Mishnah Day
Subscribe | Donate December 21, 2010 | 14 Tevet 5771 | Week 371, Day 2

The Jewish Calendar—And Reform Options-Part Two
Rabbi Richard Sarason

In the modern Reform movement, the question of whether it was necessary or desirable to observe the second day of the festivals—since their rationale was perceived to be artificial and outdated--was taken up in Germany in the 1840’s.1 As early as 1846, the Reform rabbis in the German states assembled in conference in Breslau declared that the Diaspora second-day observance of the festivals “have lost their meaning for our time. Congregations are therefore fully justified in abolishing the second-day holidays if they are inclined to do so” (cited in CCAR Yearbook 1 [1890], p. 96). North American Reform congregations routinely opted not to observe the second festival day. The second day of Rosh Hashanah, on the other hand, was observed in most German Reform congregations and in some North American Reform congregations as well. But it was not observed in the Union Prayer Book (vol. 2) of 1894 or its significant predecessors (Leo Merzbacher’s prayer book [1855] for Temple Emanuel in New York, David Einhorn’s Olat Tamid [1858]), or Isaac Mayer Wise’s Minhag America (vol. 2; 1866). On the other hand, the more recent Gates of Repentance (1978) provides two sets of services for Rosh Hashanah, allowing for the possibility of a second-day observance.

The decision of virtually all Reform congregations not to observe the diasporan second day of the festivals (including the eighth day of Pesach and Simchat Torah as the second day of Shemini Atseret)2 leads to some interesting complications for the weekly cycle of Torah readings when the traditional eighth day of Pesach or the second day of Shavuot fall on a Shabbat. Traditional congregations on these days read special Torah portions for these festivals. Reform congregations, on the other hand, resume the regular Torah-reading cycle of the year (usually Parashat Shemini after Pesach and Parashat Naso after Shavuot). In this, they concur with all congregations in the land of Israel. If the decision is made to simply conform the weekly Torah reading schedule at this point to the schedule used in Israel, it will diverge from the diasporan reading schedule for anywhere between six and fifteen weeks, depending on the length and type of the year.3 That is why the calendar published each year by the Women of Reform Judaism has opted in these cases to split the first parashah after the holiday into two halves and to distribute them over two weeks: during the second week, the reading is back in sync with the diasporan Torah reading cycle.4

A similar decision needs to be made by Reform congregations regarding the observance of Rosh Chodesh during those months that have 30 days. Traditionally in these circumstances, both the 30th day of the month and the first day of the next month are observed as Rosh Chodesh, since there is doubt as to when the actual new month begins. Some Reform congregations decide to observe only a single day of Rosh Chodesh, namely the first day of the new month (so that, ironically, it is the traditional second day that is observed). This has additional liturgical consequences with regard to the Shabbat Haftarah that might be read on the day before Rosh Chodesh (Machar Chodesh, 1 Sam. 20:18-42) or on the day of Rosh Chodesh itself when it falls on Shabbat (Isaiah 66:1-13, 23): if the 30th day of the month is not observed as Rosh Chodesh, then, if it falls out on Shabbat, one would read Machar Chodesh instead of the reading for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh. If the 30th day of the month falls on a Sunday, one would not read Machar Chodesh. (Some Reform congregations choose not to read either of these Haftarot in any case, but simply read the regular weekly Haftarah.) Any of these decisions can be validly grounded. As we consider these issues, we should not wonder that calendar has so often been a source and a marker of sectarian/social divisions in Jewish history.

Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.

1. The earliest German Reform congregational prayer books (from the Hamburg Tempelverein, 1819; rev. 1841) retained the second-day festival observance.

2. Although it is increasingly common for Reform Jews and Reform congregations to observe the second Seder during Pesach.

3. For a full account of this issue, see Arthur Spier, The Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar, third revised edition (New York: Philip Feldheim, 1986), 12.

4. For a full discussion of this issue (including different opinions on how to resolve it), see the exchange between Rabbi Eric Wisnia and myself on Eilu v’eilu, August 7 and August 14, 2006.

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