religious and go to a restaurant on Shabbat.”