The second day of Rosh Hashanah: To be (in shul) or not to be


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Steven Levine is matter-of-fact about his family’s upcoming plans for Rosh Hashanah.

At the dinner table with his wife, Leslie, everyone will share resolutions, round-robin style. He will take the day off from his job at the U.S. Olympic Committee and his three children won’t go to school in order to attend synagogue.

But only on the first day — it is no two-day holiday for this family.

“It’s all cost-benefit analysis,” says Levine, 45, a risk-management director from suburban Denver.

The local public school is still open on the Jewish New Year and vacation time is tight at work.

“With other obligations and commitments,” he says, “we do the best we can.”

“I suppose there’s a bit of a feeling of guilt for not doing more, but I’ve rationalized it that the second day is not significant.”

During her time as a congregational Reform rabbi, C. Michelle Greenberg had a different experience: She was not expected to lead synagogue services — if the synagogue even had services — on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Greenberg, 37, an educator now living in the San Francisco Bay area, says the second day often would become a chance for her “to celebrate as a participant” at another synagogue.

With its seemingly red-headed stepchild status outside the more traditional segments of the Jewish community, what is the significance of the second day of Rosh Hashanah, anyway?

When the ancient Israelites started celebrating the “head of the year” 2,000 years ago it was, in fact, a one-day holiday.  But with no convenient wall calendar to indicate the actual day to celebrate, they relied on trustworthy witnesses to report to the Sages at the Sanhedrin, or Supreme Court, a new moon sighting. Shortly thereafter a series of smoke signals would alert the scattered communities that it was time to start the holiday.

The ineffectiveness of this communication system was not lost on the Sages. They declared Rosh Hashanah a two-day holiday, or a “Yoma Arichta,” one long day of 48 hours, to ensure that Jews everywhere were celebrating at approximately the same time.  

Yet as Mark Leuchter, director of Jewish studies at Temple University, points out, despite “its root traditions, Rosh Hashanah has changed dramatically in 2,000 years,” and “we don’t do it the way our ancient forefathers did it.”

Nor is there any need for smoke signals today.

“The only part of the original recipe that we’ve retained” is the practice of observing the holiday for 48 hours, Leuchter says. “Now we do it not because we have to but because we used to. It ties us back to a hallowed antiquity.”

Menachem Schmidt, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Philadelphia, says beyond the historic reasons for observing two days, “There is also a spiritual reason for needing 48 hours for the holiday.”

Rosh Hashanah is a time when every individual affirms his own relationship with God, and “the second day is an equal part of that process,” Schmidt says. There is a new light in the world, he says, “and it takes two days to accomplish that.”

With the drop-off rate in synagogue attendance from the first to the second day at approximately 75 percent, Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid in Los Angeles says that, “As a rabbi, what to do on the second day of Rosh Hashanah is a fascinating question, and I look at it as very important to have different offerings” the first day and the second day.

On the first day, when he expects some 2,000 attendees — many not even belonging to the Conservative synagogue — the service has musical accompaniment and Jeret gives a longer sermon. On the second day, “it is shul-goers day,” he says, and the service reflects that.

“There’s no choir and no piano,” he says. “We take out the Torah and study text as a community. It’s a much more intimate service.”

Rabbi Charles Arian of the Conservative Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Conn., says he makes no secret of the fact that he would get rid of the second day on the Jewish festival holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot, which are tacked on to remind Diaspora Jews that they are not observing the holidays in the land of Israel.

But Rosh Hashanah, he says, “It really is different.”

One reason, Arian explains, is that it is the only Jewish holiday that is also a rosh chodesh, or a new month.  But, he adds, a “complete repeat of what you did [the day] before” is not necessary. He says wearing new clothes or eating a new fruit (like a pomegranate or an apple) also makes the second day of Rosh Hashanah different and meaningful.

For Ephraim “Fry” Wernick, 33, heading to Dallas to spend Rosh Hashanah with his family may not be different from years past, but it will be meaningful.

He says the first day of the holiday may seem more important, but the Washington-based lawyer will attend services at a nearby traditional synagogue on both days.

“Rosh Hashanah is a cleansing of the soul,” Wernick says. “I try to use the time for spiritual growth, reflecting on the year, righting the wrongs.”

And two days, he adds wryly, is just a start, adding that “I need as much time as God will give me.”


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