In Israel’s Yom Kippur ‘Kippurtopia,’ a gift from the religious community to the secular

For 25 hours, the whole country — spiritually, socially, environmentally — is doing something right, says Tel Aviv U. professor

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

The eve of Yom Kippur in Israel (Photo credit: Anna Kaplan/ Flash 90)
The eve of Yom Kippur in Israel (Photo credit: Anna Kaplan/ Flash 90)

Leviticus 23 is explicit about what is expected of a Jew on Yom Kippur: “Ye shall afflict your souls… For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people.”

Many Jews, pre-and-post Sandy Koufax, have abided by this commandment: they do not eat or drink, do not wear leather shoes and do not have marital relations. They pound their chests during prayer, repenting, begging for forgiveness. By the end of the day, many believe, their fate for the year has been sealed.

For some environmentalists in Israel, though, the day has become the opposite of affliction. They call it “Kippurtopia.”

“I don’t mean it in a secular, I-don’t fast-and-I-ride-my-bike-all-day kind of way,” said Dr. Daniel Mishori, a lecturer in environmental ethics at Tel Aviv University who coined the phrase along with his fellow faster and bike enthusiast Daniel Robinson. “It is a special day, one of personal introspection and a secular vision of public space.”

Every Yom Kippur, on a voluntary basis, more than 99 percent of all Israeli Jews refrain from driving. The corresponding statistic, quoted each year on the day after Yom Kippur, is the precipitous drop in air pollution. A 2011 Environmental Defense Ministry report states that the normally high level of air pollution in the Dan region “disappears almost entirely” every Yom Kippur.

For Mishori and Robinson that is just a byproduct. Their focus is on the transformation of the urban environment. Generally the lion’s share of the city is given over to vehicular traffic; the perimeters are a walking space littered with parked mopeds and overflowing garbage cans. Parents keep a constant watch on their children, vigilantly poised to snatch them from the jaws of oncoming traffic at all times. On Yom Kippur in Israel, they say, what is for the rest of the world “an unattainable utopia” — a day without cars — is a coercion-free, consensus-based environmental achievement.

The traditional day of environmentalism, Tu Bishvat, they say, is old-fashioned: it celebrates the museum-like preservation of the wild. Yom Kippur is a celebration and solemn contemplation of man’s interaction with his environment.

The public space is changed. Not only is bird chatter part of the urban landscape but so, too, are the neighbors. Whether on roller skates or on their way to prayers, everyone is out on the streets.

“It’s a present of the religious community to the secular — a day that the social, environmental, spiritual, communal all naturally fuse together, where the meetings at synagogue and the meetings on street corners both offer an alternative to the usual pace of our lives, and remind us of that which is transcendent,” wrote Eilon Schwartz, the founding director of Shaharit, a think-and-do tank devoted to cultural and environmental sustainability in Israel, in an email.

Uniquely, no one is shopping. As opposed to ordinary Sabbaths, on which many stores are open — certainly in Tel Aviv — Yom Kippur, Mishori said, is “the only day of the year I leave my wallet at home.” For all Israelis, the tenth of the Hebrew month of Tishrei is a fast from consumerism.

For environmentalists it is also an opportunity for rare positive introspection. “Most of the time we are being told what we are doing wrong,” Mishori said of the frequent jeremiads regarding Western wastefulness and greenhouse gas consumption. “Yom Kippur, an amazing experience, allows us to look at the positive side of things.”

Mishori believes that the Israeli Yom Kippur, markedly different from that which was observed by Jews during the British mandate, is a crystallization of the Zionist notion. “This is the significance of a Jewish state. The opportunity to create and implement a new and authentic Jewish idea.”

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