Holiday practices change
Photo: Visual/Photos

Rosh Hashana – a holiday in transition

Rabbi Davidh Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo explains how Rosh Hashana, which for centuries has been celebrated for one day only, became a two-day fest after French rabbis forced indigenous Jews to change their practices

Rosh Hashana is currently celebrated throughout the world for two consecutive days, but has this always been the case? According to Rabbi Davidh Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo, the practice of celebrating the holiday for two days has undergone various fascinating changes throughout history that may still be relevant to Jews today.


For how many days was Rosh Hashana originally celebrated?


Rabbi Bar-Hayim: The Torah speaks of the Festival, known as “Zichron Tru’ah” (Leviticus 23:24) or “Yom Tru’ah” (Numbers 29:1), which falls on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) – ie a one-day affair, like all festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as the first and seventh days of Passover, the one day festival of Shavuot, etc.


The Jewish calendar is essentially a lunar calendar (albeit synchronized with the solar year). Seeing that a lunar month is 29.5 days, and seeing that one cannot count half-days, a month must be either 29 or 30 days in length.


The decision to include the 30th day in the preceding month, or to announce that the 30th day was in fact the 1st of the new month, was a major function of the Sanhedrin (the High Court of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel). As long as this was the case, it could not be known ahead of time which day would in fact become the 1st of the month (Rosh Hodesh).


The court informed the Jewish people of their decision by way of bonfires lit atop mountains or messengers. Communities that were informed well in advance, such as those of Eretz Yisrael, were able to keep the festivals on the appointed day. Communities further afield, however, such as the Jews of Babylon, did not receive word until later in the month; they were thus required to keep two days for every festival day prescribed by the Torah.


Thus in the Land of Israel all festivals were observed for one day. The first day of Passover, for example, was always the 15th of Nissan. In Babylon, however, the first day of the month being unclear, Passover was celebrated on either the 14th and 15th, or the 15th and 16th (this becoming clear only retroactively).


Rosh Hashana was the exception to the rule: it is the only festival which falls on the first of the month. Most Jews, within and without the Land, were required to observe two days, with the exception of the Jews living in relatively close proximity to the seat of the Sanhedrin who could be informed on the day the new month was announced.


So Rosh Hashana was always celebrated for two days even in Israel?


Initially yes, but then things changed with the advent of the fixed calendar in the second half of the 4th century. Doubt was a thing of the past; every Jew now knew the exact date of each festival. For reasons that we shall gloss over here, the Jewish world was henceforth divided into two: in the Land of Israel all festivals, including Rosh Hashana, were celebrated for one day; outside the Land, all festivals were two-day affairs.


This was the reality for over eight centuries. There is neither doubt nor argument regarding this point. Approximately 960 years ago Rav Nissim Gaon wrote to Rav Hai Gaon of Babylon as follows: “Why does our Master claim that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael must celebrate Rosh Hashana for two days? We see to this day that they keep only one day?”


In his response Rav Hai Gaon admits that this was, in fact, the reality, but expresses the opinion that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael are mistaken. It bears noting that this is by no means the only instance of the Torah authorities in Babylon taking a more hard-line and conservative approach than their counterparts in Eretz Yisrael.


The historical fact is that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael – whose practice was based on the opinion of the Torah authorities and the halachic traditions of the Jewish communities in the Land of Israel since the fixed calendar was instituted – took no notice of Rav Hai Gaon.


In Israel today Rosh Hashana is observed for two days. How, why and when did this transition take place?


The status quo remained in place until the 12th century. At that time there was an influx of great rabbis from Provence (the south of France) who simply imposed their halachic views on the indigenous Jewish populace, forcing them to deviate from their ancient traditions and practices. The communities of Eretz Yisrael – by this time small, weak, and lacking strong and courageous Torah leadership – were unable to resist the aggressive takeover.


That, in brief, is why the custom in Israel came to be as it is today.


What was the rationale behind this change?


The argument seems to be based on the following: as mentioned above, prior to the advent of the fixed calendar, most of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael observed two days of Rosh Hashana, with the exception of the Jews living in relatively close proximity to the seat of the Sanhedrin. In other words, within the Land of Israel, two realities existed side by side: those near the court celebrated one day, and those further away celebrated Rosh Hashana for two days.


The essential question, therefore, is this: what should have happened when the fixed calendar was introduced? Should all the Jews of Eretz Yisrael have acted like those who resided near the court, and keep one day, or should they behaved like those further away and kept two?


The historical reality, based on the decision of the rabbis of the Sanhedrin in Eretz Yisrael, was to observe one day only. (Clearly, the Jews of the Land of Israel received this tradition and halachic ruling from earlier generations, ultimately going back to the original Sanhedrin of Hillel the President in the 4th century).


Even if one can make a case for the opposing view, Maimonides teaches us (Shemittah Chap. 10) that when faced with two opinions both of which are tenable, the weight of tradition and the facts on the ground should prevail – and the fact on the ground, for eight centuries, was one day.


How is this relevant today?


The question needs to be asked: are the Jews of Eretz Yisrael today required to continue the present state of affairs, or can we aspire to the authentic and original Judaism of our forefathers who walked these hills and valleys before us?


Another question that might be raised concerns the dynamics of halachic change: should halachah be decided by the kind of strong-arm tactics employed by certain rabbis in the 12th century? Can such power-plays be considered a legitimate mechanism of Torah Judaism?


Some of the greatest medieval Torah authorities, such as Rabbi Zerahyah HaLevi and Rabbenu Ephraim, were unimpressed with the claim that all Jews must observe two days of Rosh Hashana. Both stressed the unchallenged reality in the Land of Israel from time immemorial. Rabbenu Nissim (‘Ran’) seems to have had similar leanings.


Isn’t observing two days “playing it safe”?


Some may feel that observing two days is preferable, taking the more stringent opinion and “playing it safe”. In my view this line of reasoning is mistaken:


  • Does it really make sense to observe Rosh Hashana on the 2nd of Tishrei – a day clearly not the “Yom Tru’ah” of the Torah which falls on the first of the month?

  • Keeping two days is, in fact, no safer than keeping one: what of praying festive prayers on a weekday? Not wearing tephillin (phylacteries)? Of reciting Kiddush when no Kiddush is called for?


With a fixed calendar in place for over 1,600 years, is it not perhaps time to rethink this issue? I believe, following in Maimonides’ footsteps, that it is possible to reconstitute a Sanhedrin today. The rabbinical establishment chooses to ignore this pressing issue of re-establishing the High Court of Torah Law – is this a case of “can’t” or “won’t”?


I feel that it is high time that knowledgable and courageous Torah scholars convene to discuss these and related issues.


Rav Davidh Bar-Hayim is the head of Machon Shilo, which seeks to revivify Jewish practice as it was practiced in Eretz Yisrael


פרסום ראשון: 09.12.07, 08:40
 new comment
This will delete your current comment