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Israel shuts down for Yom Kippur

A Jewish man holds a child during morning prayers before the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site in Jerusalem's Old City, on Wednesday.Kevin Frayer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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

The somber holiday caps the "Days of Awe," a 10-day period of soul searching that began with the Jewish New Year.

The holidays, including the weeklong Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) later this month, provide a time-out from Israel's pressing problems — fallout from the global economic crisis, slow-moving peace talks with the Palestinians and political uncertainty. Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni is trying to put together a coalition government in coming weeks, but would be forced to call early elections if she fails.

Stores closed early and radios broadcast liturgical music leading up to the Day of Atonement, when tradition says divine judgment of Jews is sealed and their fate is decided for the coming year.

Observant Jews across the world fast and pray in synagogues as they seek forgiveness for past actions. Ahead of the holiday, religious Jews often ask acquaintances to forgive them for any offense they might have committed. Many gathered for prayers at the Western Wall.

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews participated in a ritual known as "kaparot," in which a person symbolically transfers his sins to a chicken, which is then slaughtered and eaten.

Day of fasting
Even though most Israelis aren't Orthodox, a majority fast on Yom Kippur. Sixty-three percent of Israeli Jews said they would fast, according to a survey by the Panals Institute. The poll surveyed 505 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. The poll also found that Israelis consider Yom Kippur to be the holiday that most unifies the nation, edging out Independence Day.

The holiday is the only day of the year when all Israeli radio and TV broadcasts go off the air.

Even the reality show "Big Brother" was forced to take a break. The Israeli edition halted its broadcast and built a makeshift synagogue on the set for a religious contestant.

For once, those inside the quarantined house will enjoy relative privacy, although — in keeping with the show's rules mandating total isolation from the world outside — they won't know it.

Business continues as usual in Arab towns, but shops and cafes in Jewish neighborhoods and towns are closed, planes are grounded, and all public transportation is halted.

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.

Security on alert
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there would be heightened security presence, with police presence in and around cities, particularly near synagogues and other public places.

Fearing attack by militants, the Israeli military imposed a closure on the West Bank until early Friday.

Yom Kippur ends at sundown Thursday, with the blowing of a shofar, or ram's horn, in synagogues.

This year's observances mark the 35th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, when the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel in 1973. Israel was caught off-guard and suffered heavy losses before rebounding and trouncing the Arab forces.