On Thursday morning September 24, I will open my newspaper and see the traditional day-after Yom Kippur picture: one of Israel’s busiest highways completely deserted during the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It’s true that if you are in Israel on Yom Kippur, you will certainly be amazed at the absence of vehicular traffic, but there are several other significant differences between the way Yom Kippur is observed in Israel and the way it is observed by Jews in the diaspora.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Yom Kippur observance in Israel does not take place on Yom Kippur at all—it takes place on the eve of (erev) Yom Kippur, which this year occurs on Tuesday September 22. Erev Yom Kippur in Israel is a national holiday: Government offices, banks, the stock market, schools, etc. are all closed. For those who want to prepare themselves for Yom Kippur, there is plenty of time for study, meditation, going to the mikveh (ritual bath), praying the afternoon service at shul in the early afternoon, and then a leisurely pre-fast meal. (Of course for others, Erev Yom Kippur becomes part of a two-day holiday; and if, as is sometimes the case, Erev Yom Kippur falls on a Sunday, then many Israelis are tempted to skip out on Yom Kippur that year in favor of a 4-day European vacation.) Since I am a religious Jew, I love it that Israeli society allows me the luxury of taking my time to transition into the holiest day of the year.
In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, it is traditional to wish one another a gmar hatima tova, which literally means “may you have a good final sealing” (in the Book of Life). Though this wish would seem to display deep religious belief, Israelis from across the religious and secular spectrum have adopted it. I guess people feel that “Shana Tova” is by now old and that “Chag Sameach” (Happy Holiday) does not seem a good fit for a fasting day, but yet they want a special Yom Kippur greeting and “gmar hatima tova” is it.
One more difference: the white robe known as a kittel is an outward sign of purity and holiness (appropriate for this day when, like angels, Jews do not eat). Most of the men in the various synagogues in which I prayed in the U.S. did not wear a kittel on Yom Kippur, and I assumed that this was because they did not feel pious enough. However, when I got to Givat Ze’ev, I saw that the kittel was standard attire for men. I decided to go with the flow, and so for many years now I have been a proud kittel-wearer on Yom Kippur. I know that this does not necessarily make me a tzaddik, but I hope that it’s a decent “sealant.” Besides, it’s fun to wear. Gmar Hatima Tova!
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.