Friday, September 21, 2007
Yom Kippur: a day for thought, not food
An old wisecrack regarding the origins and traditions of Jewish Holidays goes like this: They wanted to kill us, there was a miracle, we survived, now let's eat.
While indeed most holidays (in most cultures for that matter) involve festive meals that evolved around local traditions, seasonal crops, or historically appropriate ingredients, Yom Kippur is different as it highlights abstention from food as well as from all other material or physical pleasures.
Reflection and repentance
While Yom Kippur does not signify a particular event in Jewish history, it marks the end of a period called the "Ten Days of Repentance," that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and grants Jews the last opportunity to obtain forgiveness for their sins in the previous year. Starting at sundown tonight, this holy day is all about setting aside a special time for reflection and repentance, forgiveness and atonement.
Mentioned in the Bible as one of the earliest and among the holiest days of the budding monotheistic Israeli tribal society, it was dedicated to atonement for sins against God and offenses against other human beings and is manifested mainly by fasting. In ancient times, offerings were made on that day in Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and since the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago, a day of prayers has replaced the offerings.
In Israel, where the democratic state is not yet separated from religion, in accordance with a number of national laws designed by Orthodox Judaism, all businesses, stores and restaurants are shut down, the airports are closed and there is no public transportation, nor are there television broadcasts or newspapers published on Yom Kippur. In fact, in the late afternoon hours, as the eve of the holiday is fast approaching, the whole country comes to a halt, an eerie silence falls on the streets and a unique sense of tranquility takes over for one day.
A fasting holiday
It is estimated that 70% of Israel's 5.4 million Jews (Israel's total population is 7.1 million) observe the holiday by fasting. Half of them define themselves as non-religious. Many who are non-observant throughout the year attend prayer services at synagogues. Over the years, holiday traditions have evolved to also include more Israelis among the secular communities. At the same time, some recent holiday statistics from the Holy Land point to a few interesting trends:
In the days prior to Yom Kippur a sharp increase of 250% of DVD and video rentals was reported last year. With no broadcast or published media for the entire day but with increased and unlimited access to the Web, over 300,000 Internet log-in events were recorded on Yom Kippur last year, which means that over 50% of Israeli households with an Internet connection were surfing the Net during the holiday. Whether the surfers chose to fast or not on Yom Kippur, the Internet was not terribly fast on that day.
The Israeli Environmental Protection Agency, which monitors outdoor air quality, indicates a drastic drop in nitrogen dioxide and particle pollution every year on this day due to the lack of traffic. In 2006, the Air Quality Index measured in the heavily populated areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem showed a drop from 210 particles per billion before the start of the holiday to 2-10 particles per billion by the end of the day.
Bikes are popular pre-holiday item
However, the most interesting holiday phenomenon seems to be the large number of bike riders, rollerbladers and skateboarders — most are children — who take to the empty streets, and the huge increase in bicycle sales around this time of the year. Toys-R-Us representatives quote an impressive increase of about 50% in pre-holiday sales of bicycles.
Here or there, the Day of Atonement may mean different things to different people. Over the years I have come to define its meaning for myself and personalize its traditions. However, I am still grappling with a modified version of the traditional holiday greeting, because a simple Happy Yom Kippur or Merry Fasting just wouldn't be appropriate for such a solemn holiday. I have decided on a greeting which consists of only three (short) Hebrew words that might take me a lifetime to say in English: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year!
Ornit Barkai is a member of the Mosquito's Forum staff.
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