Secular Israeli Yom Kippur

Bicycle Day

There is a fascinating Israeli cultural phenomenon that I would like to share with you, which occurs annually on the day of Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Now, without getting into details, suffice it to say that Yom Kippur has very strict religious restrictions, which include all of those associated with the Sabbath, as well as: no eating, no showering, and no sex, among others. The notion is that God decides “who shall live and who shall die” on this day; and, so, traditionally, Jews spend nearly the whole day in penitent prayer at their synagogues.

In Israel, which is ~75% Jewish, there is a countrywide tradition to entirely shut down all of the roads and highways on this day. Those Israelis who are not religious (termed: secular) call this “Bicycle Day” and ride their bicycles all around the country in the total absence of any moving motor vehicles.

The particularly interesting thing about “Bicycle Day” is that, unlike other aspects of Jewish religious life in Israel (marriage, burial, etc.) which are governed exclusively by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (an organ of the State), there is no law mandating that barriers be erected on the State’s highways and roads this day. It’s done by public consensus – and taken care of by the police, no less!


Personal reflections

Having seen non-religious (secular) Israelis riding around on their bicycles on Israel’s barren streets on Yom Kippur, I must say that I am jealous of them. Their “Bicycle Day” is much more fun than the endless Yom Kippur prayer services, and they aren’t abstaining from food and drink (for me, the lack of caffeine is, by far, the hardest aspect of fasting).

Last year, I did not go to services for the High Holidays (my excuse and/or reason was COVID-19), and this year I will also be staying home (same theoretical reason). This is both relieving and sad for me because I don’t get much at all out of prayer (especially ALL day long, which is definitely overkill), but I do dearly miss the community aspect of gathering with other Jews together in this way.

Personally, it seems to be that the endless, daylong High Holiday prayers were designed by our ancient Jewish sages to distract us from our hunger; and staying home all day on Yom Kippur leaves me alone with my thoughts for too long, which is a double-edged sword for me.

One thing I think about is how disconnected “Bicycle Day” is from the concept of Yom Kippur. Many of those riding the highways are ignorant of traditional, communal Jewish life, never having set foot in a synagogue. On the other hand, I say to myself, this is no different than many non-religious Jews elsewhere in the world… At least Israelis relate to Yom Kippur as a day that is somehow different; it is woven into the very fabric of their culture.

*sigh*

Living in Israel certainly preserves its Jewish citizens’ Jewish’ness, but what is that Jewish’ness, exactly?

Unquestionably, I’m glad it exists, especially if the alternative is the gradual disintegration of Jewish identity, but I don’t relate to it… and how does it relate to our ancient, storied heritage?

I would very much love to go biking down the highway with no concerns in the world and experience this uniquely Israeli day… but my personal problem is that one need not be Jewish to participate in this special event.

Still, as I sit at home fasting this Yom Kippur, I’m likely not feeling particularly spiritually oriented, penitent, or even introspective… Rather, I’m probably watching those unfettered bicyclists from my apartment window and fantasizing about endless empty roadways.


P.S.

Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year for Jews) runs from sunset on Wednesday to sunset on Thursday this year. Therefore, I have scheduled this post in advance, as I will be offline for 25 hours until sunset on Thursday. I look forward to reconnecting with you soon!

40 thoughts on “Secular Israeli Yom Kippur”

  1. I belong to Hindu tradition. I don’t call this as a religion because there are no fixed rules. Visiting temple is not compulsory. One can remember God (any God) from home too. No fixed timing. Integration of people is little difficult unlike other religions with fixed law like rules.

    1. Eishan – that’s very interesting. Traditional Judaism (not the more liberal, modern forms) is very legalistic… That can be both rewarding and frustrating πŸ™‚

      ❀
      David

  2. I think this is so cool! I told Husband, who has spent one YK in Israel, but in a different part of the country and he spent the entire day inside sleeping, so he was totally unaware of the Bicycle Day and thought this was awesome.

    I’m not sure I understand your sense of disappointment about it though. What would you expect secular Israelis to do instead? Work and businesses are closed, and if you’re totally secular, why would you suddenly go to synagogue you aren’t connected to, in order to pray all day to a G-d you may well not believe in? I know American Jews often do this, and I remember hometown Rabbi disliking the HH-only synagogue attendance phenomenon because HH is the worst representation of how nice the synagogue services/community could be.

    1. I draw a distinction between being disappointed with how individuals are acting and the state of worldwide Judaism today. I don’t blame the secular Jews in the slightest bit – I just wish more Jews had meaningful connections to our shared heritage.

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