Ask any Jew to name the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and you will receive the same response: Yom Kippur.
The country, its streets and airports are silent. The only motorized vehicles in sight are occasional police and emergency vehicles.
What makes Yom Kippur so holy, however, has changed over the past few decades for many Israeli children, who have found their own way to create a special atmosphere on this day by taking to the streets on bicycles, roller blades and scooters. One popular gathering place is the Ayalon highway - known to host over 700,000 cars every day, not a single motor vehicle traverses its pavement. It's a kid's dream come true!
Cycling shops around Israeli make an astounding amount of their annual profit during the weeks leading up to the holy day.
In 2005, Business Data Israel (BDI) findings showed that bicycle sales were up 150 percent in the month preceding Yom Kippur. Some businesses have even hosted special Yom Kippur sales.
This annual "bicycle festival" causes the chagrin of some parents, who believe that thrill rides have taken away the true purpose of what is meant to be a solemn day. But other parents believe that pre-bar/bat mitzva children can do as they please, seeing as they are not yet obligated to fast.
WHILE THE debate on the ethics of Yom Kippur cycling is waged, many forget to ask perhaps the most important question of all: Is biking on Yom Kippur safe?
According to Yotam Avizohar, the director of the Israel Biking Association, the lack of motorized vehicles does not guarantee the safety of riders. "Riding on Yom Kippur may be considered safer [than riding on an ordinary day] as long as you keep to the safety rules," Avizohar explains. "But the conflict becomes one between cyclists. The main issue is keeping a safe distance between bikers."
Eytan Hevrony, head of the Samson Riders Bicycle Club, echoed Avizohar, noting that riding on Yom Kippur is safe if, and only if, you follow precautions such as wearing a helmet and reflective gear. "It is also important to remember that Magen David Adom workers get a special briefing for Yom Kippur as cycling accidents are known to peak on this day," he said reassuringly.
Both Avizohar and Hevrony strongly advise cyclists to be cautious when approaching an intersection and to keep a distance of approximately one meter between riders. Take heed of your surroundings, and do not assume that there are no cars on the road, warns Avizohar. "Also, beware of other [cyclists] as many that bike on Yom Kippur may not be experienced riders."
Before setting out on a bike ride, it is important to check your gears and chain. Mechanical failure can be a recipe for disaster and is very easy to avoid. And, remember that Yom Kippur provides a special challenge to riders who are fasting, as dehydration and heat exhaustion can set in quickly. Be very aware of your body and do not bike without an emergency water bottle and cell phone.
FOR PARENTS who allow their children to bike on Yom Kippur, Hevrony recommends that the adults go along for the ride. "The parents should be with their children to set a good example, to monitor them and to spend quality time with them," he says. "If you don't ride with them, make sure the kids leave home with the proper equipment, that they know the precautions and whom to call if help is needed."
Adults should also keep an eye on other cyclists, aside from their own kids. If you see a bike accident, help the rider to the side of the road and give them water, Hevrony advises. Assess the severity of the injury and call Magen David Adom immediately if medical help is needed.
No matter what your Yom Kippur custom is, keep the day holy by staying safe and looking out for others.