A unique restaurant in Jerusalem is fighting the norm

By Rotem Bar
Community Shlicha

It was hard to ignore the buzz around this new initiative. In the last few months Bab El Yemen is the talk of Jerusalemites. 

Bab El Yemen is a wonderful restaurant in the heart of the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem that is trying to bring change to the way kosher restaurants in Israel operate. Bab El Yemen opened a year ago and has become a draw for many young Jerusalemites. It serves traditional comfort Jewish food, mainly Yemenite amongst other things. This café-bar restaurant serves food like jachnun, cholent and mallawach—all foods that are very much considered “Shabbat food.” What’s special about this restaurant, besides the yummy food and hip, laid-back environment, is that it is open on Shabbat, yet it is Shabbat observant.

Now how does that work? Every Saturday, the restaurant operates on a special Shabbat format (just like hotels in Israel). The food is made before Shabbat and is kept on Shabbat platters, there is no music, and smokers are asked to do so in a designated smoking area. Some people make reservations, and, in that case, payment is made in advance. If not, customers can pay after Shabbat on a trust basis. The information of the customer and their order is written down by a non-Jewish employee, and, after Shabbat, they receive a message or an email with a link to transfer the payment. Even if someone wants to pay on Shabbat, the restaurant will not allow it. Pretty amazing!

The owner of the restaurant, Jonathan Vadai, says that they have not had any problems with this system and that the reactions have been wonderful. Vadai has been trying to bring an alternative for kosher restaurants while fighting the existing restrictions made by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. According to the law, a restaurant cannot declare itself kosher without the Chief rabbinate’s supervision. Therefore, this restaurant does not have a certificate from a rabbinical authority but claims it is Shabbat observant. Many religious Jews have been coming to eat at the restaurant on Shabbat after coming back from the synagogue and are completely happy about this new initiative.

Vadai says he believes we will start to see more places that will start opening their restaurants on Shabbat without violating it. In the Bab El Yemen restaurant-bar, he was hoping to create a place where both secular and religious can sit together on Shabbat, and indeed he has! Bab El Yemen operates during the week with a young, laid-back environment and music. On Fridays and Saturdays, it operates on a Shabbat format. Apart from food, cultural events are also held there and many guest speakers are invited to talk about the conduct of Shabbat in the public space. 

This is a unique concept in Israel, and I hope we will start seeing more of it!