Yom Kippur: Taking to Israel's open roads on bicycles

Yom Kippur in Israel may be the one day of the year, in the only place in the world, where it’s safe to play on major public roads without having to worry about vehicular traffic.

 TAKING ADVANTAGE of the empty streets on Yom Kippur. (photo credit: FLASH90)
TAKING ADVANTAGE of the empty streets on Yom Kippur.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

A couple of years ago on Yom Kippur, my partner and I decided to walk to the park across the street from our home in Ramat Gan. We sat down and noticed a group of boys, who looked around 10, sprawled out on benches nearby. Their bikes littered the ground as they stared at their phones and tablets, transfixed by the games and videos emitting from their screens. 

After a few minutes, the only one among them without an electronic device stood up and yelled at his friends, exasperated, “Atem mevazbezim et Yom Kippur!” – You’re wasting Yom Kippur!

It was a little bit funny, but he had a good point. They could play video games any time, but how often did they have the opportunity to ride their bikes wherever they wanted? Yom Kippur in Israel may be the one day of the year, in the only place in the world, where it’s safe to play on major public roads without having to worry about vehicular traffic.

Yom Kippur: Israel's bike riding holiday

Though driving cars is technically still legal, whether out of religious observance or respect for the tone of the holiday, nearly all Israelis abstain from driving on Yom Kippur unless it’s an emergency. 

Even then, calling for an ambulance or police escort is generally considered the most respectful way to get to one’s destination, not to mention the safest. It’s actually more dangerous to drive a car or motorcycle than it is to walk on the highways on Yom Kippur, as the empty roads become a makeshift playground for children and families who walk and ride along them.

 BUSY AT A bicycle shop ahead of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem.  (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) BUSY AT A bicycle shop ahead of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Yom Kippur riders mostly consist of children, though the practice seems to be increasing in popularity among secular adults as well. A 2018 study by the Jewish People Policy Institute determined that 43% of Israeli children ride bikes on Yom Kippur compared with only 7% of Israeli adults, though they estimate that these figures may rise in the future.

Despite the growing popularity of riding bikes on Yom Kippur, the tradition doesn’t seem to affect business for local bike shops, at least not in Tel Aviv. Itzik Primo, the owner of Primo Bikes near Dizengoff Center, said that he doesn’t see an increase in business leading up to Yom Kippur. He attributed this to the fact that bike riding is already such a large part of daily life for many of the city’s residents. 

Rental shops do tend to receive an uptick in business and offer special flat rates for Yom Kippur, as opposed to their usual standard hourly and daily rates. At O-Fun, a rental and repair shop on Ben Yehuda, riders can rent bikes for three days for 300 NIS over the holiday.

WHAT, EXACTLY, is the appeal to riding bikes on Yom Kippur? Ella, a Tel Aviv resident who purchased her bike from Primo, shares that she “rides everywhere that I possibly can on my bike.”

“But I always look forward to riding on Yom Kippur, because it’s a completely different atmosphere in the city. It’s not about getting somewhere, but just being outside and relaxing. It’s usually too busy to ride calmly in Tel Aviv; you have to be very alert.”

Her partner, Yishai, agrees. “There’s something almost post-apocalyptic about the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. It’s very weird to be out when everything is closed and there are no cars on the road, but in a good way.”

“There’s something almost post-apocalyptic about the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. It’s very weird to be out when everything is closed and there are no cars on the road, but in a good way.”

Yishai, Tel Aviv resident

In a park across the street from the Rotella bike shop in Ramat Gan, Idan and Shani teach their four-year-old son Ben to ride his first bike, explaining that they’re planning to take him out on Yom Kippur this year. They’re not religious and feel it’s a great way to spend the holiday in a very family-oriented manner. 

As he helps Ben learn to balance, Idan explains that Ben is “used to riding in a seat on the back of my bike, so learning to ride on his own has been really fun for him. It will be interesting to see how he feels about riding in the road.”

While biking on the highway is a tradition practiced by secular Israelis throughout the country, there are some who take advantage of the empty roads to a further degree than others. Most people ride on the streets within their neighborhoods but don’t venture too far away from home. 

Amit, however, thought Yom Kippur was a good time to take a longer trip. So five years ago he got on his bike and surprised his family, launching the journey from his home in Bat Yam to his mother’s house near Haifa. 

He shared that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and that the trip took about seven hours. “I left a few hours after Yom Kippur started and rode all night. My mom didn’t believe me when I arrived at her place the next morning. But when she saw my bike, she eventually accepted that I’d really done it.” 

He laughed, continuing, “I was exhausted, but the look on her face was totally worth it. I’m definitely not in a hurry to do it again, though.”

It seems the jury is still out on whether riding bikes on Yom Kippur will one day be considered an important Israeli tradition. But in the meantime, I’m inclined to agree with that 10-year-old kid – why waste the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs?•