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Why I keep 2 days of Rosh Hashanah, even in Israel (a dvar Torah)


One of the main differences between Rosh Hashanah and other Yamim Tovim is that we keep 2 days, even in eretz Yisrael. And I think many of us realize this is connected to another difference between Rosh Hashanah and other Yamim Tovim, which is the problem with the bracha shehechiyanu on the second day.

On the second day of most chagim, when we lived outside of Israel, we made the bracha shehechiyanu at night on the second day without a problem, because each day is considered a separate Yom Tov.

But on Rosh Hashanah, we’re told to wear a new piece of clothing or have in mind a new kind of fruit when we make the bracha (though you should still do it even if you don’t have something new). The reason for this is that Rosh Hashanah is considered “yoma arichta,” one single very long day – a day that lasts more than 48 hours. So the second day creates a safek and we add the new item to sidestep any possible safek.

So far, so good. But like I said… we’ve been here 5 years now: 5 years of one-day Sukkot, one-day Shmini Atzeret, one-day Pesach, one-day Shavuot. And yet we’re still keeping 2 days of Rosh Hashanah.

So the biggest question here seems like it shouldn’t be what we keep in mind when we light, but why we’re lighting again at all. Why is Rosh Hashanah 2 days even in Israel???

Most of us already know the reason for two-day chagim in general: Long ago, it took a long time for the eidim to the new moon to travel and inform the Sanhedrin. Once the date was established, they would light torches on hilltops (no internet yet!) all the way east to Bavel. But there were problems with this system, including a rebel group interfering with the fires, so they started sending messengers instead… but communities farther away started keeping two days for chagim just in case.

This situation of doubt as to when the dates were outside of eretz Yisrael, is called Yom Tov sheinu shel galuyot – the second day in the Diaspora.

But some time around the third to fourth century, we switched to a fixed calendar that was calculated based on astronomy and established the dates of chagim months and often years in advance. There was never any doubt anymore.

Nevertheless, communities outside Eretz Yisrael continued to observe two days for two main reasons: minhag avot, the idea that there’s value in maintaining our community’s practice even if we don’t have to, and kilkul, the fear that the situation of doubt might arise again, like if somebody tried to fool us as to the date.

This, by the way, led to further discussion about Shavuot, because the date of Shavuot isn’t determined by Rosh Chodesh and the moon sighting anyway, but is counted from Pesach. It seems possible to know with certainty, nine weeks after the fact, when Rosh Chodesh Nissan actually took place – even if you’re all the way off in Bavel. Nevertheless, one explanation is that Chazal didn’t want to distinguish between the chagim so they left this one as 2 days as well.

But we still have the question of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is different from other Yamim Tovim. It comes at the beginning of the month, right when the new moon is sighted. The gemara says in Beitza, “… the observance of two days of Rosh HaShana did not stem from uncertainty in the Diaspora as to when the Festival began. Rather, the Sages instituted that the two days of Rosh HaShana are one unit due to the inherent difficulty in determining the date of a Festival that is celebrated on the first of the month. (Beitza 5a)”

So in fact, even in the time of the Sanhedrin, it was impossible to notify everyone, even in eretz Yisrael, so they created a takana that it should be two days just to always stay on the safe side.

Actually, there is some controversy as to when this takana was created, and according to Rabbi Yehuda Spitz at the Ohr Somayach website, the Talmud Yerushalmi attributes it to the time of the Nevi’im Rishonim, maybe even Yehoshua, making the second day of Rosh Hashanah “as binding as if it were given at Har Sinai” even for residents of Eretz Yisrael, and even for residents of Yerushalayim itself.

This is the key to understanding why we still keep two days, even with the fixed calendar, even in Eretz Yisrael. The reason for a 2-day Rosh Hashanah is not the same reason as the other 2-day Yamim Tovim, and never was. In fact, the reasoning for a 2-day Rosh Hashanah is stronger than for 2-day Yom Tov – it was created by an explicit takana rather than through the safek.

(For this reason, there are also some things that we’re more lenient about on the second day of Yom Tov that we have to be machmir about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. – Example, choleh she’eyn bo sakana, you may do something assur d’rabanan on 2nd day Yom Tov but not 2nd day Yom Tov, or burials, ch”v.)

The outcome of all of this is very simple: there is no “second day” of Rosh Hashanah. In reality, there are only two “first days” – or as we usually say “yoma arichta,” one long first day of chag.

Interestingly, although rov poskim dismiss the idea of a 2-day YK, in fact, some “Chasidim and anshei maasei” would keep 2 days of YK, according to the Tur. Also, when the Mir yeshiva was in Japan and China during WWII, they kept 2 days YK due to a safek with the intl date line.

Anyway, because of all this, you might think it’s always been pretty clear – two days is two days, here and everywhere. But in fact, at various times in history, the widespread minhag in Eretz Yisrael, regardless of what the gemara and early sources say, was to keep one day, and there is very good support for this view. It wasn’t until Europeans started coming in the 12th century that two days became more widespread.

So, relative to our entire history, it’s a pretty new thing that we are all in agreement. And of course, what with this information being publicly available, there are some people who are not in agreement, and who believe that this, like the Ashkenazi minhag of kitniyot on Pesach, is an illogical and even foolish minhag that ought to be stopped.

