Word of the Day Hag Ha'ofanayim: Reinventing the Wheel on Yom Kippur

Mass biking on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar? Hear the angels sing.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Children playing in the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippuer.
Children playing in the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippuer.Credit: Daniel Bar On
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

On the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the streets of the Holy Land are eerily bereft of cars. But the roads are far from empty.

The fact that Israelis keep their cars in park throughout Yom Kippur, which begins Friday night, has had the side effect of turning a solemn 25 hours of fasting and atonement into a day of two-wheeled fun sometimes known as Hag Ha'ofanayim (khag ha-off-ah-NA-yeem, or Holiday of the Bicycle) for much of the country's non-religious population.

Engraved illustration of Ezekiel's "chariot vision", after an earlier illustration by Matthaeus Merian (1593-1650), for his "Icones Biblicae".Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The streets become the province of children (and adults) riding scooters, tricycles, Rollerblades and, of course, bicycles, as the usual rules of the road get left behind like last year's sins.

"It's Yom Kippur – not Hanukkah with its doughnuts or Purim with its costumes and hamantaschen – that's the only holiday on the calendar about which my kids longingly asked, 'Why don't we do this every month?'" Israeli journalist Aviv Lavie wrote in a column last year for the news and entertainment website Mako.

While this two-wheeled version of Yom Kippur appears to be an affair that is strictly for the secular, Hag Ha'ofanayim actually has celestial roots, etymologically speaking at least.

The word ofan means "wheel" and appears in Isaiah 28:27, which refers to an ofan agalah, the wheel of a cart. But Ofanim, to use the plural, are also a kind of angel, as reflected in Ezekiel's prophetic vision and in the daily liturgy.

In Ezekiel's vision, Ofanim are part of what the recently retired British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, calls "a heavenly retinue surrounding the Divine throne, an angelic choir singing God's praises." Just don't expect the Jewish conception of angels to conform with popular-culture depictions of pretty blonde girls dressed like nurses with wings; the Ofanim, Sacks writes in a commentary on the prayer book, are said to take the form of "wheels within wheels."

Based on this vision, the liturgy refers to three types of angels (out of 10, according to Maimonides' classification system): "Then the Ofanim and the Holy Hayot, with a roar of noise, raise themselves toward the Seraphim and, facing them, give praise, saying: Blessed be the Lord's glory from His place."

With the thud of a two-wheeled vehicle tumbling down from heaven, these celestial beings have since become a street-level part of the modern Hebrew language. Ofan is the primary component of the word not just for "bicycle" (which was created by adding -ayim, a suffix that serves to indicate two of something) but also for other vehicles, like "motorcycle" (ofanoa, which combines "wheel" with "moving"), "tricycle" (tlat-ofan, in which "wheel" is preceded by the Aramaic word for "three") and "unicycle" (had-ofan, which begins with the Aramaic word for "one").

Whether they are sending prayers to the heavens this Yom Kippur or their wheels are firmly on the ground, secular and religious Jews alike have good reason to bury the kickstand: They are all, in one way or another, on the side of the angels.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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