Yom Kippur 2010 Kimche2
Tel Aviv residents enjoying the deserted streets during Yom Kippur. Photo by Motti Kimche
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Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish year – is known as a time of prayer and reflection for the many who spend the day atoning for their sins, seeking forgiveness, and abstaining from food and drink.

But it’s also a most unique experience for a visitor in Israel.  The country comes to a complete standstill from sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur (this year – Tuesday, September 25) until sunset the following day. Cars are forbidden on the roads (apart from the occasional emergency vehicle) and TV and radio stations are dark, save for a handful of foreign cable channels.

Without land or even air traffic, a captivating silence descends over most of the country. But despite the silence on the airwaves and in the skies above, in some places it can actually be surprisingly noisy. As evening sets in, and throughout the following day, the intense silence is punctuated by the happy shouts of children taking to the street.  Families push prams down freeways, couples stroll down the middle of the road, and hundreds of cyclists and skaters take advantage of the otherwise empty streets to be kings of the road for a day.

If you're planning on pedaling this Yom Kippur, be warned: the popular Tel-O-Fun bike rental service will only be available to yearly subscribers. If you don’t have an annual subscription and hope to hire a Tel-O-Fun bike, be sure you return it by 13.00 on the eve of Yom Kippur, before the machines shut down for the holiday. If you don't, you won’t be able to return it until 20.00 the following day, by which time you'll have incurred a massive NIS 1,200 fine. Enthusiastic riders can hire bikes for much less from most cycling shops before the holiday starts.

Keep in mind that during Yom Kippur absolutely everything is closed: grocery and convenience stores, restaurants, and coffee shops.  Make sure you stock up on any needed supplies in advance.  The only exceptions are Arab villages where business continues as usual.

If you head to the streets, remember it can seem disrespectful to eat or drink in public; in very religious areas you won’t be able to ride your bike either.