Why Two Days Rosh Hashana Worldwide?

It’s been a heavy week. On one hand, my regular workload. On the other hand, I came down with a bout of pneumonia. And that meant I’ve been going to sleep earlier every night to have the strength to cope with work the next day (I know that I should have stayed in bed, but…). And that meant no time for writing.

In order to keep up a continuous pace on my site, here’s something for the upcoming festival of Rosh Hashana about why we keep two days even in Israel:

Second Day Yom Tov

Two Days Rosh HashanaWhy do we observe two days Rosh Hashana worldwide both in Israel and abroad? Of course we first need to understand why is Yom Tov usually observed one day in Israel, but two days everywhere else in the world?

To quote the Jewfaq.org website on the Jewish Holidays (I really love that site; it has an awesome amount of clear and useful material for teaching the uninitiated, myself included):

The Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar is lunar, with each month beginning on the new moon. The new months used to be determined by observation. When the new moon was observed, the Sanhedrin declared the beginning of a new month and sent out messengers to tell people when the month began. People in distant communities could not always be notified of the new moon (and therefore, of the first day of the month), so they did not know the correct day to celebrate. They knew that the old month would be either 29 or 30 days, so if they didn’t get notice of the new moon, they celebrated holidays on both possible days.

1943–44_Jewish_calendar_for_the_Canadian_Armed_ForcesThis practice of celebrating an extra day was maintained as a custom even after we adopted a precise mathematical calendar, because it was the custom of our ancestors. This extra day is not celebrated by Israelis, regardless of whether they are in Israel at the time of the holiday, because it is not the custom of their ancestors, but it is celebrated by everybody else, even if they are visiting Israel at the time of the holiday.

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as two days everywhere (in Israel and outside Israel), because it occurs on the first day of a month. Messengers were not dispatched on the holiday, so even people in Israel did not know whether a new moon had been observed, and everybody celebrated two days. The practice was also maintained as a custom after the mathematical calendar was adopted.

Yom Kippur is celebrated only one day everywhere, because extending the holiday’s severe restrictions for a second day would cause an undue hardship.

This explains the Halachic reasoning behind the 2nd day of Yom Tov, but every technical Halachic ruling has a spiritual essence supporting the law.  Something to give us a deeper meaning to its observance beyond – “Just do it because that’s what it says in the book”. (Anyone drinking their 8th cup of wine or cramming the 2nd Afikomen, needs a bit of spiritual encouragement to get through 2nd Seder).

Compressed Spirituality

A beautiful answer is found in a remark made by Rabbi Menachem Recanati (one of the great Kabbalists of the 13th-14th century). He wrote that it is impossible outside the land of Israel to get as inspired by a particular festival as when one lives inside the land of Israel. Israel carries its own spirituality into any festival, and in one day one is able to carry out great spiritual achievements.

Outside Israel, however, where the spiritual environment is not conducive to this kind of spiritual state, one needs two days to meet the same goal. (See more at Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s website on “The Mystery of the Second Day Yom Tov“).

Which brings me to the question of: why is Rosh Hashonoh nevertheless observed two days even in the Land of Israel, if one can compress the Yom Tov spirit and inspiration into one day?

Nerve Center of the Year

Nerve Center of the YearRosh Hashana is like the Nerve Center of the Year. The Brain. “Rosh” in fact means “head” which holds the brain. It is the Day of Judgement for all of humanity. Jew and Gentile. The time when God decrees if we’ll all have a good year…or a better one. The time when our total income is  fixed for the coming twelve months and our health status is decreed. Even whether we will (hopefully) live to celebrate Rosh Hashana next year too. Therefor we are given 48 intensive hours to make a complete evaluation of the past year. Figure out what we did right and what we didn’t and then commit ourselves to a remake of our life (or at least as much as we can) and merit a better coming year.

That’s a lot to carry out in merely 48 hours. When a person goes  to court to be tried for a crime which has a year of incarceration in balance, they invest far more then 48 hours of preparation. Yet we have only two days to seal the deal. Of course God is not like a human judge. He knows us far better, even what we are thinking about every moment. He knows our inborn weaknesses and regrets. He also has Mercy. Real mercy, which you won’t find in any mundane court room. He doesn’t demand months of introspection (though the month of Elul is a great time for pre-trial preparation). He gives us two days and declares that the task can be completed successfully within this time.

Short and Sweet

As the late Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler“. I guess that 48 hours is the shortest and simplest time possible to completely revamp our lives. In Paris, London, Moscow or in the Holy city of Jerusalem.

So if you are traveling somewhere in the world and you’re in Shul on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana, you aren’t alone. In every Jewish community on the globe (taking in account time-zones) including the Kotel Hama’aravi, (the Western Wall), Jews are together in prayer, hoping for a good year. Not like the other festivals when Israels are back at work while the rest of the Jews are still observing Yom Tov.

I find this idea comforting. On the most critical two days of the year, we are all in it together. Hopefully, short and sweet.

Shana Tova and good luck!