Emphasizing the First Day; Reimagining the Second Day — A plan for our synagogue observance of the Jewish Holidays (High Holidays 5774)

September 12, 2013
By bethmordecai
no comments.

Emphasizing the First Day; Reimagining the Second Day — A plan for our synagogue observance of the Jewish Holidays (High Holidays 5774)

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

High Holidays Bulletin Article, 5774

Last Friday, for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we had a special and unique High Holiday experience that was not the normal, traditional service. The order of the service was different, there was no Torah service, and we had opportunities for discussion and some dancing, in addition to some other innovative methods used to enhance our Rosh Hashanah experience. Overall, the feedback has been that it was a fun and meaningful service. Yet the service would never have been possible if it were not for a combination of a unique quirk of the Jewish calendar and the unique customs in which we observe our holidays.

The unique quirk of the Jewish calendar is the existence of second, or “extra,” days of our major holidays[1] that are observed in the same way as the first in the diaspora. Unlike the first days of each holiday, the second days are not mentioned in the Torah.[2] Their historical existence is a result of a logistical solution to a problem in scheduling the holidays according to the lunar cycle. In ancient times, the only way to know the lunar cycle was to observe the moon with your own eyes.[3] Towards the end of a month, the moon would disappear signaling the approach of a new month. Each night people would look at the sky to see when the moon would re-appear thereby signaling the beginning of the next month. Once someone saw the moon, he would immediately rush to the Temple in Jerusalem to let the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) know that he saw the moon and thus the month should be officially declared. The Sanhedrin would wait for a second witness to verify the first witness’ account, and once their testimony was deemed sufficient they would send word out to the rest of the Jewish world that the new month had arrived. If no witnesses came to testify on the day that it was suspected the new month would begin, then word would be sent out the following day.

Getting the word out though was obviously more difficult than sending an email or a text. It took time for messengers to reach the various Jewish communities. Most likely, if you lived in the land of Israel, word of the new month from Jerusalem would reach you quickly so if it was a month in which you were commanded to celebrateSukkot or Passover beginning on the 14th day of the month, you would know the exact date of that 14th day.[4] However, if you lived outside the land of Israel, it is quite possible that the 14th day of the month would pass before word would reach you as to when exactly the month started. In this case, you would not know when to celebrate Sukkot and Passover.[5] Did the month start on the day it was suspected to begin, or did it start on the next day because there were no witnesses to testify that the new month arrived? This ambiguity is the historical reason why two days of each holiday are celebrated and observed in the diaspora in the same way, as opposed to communities in the land of Israel which only observe one day (since they would have known the exact day the month began).

Yet, wouldn’t this problem be resolved when the calendar was fixed in the 4thCentury CE[6] and all Jewish communities knew the correct date of each month? In fact there is a story in the Talmud Yerushalmi[7] about Rabbi Abahu, a rabbi from Israel who lived after the calendar was fixed. He came one year to the Alexandria Jewish community for Sukkot and when he went to schul on that first day he waved the lulav and etrog even though it was also Shabbat.[8] His reason for waving thelulav and etrog on that first day was that there was no longer a doubt as to the lunar cycle since the calendar was fixed (eyn safek d’yarha) and he wanted to fulfill the obligation to wave the lulav and etrog on the first day of the holiday, as according to the instructions in the Torah. However, two other rabbis of his generation who were also from Israel, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Yose, said that even though the calendar was fixed, Rabbi Abahu should not change the custom of the ancestors of that community (al tishnu minhag avoteikhem). As such, even though the historical reason for observing a second day of the holiday in the same way as the first was no longer relevant because the calendar was fixed, nonetheless the custom of the local community should not be changed if that is what they are used to.

This is when the unique customs in which we observe the holidays become important. Though there are notable exceptions,[9] much of the diaspora has continued to follow the “customs of our ancestors” in observing the second day of the holiday the same way as the first.  However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t easy. In our particular community the custom, at least when it comes to observing holidays in the synagogue, seems to be that we like celebrating one day together, but not two. As one member mentioned, “it’s like groundhog day, doing the same thing you did yesterday.”

