Passover and Holy Week are among the busiest and most exciting times of the year in Jerusalem. The convergence of pilgrims descending on the Holy City from every corner of the world and the multitude of Christian and Jewish rituals observed during the coming week can be overwhelming — but they make for a memorable trip with plenty of fabulous photo opportunities, if you know where to look.
It’s all a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Passover begins on Monday night, April 18, and continues for seven days. Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday, April 17, and culminates on Good Friday.
Here’s a rundown of what to expect, where to see it, what to avoid, and how to make the most of the season.
1. The Passover seder takes place on Monday night, April 18. Most people observe the ritual together with family and friends (surveys indicate that more than 85 percent of Israelis take part in a seder) so, if you haven’t yet managed to get yourself invited you still have a couple of options:
- Take in a hotel seder (expensive but convenient).
- Try to sign up for a communal seder. In Jerusalem both the Great Synagogue (tel: 052-389-5190) and the Yeshurun Synagogue (054-742-1113), located on King George Street in central Jerusalem, are hosting free seders for the unattached.
2. Passover is one of the three Biblically-mandated pilgrimage festivals, so the traditional Blessing of the Priests, that recalls the Temple ceremony, takes place at the Western Wall on Thursday, April 21, at approximately 9:30 a.m and again at 10:15 a.m. Tens of thousands of people pack the Western Wall plaza to take part in the blessing that features descendants of the Cohanim reciting the ancient priestly blessing covered in white prayer shawls. It’s quite an impressive sight. Some practical suggestions:
- Either walk in, or take the free shuttle buses that go every 15 minutes from the main municipal parking areas of Ammunition Hill, the National Parking Lot near the Knesset, and the Teddy Stadium in southern Jerusalem.
- Be prepared for huge lines at the security gates to enter the Plaza. Don’t expect to leave quickly either — it takes a while for that many people to disperse.
3. If you’ve always wanted to meet a Chief Rabbi, both of Israel’s Chief Rabbis, Shlomo Amar and Yonah Metzger, will receive the public at the Western Wall Plaza between 10:45 a.m and noon on Thursday, following the Blessing of the Priests.
4. There’s no public transportation on Tuesday, April 19, and Monday, April 25, and all kosher restaurants will be closed.
5. During the rest of the week, supermarkets and stores are open, some with shorter hours than normal. Bread, cakes, and cereal sections will be screened off and unavailable for purchase until Tuesday, April 26.
6. Schools are closed and most offices are either closed or operating on a limited basis for the Passover week. In other words, most of the country is on vacation. That means that every national park and attraction will be at capacity and traffic can be heavy.
7. Holy Week events: each denomination has its own schedule, but the main event is the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives on Sunday, April 17, at 2:30 p.m that recreates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
8. Good Friday (April 22): thousands of Christians from all over the world will traverse the Via Dolorosa through the Moslem and Christian Quarters, beginning at the First Station of the Cross at 12:15 p.m
9. The Holy Fire ritual: thousands of Orthodox Christians will take part in this ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City on Saturday April 23 at 1 p.m. This is not for the claustrophobic! Thousands pack the church and light candles lit from the Holy Fire. This year, huge screens and chairs will be set up in the nearby Muristan Square to accommodate those who can’t get in to the church itself.
10. If all this sounds too overwhelming, just find yourself a spot in the plaza in front of Jaffa Gate, buy a cold drink and settle in for the best people-watching in the world!