JERUSALEM: Israelis ushered in the holiest day of the Jewish calendar at sundown Friday as nearly the entire country ground to a halt for Yom Kippur, Judaism’s day of atonement, observed with a 25-hour fast and long prayers.
Jews traditionally spend the solemn day fasting and asking God for forgiveness at intense prayer services in synagogues. It caps a 10-day period of soul-searching that began with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year holiday.
In Israel, the country virtually shuts down for Yom Kippur. Businesses, restaurants and offices close, and television and radio stations go silent. Airports close and buses and trains stop running. Highways and roads become eerily quiet, devoid of vehicles.
Yom Kippur is unique in Israel because it touches almost the entire country. A high portion of the secular population observes the fast — and even those who don’t fast tend to refrain from eating in public, and quietly watch movies or rest at home.
Many secular, mostly younger, Israelis ride bicycles and skateboards through the empty roads in some areas.
The Israeli military closed crossings with the West Bank for the holiday, which started Friday evening, citing “security assessments.”
Israel has imposed West Bank closures during most Jewish holidays in recent years due to concerns that Palestinian militants could take advantage of the occasion to carry out attacks inside Israel.
This year, the holiday marks 40 years since the 1973 Arab-Israel War, which Israelis call the Yom Kippur War because of the surprise attack launched by the Egyptian and Syrian armies against Israel that year.
The war is etched deep in Israel’s collective psyche due to the heavy losses sustained in the fighting and because of the country’s lack of preparedness. For Israelis, it is one of the most traumatic events in their history. Personal accounts of Israelis who participated in that war or who were scarred by its occurrence filled newspapers and talk shows ahead of this year’s holiday.