An Israeli Yom Kippur: It’s in the Air

Have you ever spent Yom Kippur in Israel? If so, go on to the next blog right now — if not, here’s a taste of the atmosphere as an entire country gets ready to retreat into itself for 25 hours.

Preparations for Yom Kippur are in the air. Whether it’s the gmar chatima tova (May you be inscribed for good) digital greeting on the face of every Egged bus, or the radio ads from the Natal organization that helps veterans of the Yom Kippur War still suffering from PTSD, there’s no way any Israeli can escape the lead-up to Yom Kippur.

Ben Gurion Airport closes at 1 p.m. on Erev Yom Kippur and won’t reopen until three hours after the fast is over the next evening. Public transportation all over Israel will grind to a halt by 3:30 p.m.on Friday. Men of all ages can be seen on the streets of Jerusalem with towels thrown over their shoulders as they head to and from the mikve.

Many have already started building their sukkot in readiness for Sukkot, the one-week festival that starts the week after Yom Kippur. Sukkot structures of all kinds have sprung up on balconies, street corners and in front of cafes. The final decorations and the schach covering will be added right after the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

Over the past few days, the streets in and around the Old City, Nachlaot, the Bukharan Quarter and Meah Shearim have been completely packed with people hurrying to and from Selihot. Curious secular Israelis by the hundreds take part in pre-dawn Selihot tours, during which they look in on dozens of congregations where the faithful are immersed in penitential prayers chanted to ancient melodies.

An annual selihot concert (that’s more of a sing-along) put on by the Jerusalem Municipality at Kikar Safra is scheduled for Thursday evening and brings hundreds to the city square.

Piyutim and Selichot in the city square

The busiest kiosks on the streets are those selling shoes made from fabric or plastic – to comply with the prohibition against wearing leather on Yom Kippur.

Strains of chazanut waft out of many windows, as many radio and TV stations broadcast operatic renditions of the well-known Yom Kippur prayers in a variety of styles. Almost every radio and TV channel also features a physician prescribing pre-fast measures to stave off headaches and ensure an easy fast, and advice on the best type of food with which to break the fast.

Many of the rabbis providing commentary on Yom Kippur in the Israeli media emphasize the festive nature of the day – not only the obvious solemnity. Be happy, we’re told, that God grants us this grand opportunity to get a new lease on life – the possibility of teshuva (return, repentance) shows that Judaism is optimistic and forward-looking and allows for the reformulation of both our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. Singing and dancing are the de rigeur ways in which many congregations here end the Yom Kippur day, expressing joy at the soul that’s been uplifted.

While polls indicate that 71 percent of Israeli Jews between 18-35 will fast, non-observant Israelis are also getting ready for Yom Kippur.

For the past 15 years, a group of progressive Orthodox rabbis under the Tzohar banner have been hosting open Yom Kippur prayers for communities all around Israel. Over 55,000 people attended last year, and more are expected this year.

Tzohar has out together a special Machzor and detailed hand-out explaining the rituals, and the meaning of the prayers that take place during the reverent day, to ensure it is a meaningful and encompassing experience for all.

Radio ads inviting people to community centers for Yom Kippur prayers note that ” no one group owns Yom Kippur — it belongs to all of us.”

There’s also the obligatory rehash of stories from the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the press. Every year, commentators review the intelligence failures and questionable political decisions that brought Israel to the brink.

Is there any other country in the world where radio and TV stations go off the air for 25 hours? It’s the quiet of the day that’s so compelling.

There’s no traffic on the streets of Israel on Yom Kippur apart from emergency vehicles, so after the last strains of the early evening Kol Nidre service have died away, congregations spill out of shuls and young and old, dressed in white, stroll along the middle of blissfully empty wide streets.

Another uniquely Israeli tradition that’s developed in recent decades on Yom Kippur —  national bicycle day. Kids and adults enjoy the one-day-a-year freedom of movement when their two-wheeled transportation doesn’t run the risk of colliding with Israel’s drivers.


As the siren sounds marks the start of the Day of Reckoning and news reports are quieted for at least 25 hours, you may be sure that our prayers will include a plea for a better year than the one we’ve just experienced. Beyond that, who knows?

About the Author
Author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times and Jerusalem Diaries II: What's Really Happening in Israel plus reams of blogs since 2001. Former host of the Jerusalem Diaries Show on I try to shed a little light on the quixotic, inspiring, frustrating and amusing aspects of life in the holy city.
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