Yom Kippur, “the Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. According to the Jewish tradition, GOD inscribes a person’s fate on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but seals the person’s fate on Yom Kippur. Over the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a person can change GOD’s mind by changing their behavior and seeking GOD’s forgiveness for any wrong they have done during the past year. That’s why many Jews gather on those days for the Selichot, the communal prayers for forgiveness. And the peak of those communal prayers comes on Yom Kippur. In this post, I want to tell you all you need to know about Yom Kippur in Israel.
When is Yom Kippur?
This year (2023), Yom Kippur will begin at sundown on the 24th of September and end at nightfall on the 25th of September. Every year, the date is slightly different. That’s because we mark our holidays based on the Hebrew calendar, which differs from the widely used Gregorian calendar. Yom Kippur begins every year on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Usually, this day falls sometime in late September or October.
What greetings do you say on Yom Kippur?
So, first of all, you do not say “Happy Yom Kippur.” It is not a happy day. It is a day of self-observance, a day on which each person thinks about the past year and seeks ways to become a better person. Many Jews fast on this day for 25 hours, even those who are non-observant. And many people go to the synagogue to focus on prayer throughout the day.
Instead of saying, “Happy Yom Kippur,” you can say, “May you have a meaningful Yom Kippur,” or “May you have an easy and meaningful fast.” You can also say “Chatima Tova,” meaning “good signature.” By saying “Chatima Tova,” you are wishing the person that GOD will write their name in the Book of Life for the upcoming year. This is an excellent blessing to say throughout the whole holiday. At the end of Yom Kippur, you can say “Gmar Chatima Tova.” This is a blessing that more or less means “GOD has inscribed you in the Book of Life.”
You can learn more about Yom Kippur by watching this excellent video by Bim Bam:
What do people do on Yom Kippur?
As I mentioned, Yom Kippur is all about becoming better people and seeking forgiveness from GOD. It is such a holy day that even many non-observant Jews choose to observe it.
Most people will fast for 25 hours on Yom Kippur. This means no drinking and no eating. It’s not even allowed to brush your teeth. That’s why the Jewish people gather in their houses for the pre-fast meal about an hour or two hours before the holiday begins. There’s no particular type of food for this meal, but it usually consists of complex carbohydrates, like whole grain rice and beans, and vegetables. My mom also makes soup, which we typically eat at the end of the meal. But the key is not to eat too much, because later you will regret it.
We fast, by the way, so we will not be busy with our physical needs and will have more time to focus on our self-observance.
Most people will not use electricity or drive their cars. Like on Shabbat, it is not allowed to use electricity or drive your car on Yom Kippur. But unlike Shabbat, even the non-observant Jews follow these rules on Yom Kippur. So, many people will not watch TV, will not turn on the lights, will not use their phones, and will not drive on Yom Kippur.
Many go to synagogue. Even non-observant Jews find their way to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. I don’t go, but I know people who only go there on this holiday. In the synagogue, they pray almost all day for GOD’s forgiveness. The prayers end with the blasts of the shofar.
Learn more about Jewish customs >> Judaism in Israel: 8 Questions You Might Ask.
Things to know about Yom Kippur in Israel
Most things are shut down, so be prepared!
Yom Kippur is like Shabbat. So, a few hours before the eve of Yom Kippur, stores, restaurants, and attractions will start shutting down. They will remain shut throughout the holiday. Also, public transportation will not operate on Yom Kippur, from the afternoon of the 24th of September to the night of the 25th of September. A few places may be open, but the majority will be closed.
If you’ll stay in an entirely Arab-populated city or area, such as Nazareth and Jaffa, I believe things will be open since the Arabs do not observe Yom Kippur. But most towns observe this holiday.
So, if you’re traveling in Israel on Yom Kippur, you should be prepared to take a day off. Take this time to rest. You can also walk around the streets and experience the holiness of the holiday. Everything is quieter and more relaxed. If you happen to be near a synagogue, you can try to peek inside and experience the prayers. Just remember that using your phone and taking pictures is unacceptable near or in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. So, please do not do it.
Since most – if not all – restaurants will be closed on Yom Kippur, I also advise getting prepared with food. If you’re staying at a hotel or an Airbnb, I recommend buying food ingredients before Yom Kippur starts so you can prepare whatever you want during the holiday. Another option is to fast like the majority of people in Israel. In any case, try not to eat outdoors to respect those who are fasting.
Driving on Yom Kippur is not customary
There is no Israeli law that forbids driving on Yom Kippur. Still, most people will avoid driving on this day, especially in Jewish towns and mixed towns. In religious areas, the roads will be closed with barriers. So, I recommend not driving on Yom Kippur, especially if you are staying in big cities such as Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
On Yom Kippur, the streets are usually filled with pedestrians and children on bikes. Some people drive on Yom Kippur, especially non-Jews, but this is rare and generally done outside city centers.
You might see chickens sold on the street
It’s not so common anymore, but in some Jewish religious areas, you might see chickens sold on the street. I saw it a year ago, in a hidden spot next to Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.
In the past, it was very common to buy a chicken for Yom Kippur and use it for the Kapparot ritual. People would take a live chicken, swing it above the heads of their loved ones, and recite a prayer that says something like: “May this chicken go on to death so that this person will remain alive.” Afterward, they would send the chicken to slaughter according to the Jewish laws.
Today, with more awareness of animal rights, this ritual is dying off and is replaced by charity giving. But as I said, you still might come across this in a hidden alleyway.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. If you happen to be in Israel on this day, it’s best to take a day off and rest. You can walk around the streets to experience the holiness of the day or try to visit a local synagogue. Just make sure you are prepared for this day, on which most of the country shuts down.
Learn more about holidays in Israel and how to spend them during travel.
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