You can tell it’s the eve of a Shabbat or holiday in Israel by the numerous flower stands that spring up all over the country. There are flower stands on sidewalks, in candy stores, in bus stations and in the middle of highways. Flowers in Israel are an excellent bargain. You can buy a bouquet for as little as 10 shekels, and beautiful floral arrangements can be yours for the modest price of 25 shekels (about $7). Partly because of their abundance and reasonable cost, flowers are the standard gift to bring to a Shabbat table. Of course, the tranquility that flowers provide makes them all the more appealing in a society that is often beset by political turmoil.
The prevalence of flower sellers on Fridays is another reminder to me that to some extent almost all Israelis observe Shabbat. Flowers are a way to mark out special time. What people choose to do with this time varies widely, but all those flowers on Israeli Fridays signal to any observer that there is some out-of-the-ordinary time ahead. Indeed, on Friday nights almost all Israeli Jews do mark the Shabbat — by a festive meal with family and friends. One of the radio stations has a weekly five-minute spot on Friday afternoons where the station calls up an Israeli woman and asks her what she is serving for Shabbat dinner (which she then describes in mouth-watering detail). It is apparently taken for granted by the radio station (one of the major stations in Israel) that having Shabbat dinner is something common to all Israelis.
On Saturday proper, many Israelis keep the basic Biblical injunction prohibiting work in that they are not engaged in earning a livelihood. And it’s remarkable to find in this media mecca that the country can get along quite well without a Saturday newspaper (though many Israelis do buy two or three of the expanded Friday newspaper editions). Israeli society uses Shabbat to refresh itself. In this it is in perfect keeping with the Biblical description of the first Sabbath, where God, it is said, “ceased from work and was refreshed” (“shavat va-yinafash”). Like many people throughout the world, Israelis see a benefit in taking one day a week off from their usual work routine, and even secular Jews in Israel find that the most appropriate day of the week for Jews to do this is on Shabbat.
This brings me back to those flowers on Fridays. While it is true that there are many different activities that people engage in on Shabbat, there are not too many ways to buy flowers (the main variable here being one’s willingness to “bargain”). The standard international procedure in this case is: you see a flower stand, you approach the stand, you ask the prices, pick out a bouquet, have it wrapped, make your payment and go on your way. Only, if you are in Israel something magical happens towards the end of this process: one party will say “Shabbat Shalom,” and the other will answer in kind. This makes all the difference in the world, for with “Shabbat Shalom,” it is possible to experience Friday flower-buying in Israel as a national religious act. And this indeed is how I experience it.