The proof of this attitude is, as they say, in the pudding. Last year during Rosh Hashanah, our second day attendance was nearly 75% less than attendance on the first day, which is consistent with many congregations in America who have a significant drop off in attendance between the first and second days.[10] In addition, while attendance for other Jewish festivals (like Sukkot and Passover) at synagogue services are already low, asking people to come back for a second day is even a tougher sell. That’s why it seems that over the years our tradition has added unique innovations to the second day service in order to bring people toschul during those “extra” days, particularly in terms of moving the Yizkor service from the original days of the holidays (i.e. the 7th day of Passover and Shavuot) to the extra days of the holidays (i.e. the 8th day of Passover and the 2nd day ofShavuot). Yet, the unintended consequence of those innovations, for our community in particular, is that last year while we got a minyan for the extra day of the holiday in order to recite Yizkor, we did not get a minyan for the original day of the holiday that is prescribed by the Torah!

In my opinion, it is unacceptable to elevate the importance of a secondary holiday over a primary one. If we come to schul on Shavuot, a day centered on our acceptance of Torah,we should read the 10 commandments, not a portion that simply mentions the holiday[11] like we did last year.  We should worry more about making sure we have a minyan to perform the mitzvot of the holiday on the day prescribed by the Torah than on a day prescribed by a logistical solution to a problem that no longer exists! As such, we will be instituting a few changes to emphasize schul attendance on the first days of the holidays:

–          1st Day of Sukkot to Celebrate the Lulav and Etrog in Community(Thursday, September 12th 10 am – 1 pm) This will be our lone opportunity as a community to come together to joyously sing and celebrate the gift of lulav andetrog.

–          Combined Sh’mini Atzeret & Simhat Torah services (Thursday, September 19th – 9:30 am – 1 pm) Like it is done in Israel, we will dance with the Torah, finish the last chapters of the Torah (and start over again), recite Yizkor,and pray for rain on the first day of the holiday. It will be a full day, but it will also be very meaningful.

–          7th Day of Passover (Monday, April 21st 10 am – 12 pm) and 1st day of Shavuot (Wednesday, June 4th 10 am -12 pm) We will recite Yizkor on these days which are the days of the holiday prescribed in the Torah as opposed to normally reciting it on the extra days. That way we will make sure that we will be able to have a minyan on the correct day of the holiday.

While my hope is that these changes will emphasize synagogue participation on the first days of the holidays, I still think that “the custom of our ancestors” to have an extra day of our holidays while we live in the diaspora is important. These extra days are a birthright for Jews living in the diaspora; it seems that in addition to the historical reason for its implementation there is a sense that an extra holiday is “punishment” for living in the diaspora.[12] Yet, while I reject the notion that living in the diaspora should feel like a punishment, I think it is possible to affirm that it is difficult to be Jewish in the diaspora. Our secular culture can make it difficult for us to find time to be Jewish and if we’re not careful we can allow ourselves to fully assimilate into secular culture while leaving our Jewishness behind. As such, I think it takes a little extra work for us living in the diaspora to “fill our cup with Jewish wine,” so to speak, as opposed to Israel in which (for the most part) you can fill your cup simply by walking to the supermarket. I don’t think this extra work needs to be a burden, rather it can be an exciting supplement to the tradition we already have. What’s more, it can be a supplement that fits our needs as a congregation and as a community who are trying our best to be faithful Jews in the diaspora.

Part of the beauty of our unique High Holiday experience on the second day ofRosh Hashanah was that it did not come to replace our traditional synagogue observance of the holiday. On the contrary, it came to supplement our tradition. When we give our tradition the respect it deserves on the first day of the holiday, we give ourselves some freedom to be creative in how to make that extra day, one that is not required by the Torah, to tighten our Jewish connections and strengthen our Jewish identities. As such, and in the spirit of the motto of “Tradition and Change” that has been the hallmark of Conservative Judaism since its inception, we will be implementing some changes to make these extra days count:

–          Mission Lulav and Etrog (Friday September 20th – 10 am – 1 pm) A group of us will gather at the Temple to talk about, perform, and practice the mitzvah of waving lulav and etrog. At approximately 10:30 we will break out into cars and drive[13] to the homes of members of the congregation (who have signed up for the program) to help them perform the mitzvah of lulav and etrogIf you are interested in either being a part of the Mission Team to drive to people’s homes, or if you’d like for the Mission Team to come to your home, please email me at ari.saks@gmail.com

–          Rabbi’s Tisch: Dancing, Torah, Stories, & Schnapps (Thursday night, 6:30-7:30 pm) A short, hour long program (after work and after school) with opportunities to dance with the Torah, tell some stories (Moishe the Pippik  will be back!), share some inspirational Torah, and, of course, drink some schnapps. It’ll be fun for the whole family!

