One of the best things to do in Israel is to attend a Shabbat dinner with a local family! I’ve done many Shabbat dinners when I lived in Israel, and here’s my experience.
Shabbat Shalom! You probably landed on this page because you are curious about how your travel plans will be affected during Shabbat in Israel.
The truth is, it won’t. You can go on a normal day especially if you stay in Tel Aviv for the weekend. Just read my Shabbat tips in the link above!
Now that you have decided to travel to Israel and are looking for something to do on a weekend, I highly encourage you to attend a Shabbat dinner with a local family.
In this Shabbat dinner guide, I will give you a background about this fascinating Jewish culture, including tips on what to bring to your guest, what to wear, and many more!
As usual, if you get lost on a Friday in Tel Aviv and find yourself without anything to do, get in touch, and I will introduce you to my local friends!
Change how you travel and see the world by going deep into the culture. Come and travel with me!
🕎 How a traditional Shabbat dinner goes
Lighting the Shabbat candles
The Shabbat meal begins with the lighting of the Shabbat candles by the woman of the house. This is done 18 minutes before sundown.
She says a blessing before lighting the candles, covers her eyes and recites a prayer. This act marks the official start of Shabbat.
Once everyone has gathered at the table, the head of the household (often the man) will recite Kiddush, a blessing over wine (or grape juice) to sanctify the Shabbat.
Before the meal begins, a ritual washing of hands known as “netilat yadayim” is done. A special two-handled cup is often used for this, and a blessing is said.
HaMotzi (blessing over bread)
After washing hands, the head of the household will say the “HaMotzi”, a blessing over the challah, a special braided bread used for Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
The challah is typically covered by a decorative cloth, uncovered for the blessing, then sliced and distributed.
The meal itself is typically a festive, multi-course affair. The specific dishes may vary based on family tradition and regional or cultural influences, but often include soup (such as matzoh ball soup), fish, a main course, and dessert.
Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals)
After the meal is finished, “Birkat HaMazon”, or blessings after the meal, is recited. This is a series of blessings giving thanks for the meal and for G-d’s provision.
Talmud Torah (Study of Torah)
After the meal, it is traditional for many to engage in Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. This can take the form of reading from the Torah or discussing a portion of the Torah.
Songs and stories
Many families and friends conclude their Shabbat meal with singing Shabbat songs (Zemirot), telling stories, and enjoying each other’s company.
💡 Fun fact: Not all families have the same Shabbat dinner program. Some are really shorter than the others! Since I lived in Israel, I have experienced many different Shabbat dinner programs, and it varies by family.
🥘 Shabbat dinner foods
Challah is a sweet, braided bread central to a Shabbat meal. Its braided form represents love and truth, while its circular shape during the High Holidays symbolizes the continuity of life.
Historically, the bread connects to the double portion of manna given to Israelites on Fridays during their Exodus from Egypt.
Chicken Soup with Matzah Balls
Originating from Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, this comforting soup is often served as a first course.
The matzah balls, made from matzah meal, eggs, water, and fat, signify humility and are a staple during Passover and Shabbat.
Another Ashkenazi dish, gefilte fish is a poached fish patty traditionally made from carp, pike, or whitefish.
This dish was a clever way for Jews to follow the Talmudic prohibition against separating bones from fish on the Sabbath.
Cholent is a slow-cooked stew of meat, beans, and barley, prepared before Shabbat and left cooking on a low heat until Saturday’s lunch.
It’s a solution to Jewish law, which forbids cooking on Shabbat.
Kugel is a baked pudding or casserole, commonly made from egg noodles (Lokshen kugel) or potato. Its roots trace back to Eastern Europe, where it became a staple of Jewish Sabbath meals.
Tzimmes is a sweet Ashkenazi stew typically made from carrots and dried fruits such as prunes or raisins, often combined with meat. It symbolizes a sweet and prosperous life.
Burekas are small pastries filled with cheese, potato, or spinach. Originating from Sephardic Jews in Spain, these pastries spread throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, symbolizing a delightful culinary surprise in each parcel.
A sweet conclusion to the meal, honey cake is often associated with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah but is enjoyed throughout the year. It symbolizes a sweet new year and a pleasant conclusion to Shabbat.
📖 Shabbat food rules
According to Jewish law, cooking (defined as using heat to make food more edible) is one of the 39 work categories prohibited on Shabbat.
This means that all cooking needs to be completed before the start of Shabbat at sundown on Friday.
No lighting fires
Creating a fire is also prohibited on Shabbat, which means one cannot light a stove or oven. Many observant Jews keep food warm using a “blech” (a sheet of metal placed over the stove) or a slow cooker set before Shabbat starts.
This rule, known as “Borer”, forbids sorting or separating foods to remove the unwanted from the wanted.
