Image: Ultra-Orthodox Jew in Israel
David Silverman  /  Getty Images
An ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem leaves a ritual bath on Friday, hours before the start of Yom Kippur.
updated 9/22/2007 1:35:55 AM ET 2007-09-22T05:35:55

Israel came to a virtual standstill at sundown Friday as Jews across the country began observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day of their calendar.

Stores closed early and the airwaves were filled with liturgical Hebrew music leading up to the contemplative Day of Atonement, when tradition says divine judgment of Jews is sealed and their fate is decided for the coming year.

Jews across the world will fast and pray in synagogues as they seek forgiveness for their actions in the past year. Ahead of the holiday, religious Jews often ask their acquaintances to forgive them for any offense they might have committed.

Even though most Israelis aren’t Orthodox, most fast on Yom Kippur. The holiday is the only day of the year when all Israeli radio and TV broadcasts go off the air. While business continues as usual in Arab towns, shops and cafes in Jewish cities are closed, planes at the airport are grounded, and all public transportation is suspended.

With rare exceptions, cars disappear and the country’s roads and highways become eerily empty, used mainly by children on bicycles taking advantage of a rare opportunity to ride in the middle of the street. Because no one drives, pregnant women going into labor call ambulances to get to the hospital.

Fearing attacks by militants, the Israeli military clamped a closure on the West Bank on Friday for the duration of the holiday. The closure, which keeps Palestinians from entering Israel, blocked thousands of Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem for Friday prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Scuffles were reported at checkpoints around Jerusalem, but no serious violence.

Yom Kippur will end at sundown Saturday in each synagogue with a blast on the shofar, the traditional Jewish ram’s horn.

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