What do bicycles have to do with Yom Kippur?
If you haven't been in Israel for Yom Kippur in the last ten years or so, you might think this was an obscure riddle. Unfortunately not. What for traditional Jews is the holiest day of the year, the climax of the season of introspection, repentance and atonement, has an additional identity in contemporary Israel. It has become National Bicycle Day.
Out of respect for the sacred day and for their neighbors, Israeli Jews, however non-religious they may be, do not drive on Yom Kippur, from the start of the fast at sundown until its end at the next day's nightfall. The roads are eerily quiet, from local byways to major highways.
Or at least they used to be. Nature abhors a vacuum, and apparently so does asphalt. Once, those who were not in synagogue would stay home to watch rented videos (since the television stations don't broadcast), read the holiday supplements of the paper, or go for a walk. Today they, or at least their kids, strap on helmets and knee pads and ride through the streets on bicycles, skateboards, scooters and rollerblades.
Most of the ambulance calls on Yom Kippur are for either fasting-related weakness or bicycle accidents. The pre-holiday sales feature microwave popcorn (for video watchers), paperback novels, and bicycles. Truly the stuff of holiness.
So we were perhaps thoughtless when last year, having moved further from shul since the previous Yom Kippur, we did what would have been unremarkable in the diaspora: we decided to take it easy and drive to Kol Nidrei services. After candlelighting, we hopped into the car in our Atonement garb and scooted over to the synagogue.
We had plenty of time before the day would properly begin, along with all its halachic restrictions. After all, the sun was plainly visible above the horizon. And once the fast ended, we would have the car right there, avoiding that last trek home on empty stomachs.
As it happened, though, moments (or so it seemed) after the published candlelighting time, the streets were already filling up with bicycles. We drove carefully, making our way through the crowds of surprised cyclists. It might still be tosefet yom tov for us - that optional time period after candlelighting when the holiday has not yet halachically begun. But the celebrants of National Bicycle Day were apparently stricter than we on such subtleties. For them, the day had begun, and we were desecrating it.
You could see it on the shocked expressions on their faces, and on those of passersby. It was hard to tell which aggrieved pedestrians were religious but, ignorant as to the halachic status of the pre-sundown period, thought we were actually desecrating the most sacred day on the calendar, and which were not, but zealously guarded the prerogatives of non-motorized two-wheeled vehicles. We had no time to argue. We had to get to shul without hitting any. Which we did, I might add, with plenty of time to spare.
Though I don't believe we did anything wrong last year, I expect we'll follow the more conventional approach this time. I can't think of any halacha we could have violated by driving to shul before the start of the holiday, but why needlessly antagonize people? Even if they feel antagonized only due to their own Jewish ignorance.
As shocking as it might seem to the uninitiated, bicycles may ultimately save the national character of Yom Kippur in Israel for generations to come. In a society where religious-secular tensions continue to grow, where contempt for religion continues to strengthen, where once-banned Shabbat shopping has become a national pastime for the secularists, could Yom Kippur have maintained its car-free status for much longer? Wouldn't it have inevitably been transformed into another day of family hikes and picnics?
Not now. After the fast ended a few years ago and we left shul, the last of the cyclists was clearing out of the road. (Apparently they also hold by tosefet yom tov at the end of the day!) A mother explained to her young daughter that she had to get out of the street, since Yom Kippur was over. "I wish it was always Yom Kippur!" she replied, sadly. "Don't worry; Yom Kippur will come again next year," said her mother.
Who would dare drive on Yom Kippur and ruin the fun for all the nation's children? Not us!