Sunday, October 01, 2006

Israel shuts down for observance of Yom Kippur holy day

Israeli shops closed early, traffic disappeared from city streets and security officers sealed off the West Bank on Sunday as Israel began observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews across the world fast and pray for forgiveness for the sins they may have committed over the previous year. In Israel, the country effectively shuts down for the holy day, which lasts from sundown Sunday until Monday evening.

Security was stepped up for the holiday, with armed guards posted at synagogues and religious sites across the holy city of Jerusalem. Police sent additional officers to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, where thousands were expected to gather in prayer.

"There will be a police presence around all the holy sites, meaning synagogues as well as the mosques, in order to let all parties pray in a respectable manner," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

This year, Yom Kippur fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The army said border crossings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had been closed since Friday and would remain sealed until Tuesday morning to prevent possible attacks by Palestinian militants.

Most Israeli Jews - including secular Jews who do not strictly observe other holidays - do not eat or drink during the solemn holy day.

Israelis do not drive during Yom Kippur and normally bustling cities become ghost towns. TV and radio stations go off the air, planes at the airport are grounded, and shops and cafes are closed.

In the days leading up to the fast, Orthodox Jews performed the ritual of caparot, where a live chicken is swung over the penitent's head to absorb the person's sins, then slaughtered on the spot.


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