September 15, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Erev Yom Kippur
(Day of Atonement Eve)
Sunday, September 15, 2002

Dear family and friends,

For several weeks now our apartment has reverberated to the awe inspiring melodies of Yom Kippur morning prayers. Jason will be the shaliah tzibbur for Shaharit (leading the congregation in services) this year and he has been practicing intently. It is an ideal way to prepare for the day itself, the solemn and daunting prayers focusing the mind on repentance and atonement.

I've noticed that foreign guidebooks advise visitors to Israel to avoid the High Holiday season like the plague. There will be nothing to do, they explain, and everything is closed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Quite simply, they think it's boring.

On the contrary, I recommend that visitors come this time of year. To understand what it means to be living in the world's only Jewish country, I suggest coming to see what it's like on the holiest days of the Jewish year.

The culture of these days permeates Israeli society. The supermarkets are filled with all manner of honey for Rosh Hashanah, and shoe shops do brisk sales in non-leather footwear just before Yom Kippur. Every Israeli from the simplest shop clerk to the most learned rabbi to the most secular journalist wishes one another "gmar hatima tova", may you have a good inscription, referring to the tradition that on Yom Kippur God seals our fates for the coming year.

I've lost count of how many times I've heard the haunting "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer played on the radio in recent weeks, not on religious programmes but during regular shows on popular stations. The prayer, about man's frailty passing before God in judgement, is one of the key points in the High Holiday prayer service.

They play it on the radio because it is part of our culture, something that so many Israelis relate to. "I can't tell you how many listeners tell me they look forward all year to hearing it," commented a broadcaster last night. It touches something deep in the Israeli soul, be it the spur to repentance or childhood memories of synagogue on Yom Kippur.

During the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Israeli radio has had a late night forgiveness slot where people can phone in and ask forgiveness from those they've hurt during the year. In general, radio and television stations have been run programmes about the seasonal themes of introspection and repentance, about the meaning of the High Holidays and the direction of Israeli society.

The great majority of Jewish Israelis fast on Yom Kippur, even those who don't necessarily go to synagogue or engage in any religious activity. As every year, the media interview doctors on how to fast well. This year they are forecasting a heat wave for Yom Kippur, so there were additional questions on how to take precautions against heatstroke, what to do if someone feels ill and the like.

Yom Kippur, more than any other day in Israel, is a national holy day. The entire country shuts down: every business, every place of entertainment, everything. No one drives their cars. You could walk down the middle of a major highway and the only danger would come from a few kids on bicycles - for secular children the lack of traffic has turned Yom Kippur into national bicycle day.

And now there are only a few hours to go before the Day of Atonement is upon is in all its majesty and awe. Businesses and shops closed hours ago. The streets are already quiet as people busy themselves with last minute preparations or shelter from the oppressive heat outdoors. Our building is filled with the mouth watering smells of cooking as we and our neighbours prepare the final meal before the fast. Freshly laundered white holiday clothes hang ready to be worn tonight, the mahzorim (prayer books) are ready by the door.

Last night, the last chance for midnight slihot, forgiveness prayers, before Yom Kippur, the Kotel (Western Wall) was flooded with tens of thousands of worshippers. The rabbi of the Kotel reported that people came in record numbers. And it was not only the traditional religious who came. There were large numbers of secular Israelis among the throng, people who came because the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people, and on the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish Year they also wanted to be part of the last mass prayer service before the great day itself.

There is a Jewish belief in the power of communal prayers, in the power of large numbers of the nation of Israel coming together in prayer and appealing for God's mercy. May the sincerity of the crowds of Jews from all sectors of society, coming together in the heart of Jerusalem have the strength to banish all evil decrees for the coming year.

May we all be inscribed for health, happiness and peace.

Gmar hatima tova,


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.