The Holiest Day of the Year: How IDF Soldiers Observe Yom Kippur

Tomorrow the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur begins, a day known as the most somber in the Jewish calendar. Also known as The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is marked by long but beautiful prayer services and a 25-hour fast. Jews of all denominations around the world will be observing the holiday, but that doesn’t mean the Israel Defense Forces will be letting its guard down.

Day-to-day work in the IDF comes to a halt on all holidays like Yom Kippur, but essential security work must be active 24/7 as a result of constant threats posed by Israel’s enemies. In 1973, Syria and Egypt abused the holiness of the day by attacking Israel while most of soldiers were fasting at home or in the Synagogue.

In 1973, IDF soldiers were called on to fight the invading armies on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

In 1973, IDF soldiers were called on to fight the invading armies on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

For IDF soldiers who are on duty, some of the laws of Yom Kippur are not possible or even dangerous to observe fully. The IDF Rabbinate Corps provides for the religious needs of all soldiers of all religions. The Rabbinate provides Jewish soldiers with guidance for how to observe the holiday in the best way possible, maintaining the delicate balance between a soldier’s obligations to national defense with his or her religious needs.

How soldiers on duty observe Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is well known for its 25-hour fast, but there are also a variety of other traditions and religious laws for the day. During the holiday, which starts this year at sundown on Friday, September 13, observant Jews do not wash, bathe, apply lotions or oils to the skin or wear leather shoes.

The Mikvah: Some soldiers observe the custom of immersing in a ritual bath before Yom Kippur. For soldiers who do not have access to a ritual bath, they fulfill the tradition by taking a three-minute shower, the equivalent of 12.5 liters of water.

Leather Shoes: All soldiers are exempt from wearing the leather IDF boots that are part of the standard uniform. Soldiers are entitled to wear their own personal shoes made from canvas, rubber, or in some cases, sandals. Soldiers who are in areas that require sturdy footwear, such as in fields with snakes or scorpions, are permitted to wear their leather boots until they are finished with the work that requires the leather boots. They may afterward switch back into non-leather shoes.

Prayer: Almost every base has a synagogue in one form or another. Before the holiday, the IDF Rabbinate ensures that every IDF base has enough of the special Yom Kippur prayer books. Cantors are sent to many bases around Israel in order to lead the intense prayer services.

IDF soldiers read torah in the field

When soldiers can’t get to a synagogue, the IDF brings the synagogue to them.

The Fast: Soldiers who are not on active duty are able to fast, but while on duty are allowed to have the equivalent of a capful of water and a tiny amount of food every nine minutes. The intervals are shortened depending on the intensity of the situation. Some soldiers are not able to fast at all due to their line of work. Refraining from food and water while on duty be dangerous for the soldier and for national security since it could distract from a soldier’s abilities.

Lieutenant Colonel Rabbi Malahi Ra’aved, head of the branch responsible for interpreting religious law, said that a soldier’s health and safety comes above all else. “We would not allow a pilot, for example, who will need to fly a plane during Yom Kippur, to fast at all. It would put his life in danger. Keeping our soldiers out of harm’s way is our most important concern.”

IDF soldier stands on duty

What’s new for Yom Kippur?

In the past, the recommended amount of water was described as the equivalent of a capful on an IDF-issued water canteen. Lt. Col. Ra’avad described how the IDF in recent years has been providing a popular Israeli popsicle that perfectly portion water out: individually-wrapped mini ice popsicles, called Shlukim (sips) in Hebrew. He says the Shlukim work well not only because of their easy portion control but because they also provide a small amount of sugar for soldiers who need it.

Lt. Col. Ra’avad also saw a complete revamp in the way holiday information is provided to soldiers. For years, the IDF has provided soldiers with materials to explain how to observe holidays while in the army. The old IDF Yom Kippur and holiday guides were big folders with heavy, complicated explanations accessible mostly to those who were already familiar with Jewish law. Nowadays, it has been transformed into a compact, pocket size booklet written in clear language that people from all backgrounds can understand.  The booklet has been digitized and is available at the IDF Rabbinate’s website.

Soldiers who have questions regarding observance of Yom Kippur while on duty have several options in the army. In addition to advice from their own personal rabbi, soldiers can speak with the rabbi of their base or call the Rabbinate Hotline (052-941-4414), a number where soldiers can get quick answers about observing Jewish law in the army.

Always prepared

Even the soldiers who go home for the holidays must still be prepared to be called back to base at a moment’s notice. Some soldiers keep their cell phones with them, even if for religious reasons they would not otherwise touch electronics during Yom Kippur.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Brigadier General (res.) Avraham Baram saw firsthand what happened to the holiday: “The very second the war broke out, Yom Kippur ended for us.” He said that whoever was at synagogue during the holiday did not find out about the war or emergency call-up until many hours later. “It would have been so different even if I had this plain phone,” Brig. Gen. (res) Baram said, pointing to the his smartphone. “Even just having GPS!”

Brigadier General Avraham Baram

Brig. Gen. Avraham Baram fought in the Yom Kippur War of 1973

He says as a result of the war, “quiet” radio stations were created and are still in use today by the religious public who would not be turning on their radio during Yom Kippur or most holidays. The radio station stays completely silent unless there is an emergency safety alert.

Through the careful application of Jewish law by the Rabbinate, soldiers can fulfill their duty to their country with the peace of mind that they are not relinquishing their faith. The IDF wishes you and all IDF soldiers an easy fast and a fulfilling Yom Kippur.