Yom Kippur in Israel is a unique day! Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the most solemn and holy day of the Jewish calendar. Falling every fall, ten days after Rosh Hashana, it is a day in which Jews of all levels of religiousness, and Israel as a whole, comes to a halt. A fast day lasting 25 hours, the festival begins at sundown with what is known as Kol Nidre and ends the following evening. In 2020, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 27, and ends the following evening. Yom Kippur in Israel is an unusual, but interesting experience.
Yom Kippur & Covid-19
Across the globe, we are all trying our best to handle this new normal, but unfortunately that means that many of us won’t be spending the holidays the way we normally do. Since many synagogues are closed for services, tours are only operating under severe restrictions, and social distancing in public spaces is required, we at Tourist Israel want to encourage you to stay at home and stay safe. Many local synagogues will offer virtual services so you can still hear the shofar blow and experience communal atonement and forgiveness. This time of year is when we focus inward and consider what change and renewal this season may bring, and with such a chaotic year, maybe some time to refocus on what’s most important to us is what we all need.
What’s Yom Kippur in Israel Like?
Road 2 the main North to South highway, deserted on Yom Kippur by RonAlmog, on Flickr
Yom Kippur in Israel is the one day when normal life across Israel stops. All businesses close, including all restaurants and places of leisure. All transportation stops – Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s major airport, stops functioning, as does all public transport, and almost all private vehicles also stop so the roads become totally empty for the day apart from the odd emergency vehicle and children and adults riding bikes! Biking on Yom Kippur has become something of a tradition.
Being a Tourist over Yom Kippur in Israel
As a tourist, during Yom Kippur in Israel there are almost no museums or cultural sites that are possible to visit so the best option is to walk, observe the varying ways Jews across society mark this day, observe the peace and unbelievable tranquility of a country where nobody is moving, no cars, and no noise, and observe a country where a large proportion of the population is fasting.
It is not forbidden to drive on Yom Kippur, however all citizens (religious or secular) refrain from driving as it is against tradition and there are no cars on the road. Driving is incredibly dangerous because there are many kids and families who will bike on major roads in Israel. It’s one of the best days to explore big cities like Tel Aviv by bike.
Bikers on the main highway through Tel Aviv. Image Yossi Gurvitz
Eating out during Yom Kippur in Israel can be slightly difficult as so much of the country is fasting. Hotels will run an almost skeleton staff (all leisure services such as gyms will be closed and there will be very few staff around). It is therefore highly unlikely that there will be fresh food or usual food service. Instead, it is likely that there will be a limited buffet of simple, pre-prepared food available to those guests who want it (remember, many guests and tourists will also fast). If you are not staying in a hotel, it is likely that many hotels will prohibit you from eating in their restaurant, and the best option is to purchase food the day before from a supermarket (many sell great pre-prepared food) and eat it the next day.
Ultimately, Yom Kippur in Israel is a unique experience and very interesting, but it is important to know in advance that there is very limited service around on this day.