Ancient Rites In Modern Times

Empty Streets on Yom Kippur

If it weren't for the voices of children playing in the distance, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had walked into a ghost town. The streets are eerily quiet, the shops are shut up and bolted, not a single car moves on the roads and the usual media background noise from TV and radio is silenced. This is Yom Kippur in Israel: The holiest day of the year when the penitent seek God's forgiveness and even the unbelievers fast, just in case.

Children playing in traffic free streets -Yom Kippur
The experience of walking through the streets on this day has a profound effect that is hard to replicate. With the whole country shut down from sundown the night before, the impact of a whole nation focused on God (even if only for this one day) is quite awesome. If you ever find yourself in Israel on Yom Kippur (English translation:  Day of Atonement), make a point of walking around the streets. The Synagogues are open all day and filled with people dressed in white to represent purification from sin. In the very small neighbourhood synagogues, service-goers often overflow onto the street. As you walk past each one, you can hear the same chanted prayers being repeated in each building you pass. Streets devoid of traffic are a magnet for children on bikes and roller blades. For the adults, it is a day of solemn fasting. Neighbours bring picnic chairs onto the pavements and pass the long hours without food, together as a community. The young at heart, take the opportunity of empty roads to stroll together with friends. Even the motorways are silent and inviting to cyclists and walkers.

One of the privileges of living in Israel for several years, was the opportunity to experience the Biblical Holidays as a part of normal life. It is one thing to read about them in the Bible and to imagine the ancient Israelites listening to Moses as he declares all that God has revealed to him on Mount Sinai, it is quite another to actually physically sit with a modern Israeli family and celebrate these ancient rites throughout the year and partake in a tradition passed down from generation to generation, just as Moses prescribed.

God, in his wisdom, used a calendar of family gatherings and community holidays to teach his people how to worship him and walk in his ways - An annual pattern through which he would set apart a people called to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Through this template, he would guide them through the present and point them towards his plans for the future.

The Days of Awe

Yom Kippur marks the end of the period of 10 Days known as the Days of Awe. These are the holiest days of the year according to Jewish tradition. It is a time of introspection to consider ones sins, to repent and ask forgiveness from God and from those we have wronged. An opportunity to put things right before Yom Kippur, the most solemn and important day of the year, begins. The 10 Days of Awe begin with the Feast of Trumpets, today known at Rosh Hashanah (New Year). God instructed Israel to set aside the 1st day of the 7th month as a day of Sabbath rest and sacred assembly that would be commemorated with the blowing of trumpets. The Hebrew dates follow a lunar calendar so the date changes each year. 

Rosh Hashanah 
(Feast of Trumpets)

2013 Date: Sundown 4th Sept to Sundown 5th Sept (Jews outside Israel celebrate until 6th Sept)

Biblical Reference: Lev 23:23-25, Num 29:1-6 Also referred to in Nehemiah 8:1-12

Yom Kippur 
(Day of Atonement)

2013 Date: Sundown 13th Sept  to Sundown 14th Sept

Biblical Reference: Lev 16:29-34; 23:26-32, Numbers  29:7-11; Hebrews 9:11-14, 22-24, 10:1-25