This is what the Reform movement has been saying for over 100 years, and lots of people, even people who otherwise care about halacha, who have fallen for it.

This was where my DT originally ended. I got to the end, I understood the idea… but then what? What could I say? Obviously, I am seriously committed to a 2-day Rosh Hashanah, just as I was seriously committed to keeping 2-day Yom Tov right up until we moved to Israel.

And though I’m certain I’m doing the right thing, I’m a modern person and find doubt unsatisfying, troubling on a deep level. Plus, I love Google as much as the next person. Maybe more. So I went a little deeper, looking for “reasons” even though I know the reasons.

Which is how I found the amazing idea, from Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (who blogs at the Times of Israel site), that perhaps what we’re doing by keeping this very strange second day, is celebrating doubt itself. With this radical idea, he offers not some dull source, but a poem, which always makes me happy, and when I saw that it was by Yehuda Amichai, though I don’t always agree with him, that made me even happier.

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

הַמָּקוֹם שֶׁבּוֹ אָנוּ צוֹדְקִים

מִן הַמָּקוֹם שֶׁבּוֹ אָנוּ צוֹדְקִים

לֹא יִצְמְחוּ לְעוֹלָם

פְּרָחִים בָּאָבִיב

הַמָּקוֹם שֶׁבּוֹ אָנוּ צוֹדְקִים

הוּא רָמוּס וְקָשֶׁה

כְּמוֹ חָצֵר

אֲבָל סְפֵקוֹת וְאַהֲבוֹת עוֹשִׂים

אֶת הָעוֹלָם לְתָחוּחַ

כְּמוֹ חֲפַרְפֶּרֶת, כְּמוֹ חָרִישׁ

וּלְחִישָׁה תִּשָּׁמַע בַּמָּקוֹם

שֶׁבּוֹ הָיָה הַבַּיִת

אֲשֶׁר נֶחְרַב

One of the things I love about Judaism, one of the things that sets us aside from many other religious people in the world, is the room this religion makes for doubt. A lot of religions don’t. I read a lot of memoirs of people who have left one religion or another, and one of the big reasons is always that they realized that people who claimed to know everything, to have certainty, didn’t actually know all that much after all.

Yes, in Judaism belief is definitely important, but one reason we emphasize action so much is that an action is something you can do even while you doubt. Even when you’re not certain. At Shavuot, we talk about the concept of naaseh v’nishma – we can act before we understand and still consider ourselves “good Jews.”

Like Yehuda Amichai seems to be saying here, certainty is, to some extent, the death of creativity, the death of originality, the death of growth and change. It’s an interesting thing to have in mind: on the first day of Yom Tov, we can celebrate absolute faith in Torah mi’Sinai, faith in our leaders who fixed the calendar with wisdom, faith in all of those who handed us this incredible Jewish legacy, whether that was parents or teachers or mentors.

And then, the second day, we shuffle over and make a little room for doubt. We say “eilu v’eilu,” these and these are the words of the living G-d. “What if…?” I like to believe nobody will ever kick you out of this religion for asking questions. For being uncertain.

This seems particularly important on Rosh Hashanah. When we doubt on Rosh Hashanah, we say, “Hashem, I’m telling you I’ve changed but I’m not sure I’ve changed. Help me change, but if I mess up, you may need to help me more than once, because change is hard. I don’t know if I can do it.” We’re putting our lives in Hashem’s hands, because Hashem is the only one with true certainty.

When Yaakov is about to face Eisav, he davens, קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:- “I’m too small for your mercies, for all the truth You have shown me.”

There’s a very old joke: on Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi of a shul kneels down, puts his forehead to the floor and says, “Before you, Hashem, I am nothing."

The chazzan looks at him and, thinking it couldn't hurt, kneels, putting his forehead to the floor, and sings aloud, "Before you, Hashem, I am nothing."

Well, the janitor in the back of the shul is watching this and thinks it seems like a pretty good idea, so he, too, steps out into the middle of the aisle, kneels down, puts his forehead to the floor, and cries out, "Before you, Hashem, I’m nothing!"

“Nu,” says the rabbi to the chazzan. "Look who thinks he's nothing!"

It’s a cute joke, but the janitor is right, of course – on Rosh Hashanah, we’re all supposed to be nothing.

We have two ways of approaching Hashem on Rosh Hashanah, and they’re both right and they’re both valid. The way of the first day – strong, capable, resolved. We say “uvchen ten kavod,” and even more chutzpadik,” uvchen tzaddikim,” like we know that we’re going to be included in that esteemed group.

But then there’s today’s way, the spirit of smallness, doubt, and uncertainty, we approach Hashem as the shaliach tzibbur does, saying, “hineni heani mima’as,” I am literally standing here empty of deeds. My pockets are empty, my pride is gone, and I’m stripped and humble before you.

Amichai wrote, The place where we are right / is hard and trampled / like a yard.

But doubts and loves can rebuild even the most ruined of houses.

May the tefillot, the confident prayers, the doubting prayers, the confident tekiyot and the hesitant, broken teruot of am Yisrael, all of it together storm the gates of heaven and rebuild the shattered Beit Hamikdash today or tomorrow or someday very soon.

“Fog of uncertainty” photo credit © Thomas Leuthard via Flickr

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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