When applied to food or Shabbat dinners, one must not pick unwanted parts out of a mixture; instead, the desired food should be removed, leaving the undesired behind.
No grinding or mashing
Certain food preparation techniques like grinding or mashing are also considered work and therefore forbidden on Shabbat. This can affect how certain foods are prepared or served.
Kosher rules apply
All the usual rules about keeping kosher apply on Shabbat, too. This means, for instance, not mixing dairy and meat, and only eating food that has been prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
Preparing food for Saturday night
It is forbidden to prepare food on Shabbat for a meal after Shabbat. This means that any food for Saturday night must be prepared after Shabbat has ended.
It is a mitzvah (commandment) to have three meals on Shabbat: one on Friday night, one on Saturday afternoon, and a third, typically lighter meal, in the late afternoon.
After Shabbat ends, it’s a tradition to do Havdalah (a Jewish ritual to mark the end of Shabbat), which includes blessings over wine, spices, and a candle. Only then can normal activities, such as cooking, resume.
These rules can seem complicated to those not accustomed to them, but they are part of the rhythm of Shabbat and help define it as a day set apart from the rest of the week.
As always, exact practices can vary, and Jews with questions about what is permissible in their community should consult a knowledgeable authority.
🍾 What to bring to a Shabbat dinner
Wine is often used during Shabbat for the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Make sure to buy a bottle that is clearly labeled as kosher.
This traditional Jewish bread is usually braided and eaten on Sabbath and holidays.
Having two loaves of Challah at each Shabbat meal is customary, symbolizing the double portion of manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
A bouquet of flowers can be a lovely and thoughtful gift. Just remember to give them in a vase already filled with water, as your hosts won’t be able to fill a vase during Shabbat.
A kosher cake, cookies or other sweets are always a nice touch. Just ensure that they’re marked as kosher, and if your hosts keep a strictly kosher kitchen, they may prefer items that are sealed in original packaging.
Something related to Jewish life, such as a beautiful Shabbat candle holder, a challah cover, or a Kiddush cup can be a meaningful gift.
A book on Jewish thought, or a volume of Jewish literature could also be appreciated.
A nice fruit basket can be a good option, though it should be composed of fruit that doesn’t require further preparation (like peeling or cutting) to eat, as this isn’t permissible on Shabbat.
Remember to check in advance if your hosts have specific preferences or restrictions.
And don’t worry if you don’t get it perfectly right—your hosts will likely appreciate the thought and effort you put into bringing something!!
👗 What to wear to Shabbat dinner
The dress code for a Shabbat dinner often depends on the specific community and family you’re visiting. However, in most cases, it’s respectful to dress modestly and somewhat formally. Here are some general guidelines:
- Shirt and Slacks: A dress shirt and slacks are a safe bet. Depending on the formality of the dinner, a tie may also be appropriate.
- Suit: In more traditional or formal settings, a suit might be necessary.
- Kippah: It’s respectful for men to wear a kippah (or yarmulke), which is a Jewish head covering. If you don’t own one, extras will usually be available at the dinner.
- Dress or Skirt: Women often wear dresses or skirts that fall at or below the knees.
- Modest Tops: Shirts or blouses should ideally cover the collarbone and the elbows. Avoid low-cut or overly tight clothing.
- Closed-Toe Shoes: Depending on the formality, closed-toe shoes might be preferable.
- Head Covering: In some Orthodox communities, married women cover their hair. If you’re married and unsure of the customs of your hosts, you may want to bring a scarf just in case.
It’s always a good idea to ask your hosts or someone else familiar with their practices if you’re unsure about what to wear.
In Tel Aviv, people are different, so in my experience, I dressed for Shabbat dinners according to the family (i.e. if they are Orthodox or more relaxed).
When in doubt, err on dressing more formally and modestly. It shows respect for the significance of Shabbat and your hosts.
🍽️ Book Shabbat dinner experiences
- Traditional Israeli Jewish Shabbat dinner (Tel Aviv): from $104 USD (2.5 hours)
- Experience Shabbat With Dinner In Jerusalem: from $128 USD (2 hours)
- Shabbat Dinner and Drinks (Tel Aviv): from $54 USD (2 hours)
- Experience Shabbat With Dinner In Jerusalem: from $172 USD for 2 pax (2.5 hours)
- Meal at Jewish Orthodox Home: from $40 USD (1.5 hours)
⁉️ FAQ: Shabbat dinner in Israel
Trisha is one of those people who left their comfortable life to travel the world and learn about life. Her style is to stay in one place she likes for 3 months (or more) to know what it feels like to eat, cook, speak, and sleep in another culture that isn’t hers. She’d like to believe she’s not traditionally traveling but she just chooses to be somewhere else all the time. In no particular order, her favorite cities in the world are Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Tel Aviv.