Israel on Yom Kippur: Renewing Life Amid Traumas of the Past


Saturday marks Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the solemnest day of the Jewish Year and, at least in Israel, the most widely observed.

Israel shuts down totally on Yom Kippur. No transportation; no TV, radio, or activity on websites; no stores, cinemas, or restaurants open. Kids exploit the utter stillness of the roads to cavort on them on bicycles.

Observant Jews pray three times a day on regular days; on Sabbaths and sacred holidays, four times; only on Yom Kippur, five times. And synagogues are packed to overflowing on Yom Kippur because the less-observant come to them too. Some come to synagogue only on this one day; some only for two days out of the year—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is the culmination of the ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Its origin is in Leviticus 16:29-30:

in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do not work at all…

For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.

On the physical level, affliction takes the form of a fast, a 25-hour abstinence from all food and drink. Close to two-thirds of Israeli Jews, including even some who never go to synagogue, observe the fast. Considering that the weather from mid-September to mid-October (when Yom Kippur can fall) usually remains hot and dry, going 25 hours without even water can be a real affliction. Each year on Yom Kippur dozens of people, often elderly, get rushed to hospitals in ambulances for dehydration.

And on the spiritual level, affliction means Vidui—confession of sins before God, while undertaking to desist from them as the year begins. The afternoon prayer service includes a reading of the Book of Jonah, whose essence is God’s forgiveness of those who repent.

Yom Kippur ends, finally, with a fast-breaking meal, and an exhilarating sense—in Israel, interwoven with a special atmosphere of early autumn—of a new beginning.