Day of Atonement, Day of the Bicycles

For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Hashem. Leviticus 16:30 (The Israel Bible™)

There is only one day in the Jewish year when it is quite safe for children to ride their bicycles – of course with a suitable helmet and preferably knee and shoulder pads – in the usually busy streets and highways of Israel. It is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will be observed this year – from sunset on Tuesday, September 18 and will end about 25 hours later on Wednesday 19.

Yom Kippur, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is the Jewish day of personal and communal atonement for sins committed during the past Jewish year. It is regarded as the most solemn and holy day in the calendar. On the Day of Atonement, Jews in Israel and around the world ask God for forgiveness for their sins to secure their fate in the year ahead.

Fasting is one of the central components of Yom Kippur. Men and boys from the age of 13 and women and girls from of 12 are commanded to fast (except for pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who are ill). As prayer as part of a group is the other main element of Yom Kippur, many people spend most of their time in the synagogue. The service begins with the moving Kol Nidrei prayer and ends with the Neila prayers in which Jews have the last chance for divine forgiveness before the doors to Heaven are “locked.”

But there is another tradition on Yom Kippur in Israel – a totally non-religious one – riding one’s bicycle, scooter, skates and other wheeled objects in the street.

As people who attend religious services walk to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, there are very few vehicles on the usually hectic roads. Even those who are secular or only a bit traditional usually stay at home on this day. Many who lived during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 recall being grateful that the huge conflict broke out on Yom Kippur, when even secular Israel Defense Forces reservists were home, and not on Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year 10 days before – when many secular Jews drive to nature spots around the country. The fact that they were home or in synagogue made it easier for the IDF to suddenly call up the reserves.

Observant Jewish adults disapprove of biking on Yom Kippur, while others do not object or even encourage their children to do so. Sales of new bicycles are usually higher before the Day of Atonement than at any other time in the year. The streets of Israel have been flooded with bike riders on Yom Kippur for quite a few years, and it has become clear that bike riding on Yom Kippur has gone mainstream.

Who are the Yom Kippur bicyclists? The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a think tank established by the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem and aimed at ensuring the thriving of the Jewish people and Jewish civilization, decided to look into who are the bike riders on Yom Kippur. JPPI’s Israeli Judaism Project is headed by Shmuel Rosner and Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University.

A survey found that those Israeli Jews who regard themselves as ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) or modern Orthodox do not bike on Yom Kippur, but a very small minority do bike. The Yom Kippur biking population is composed mostly of Israeli Jews who identify as traditional or secular – especially their children who are limited by their parents from riding freely in the streets on any other day.

The JPPI survey found that only 7% of Jewish Israeli adults say they bike on Yom Kippur. This compares with 40% of adults living in Jerusalem who ride bikes at other times of the year. In contrast, 34% of adults say their children ride bikes; taking into account the share of these adults who have children old enough to ride bicycles, one can calculate that 43% – or almost half of Israeli children – ride bikes on Yom Kippur.

Another interesting survey finding is an inverse correlation between keeping tradition and riding bikes. The more traditional you are – the less chance you`ll be riding your bike on Yom Kippur. While this in itself is no surprise, what is surprising is the fact that the percentage of adults who bike on Yom Kippur is significantly lower than the percentage of children who do so. Therefore, the fact that adults refrain from riding bikes on Yom Kippur because of their adherence to tradition or their feeling that biking is “not right” or will bring about protests from the religious people who see them does not necessarily carry over to their children, the JPPI said.

A close look at the data shows that among those who identify as “completely secular,” about twice as many children bike on Yom Kippur than do adults. Among the “traditional” and the “seculars” who are “somewhat traditional,” about five times as many children bike than adults.

But the percentage of biking is pretty much the same among children from “completely secular” families and those from “secular, who are a bit traditional” families. The percentage of children from “traditional” families who ride bikes on Yom Kippur is lower, but still considerable. Furthermore, virtually no religious adults ride bicycles on Yom Kippur, but there are religious kids who do so: 25% of adults who identify as “liberal religious,” 10% of those who identify as “religious” and 7% of those who identify as “nationalist Haredi” claim their children bike on Yom Kippur, but none of the regular Haredi Jews do.

The biking phenomenon can be a sign of one of two changes in Israeli society: either that the very fact of children biking on Yom Kippur has caused Israeli society to accept this practice (although it is not true among adults, who still see biking as breaking tradition), or that we can expect that in Israel`s next generation, biking will become a Yom Kippur pastime; we can also expect the percentage of adults who bike to rise accordingly, the JPPI said.

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