These are just some examples of how we’re going to both emphasize the first days of the holiday and re-imagine the second days. They’re experiments and while I believe they will be successful, your feedback is critical to knowing if we’re headed in the right direction and to helping your Jewish Home for the Soul be even more creative, more innovative, and more authentic in making Judaism relevant for our  community. So please, do not hesitate to contact me with your thoughts, comments, or questions, and may we all go from strength to strength!

Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) and G’mar Hatimah Tovah (May you be inscribed in the Book of Life),

Rabbi Ari Saks

[1] These include the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the second day of Sukkot, the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret (known as Simhat Torah), the second and eighth days of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot.

[2] Only the first days are mentioned as holidays in which m’lakhah (“creative activity”) is prohibited. See Numbers 28:16 (Passover Day 1); Numbers 28:25 (Passover Day 7); Numbers 28:26 (Shavuot Day 1); Numbers 29:1 (Rosh Hashanah Day 1); Numbers 29:12 (Sukkot Day 1); Numbers 29:35 (Sh’mini Atzeret Day 1).

[3] Many Muslim communities still require witnesses to report the new moon in order to determine the timing of Ramadan. Seehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/09/ramadan-start-date_n_3566129.html”.

[4] This is why there are two days of Rosh Hashanah even in Israel. Since Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first day of the month, there is no chance that word could reach other cities about the timing of the month before Rosh Hashanah would end. In addition, if no witnesses came, then Rosh Hashanah would be proclaimed for all communities on that second day of the month. It is quite possible that the observance throughout history of the second day of Rosh Hashanah in both the diaspora and in the land of Israel has contributed to a higher average of synagogue attendance on that day than on the second days of other holidays.

[5] The holidays of Sh’mini Atzeret and Shavuot are not scheduled for a specific date of the month, rather they are calculated according to their proximity to Sukkotand Passover respectively. Sh’mini Atzeret is on the “eighth day” of Sukkot(though the former is considered a different holiday than the latter) and Shavuot is at the end of the counting (omer) of seven weeks (49 days) after the first day of Passover.

[7] Eruvin 3:9

[8] According to the Torah, the command to wave the lulav and etrog is only for the first day of the holiday, but when it falls on Shabbat there is a strong custom not to wave them. This does not pose a problem in the diaspora which has a second day of the holiday that is observed like the first. Thus, when you are in the diaspora you can fulfill the obligation to wave the lulav and etrog on the second day of the holiday as if it was the first day of the holiday, while also observing the custom to not wave on Shabbat.

[9] Some Reform congregations in the 19th Century began to do away with observing the second day of the holidays and many Reform congregation continue that practice (of not observing the second day) today, along with a few Conservative congregations.

[10] An interesting side note: We nearly doubled our second day attendance with our Unique High Holiday Experience this year.

[11] Deuteronomy 15:19 – 16:17 is the Torah portion read on the second day ofShavuot and the second days of the other pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot and Passover because it mentions all three of those holidays.

[12] In explaining the reasoning behind the extra day of the holiday, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan quotes a passage from Ezekiel 20:25 which says “I also gave them laws that are not good” (Talmud Yerushalmi, 3:21). This seems to indicate that the extra day is not to a celebration but rather a burden to bear, a fact I can easily attest to from my own family’s experience of staying home from school and work while spending our days going to schul and having (too) many festive meals. This is especially the case this year and next when the two days of the holiday are immediately followed by Shabbat, thereby creating a 72 hour period of constant religious observance that can feel like cabin fever.

[13] On a personal note, this is one of the first times I will drive in a car on a holiday in which we are forbidden from engaging in “creative activity” (m’lakhah), which includes driving (or being a passenger in) a car. I feel comfortable trying this out because, as I mentioned before, the second days are not prescribed in the Torah like the first days and m’lakhah is only forbidden, according to halakhah(Jewish law), on those first days. At the same time, I still want to follow in the footsteps of the “custom of our ancestors” who celebrated the second days in the diaspora, and I believe that driving to people’s homes to help them fulfill the mitzvah of lulav and etrog fulfills that goal. There is much more that can be said on this topic and I plan on writing a full length t’shuvah (legal responsum) exploring our sources on this question of observing the second day of the holiday in the same way as the first. At this point though, I believe that by driving on the second day to help members fulfill the mitzvah of lulav and etrog,I am keeping the spirit of the holiday while also remaining within the bounds of halakhah.

Category : Bulletin Articles Passover Rabbi Rosh Hashanah Sh'mini Atzeret Shavuot Simhat Torah Sukkot Yom Kippur
Tag :