The Days of Awe are drawing to their climactic conclusion, and signs of the impending Day of Judgment may be seen all over Jerusalem.
In the days before Yom Kippur, thousands of Israelis rush to finish the ritual of Kapparot, where human sins are symbolically transferred to a fowl--usually a chicken. It's a custom that does not appear anywhere in the Talmud, but, write Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic, authors of the JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words, is thought to have first been observed by Babylonian Jews in the third century. It was referred to in ninth-century writings and was widespread by the 10th century. Based on the idea of substituting one living being for another, kapparah echoes the ancient Temple practice in which the sins of the Israelites were transferred to a goat that was sent to wander in the wilderness or pushed off a cliff — the original "scapegoat." Eisenberg and Scolnic further point out that both kapparot and kippur come from the Hebrew root — kappar — that means to forgive, atone and appease.
The Israeli version of the ancient custom takes place in a parking lot near Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market. Dozens of live chickens are whirled above the heads of men, women and children while a pronouncement is made declaring: "This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement: This chicken will meet its fate while I will proceed to a good, long life of peace." The chickens are ritually slaughtered on the spot and then donated to the needy or redeemed with money that goes to the poor. Many of those taking part in the odd ritual in Jerusalem are non-observant Israelis.
At night, hundreds of other curious secular Israelis take part in pre-dawn Selichot tours where they look in on dozens of congregations where the faithful are immersed in penitential prayers chanted to ancient melodies.
In the streets later in the day, men hurry along with towels to the nearest mikveh (ritual bath). Many have already started building their sukkot (booths) in readiness for Sukkot, the one-week festival that starts the week after Yom Kippur. The structures of Sukkot of all kinds have sprung up on balconies, street corners and in front of cafes. The final decorations and the schach covering will be added right after the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
The busiest kiosks on the streets are those selling shoes made from fabric or plastic--to comply with the prohibition against wearing leather on Yom Kippur.
The strains of chazanut waft out of many windows, as many radio and TV stations broadcast operatic renditions of the well-known Yom Kippur prayers in a variety of styles. Almost every radio and TV channel also features a physician prescribing pre-fast measures to stave off headaches and ensure an easy fast, and advice on the best type of food with which to break the fast.
Many of the rabbis providing commentary on Yom Kippur in the Israeli media emphasize the festive nature of the day--not only the obvious solemnity. Be happy, we're told, that God grants us this grand opportunity to get a new lease on life--the possibility of tshuva (return) shows that Judaism is optimistic and forward-looking and allows for the reformulation of both our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. Singing and dancing are the de rigeur ways in which many congregations here, especially those at yeshivot, end the Yom Kippur day, expressing joy at the soul having been uplifted.
Non-observant Israelis are also getting ready for Yom Kippur. As the one day of the year when TV and radio shuts down, they're looking for entertainment. A woman in a halter top and shorts stops at my local newspaper stand to buy three books of crossword puzzles. Video stores are doing brisk business, and bicycle shops are working overtime. With only emergency vehicles on the streets of Israel on Yom Kippur—no public transportation or private cars---it's become a traditional time for mass outings on bikes--new and old. Kids and adults enjoy the one-time freedom of movement for two-wheeled transportation on the traffic-free streets.
There's also the obligatory rehash of stories from the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the press. Every year, commentators review the intelligence failures and questionable political decisions that brought Israel to the brink. "The War That Never Ends," blares the headline of the Magazine section of Haaretz, in a lead-in to an article about a Yom Kippur War vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who finally committed himself to a psychiatric ward after more than 30 years of agony. This year, in the wake of intense public criticism of the government's handling of the Lebanon war, there are even more calls for a "cheshbon nefesh"—an accounting of the soul—from our leaders.
As the siren sounds, marking the start of the Day of Reckoning, you can be sure that our prayers will include a plea for a better year than the one before it. Beyond that, who knows?