Sunday, October 09, 2005

Desecrating Atonement and Bicycle Day

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!


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

When I was in Israel for Yom Kippur i thought the bicycle takeover of the roads was a beautiful sight. If it weren't Yom Kippur i would've run home to grab my camera ;-) .

Warren Burstein said...

I have mixed feelings about the bicycles. But it's better than the stone throwers.

That's right - stone throwers. My way home from shul passed thru "Tzomet Habankim", the intersection of Derech Chevron with Rechov Rivka on one side and Rechov Ein Gedi on the other. When I get home from shul the intersection and streets are full of both religious and secular adults and children. What I find admirable is that I've never seen anyone smoking a cigarette or talking on a cell phone that night. What I find utterly mind boggling is that some of the teenaged boys (secular ones, once in a while one of them has a kippah that doesn't fit his head well, and/or a tallit worn like a scarf, which makes me think his family is "traditional" and the father goes to shul every Shabbat and holiday, but they can only get the kid to come three times a year or so. There are some cars on the road - non-Jews, Jews who either work in hospitals (some travel in cars sent by the hospital, and if they have a sign saying so, that could protect them), or are on the way to one for themselves, and perhaps there are Jews who work in other fields (security?) or are so indifferent to religion that they are driving (no one has ever indicated that they were doing it "lehachis", that is intentionally, to get people upset).

Sometimes the crowd is slow to get out of the way of the cars, and sometimes the kids hit the cars if they are moving slowly (so as not to hit anyone!) or throw rocks at these cars. For a few years I tried to stop it. I would ask the kids why they were doing it - they weren't quite sure. I think this is something that was passed down to them from older kids. Two arguments I heard from them were:

1) "violating Yom Kippur is punishible by death". I didn't ask the kid if he keeps Shabbat all year long (which really is punishible by death, well not practically, but it was when there were Jewish courts that could impose the penalty, and we still say something is "chayav mitah" even though no one has been executed for it for millenia) so as not to sound threatening, but I invited him to go home, get a Tanach, and show me where it said that. He didn't take me up on my offer.

2) They're Arabs, and "they" throw stones at us at other times.

Other suggestions I've heard are

3) It's a parody of haredim who throw stones on Shabbat, or maybe an imitation of them - the haredim keep every Shabbat, and the hooligans just keep Yom Kippur.

4) The cars are disturbing their nice time standing in the center of the road. This doesn't seem like enough of a reason to hit a car or throw rocks at it.

5) All the normal rules of behavior are cancelled. But as I said, they're not smoking or using cell phones, so there are some rules after all.

In recent years the police have been at the intersection at night. I don't know if they were there from the start of Yom Kippur or if they arrived after complaints of trouble, but so long as they are there it helps. They can't be everywhere at once, it's a big area, so maybe there are still some stones thrown, but since they're there I don't hang around.

In the past, when I stayed around, I noticed that the police would sometimes leave. I don't know if it was a shift change, or they just had other places to be. Now it looks like they've learned to stay put in this trouble spot, but since I don't stay around, I'm not sure.

One year when I stayed around they took one of the kids and put him in a police van, which was surrounded by other kids, who pounded on the van and wouldn't let it leave. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that kids who would throw rocks at cars would do that to the police, but even so, it's one thing to attack a random civilian, and other thing to go after people with clubs, guns, and a radio to call for reinforcements.

Zman Biur said...


Unbelievable. I'm stunned. I think the only reasonable explanation is, as you say, that they're hooligans. How one can be so "sensitive" about Yom Kippur as to throw stones at passing cars is beyond me.

P.S. I remember you as an s.c.j. stalwart - right? (I haven't followed it in over a decade.)