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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Do-It-Yourself Judaism


Rosh Hashanah 30

The New York Jewish Week recently ran a great piece entitled On-Demand Judaism: Observing when it’s convenient.   The author recounts the time he asked his law partner where he would be celebrating the Passover seder that evening.
“Oh, my family had it last Saturday night.  It was the best time for us to get together,” was the response.

Does that make any sense?  If they’re not going to bother getting the date right for the holiday, are they wasting their time and energy on naarishkayt (nonsense)?

In ancient times, the monthly calendar was determined according to the sighting of the new moon.  The lunar cycle is approximately 29.5 days and so a month consists of either 29 or 30 days.  If the witnesses appeared on the day after the 29th, that day became the 1st of the new month and hence the previous month had 29 days.  If not, then inevitably, the next day became the 1st of the new month and that day was the 30th of the old month.

Generally, it wouldn’t make any difference when during the day the witnesses arrived.  Whenever they showed up, the 30th would be transformed to the 1st of the new month.  One month, however, was more complicated.  On the 1st Tishrei, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and so if the witnesses only arrived late in the day, the Temple service would be jumbled:  If today is Rosh Chodesh (the first of the new month), then today is also Rosh Hashanah and we have not performed the correct service and sung the right song of the day in the Temple!

The Mishnah states: “Originally, they would accept testimony concerning the sighting of the new moon the entire day [of the 1st Tishrei].  One time, the witnesses tarried in their arrival and the Levites erred in their song of the day.  The rabbis henceforth instituted that witnesses would only be accepted until the time of the afternoon offerings.”

The Gemara asks: What was the error made by the Levites?

In Babylonia, the rabbis explained that the Levites would not sing any song that day.  On the one hand, they figured that the witnesses might arrive and so they didn’t want to sing the song of the weekday.   On the other hand, sans witnesses, they couldn’t sing the song of the Rosh Hashanah festival.  Therefore, they didn’t sing any song at all.

Rabbi Zaira demurs.  He suggests that they did in fact sing the song of the weekday.  He teaches a Beraisa to his son, Love, as proof of his position.  The Beraisa states: “The rabbis instituted that they would not accept testimony of the new month unless there was enough time left in the day to offer the various sacrifices of Rosh Hashanah and to chant the song without a bungle.” 

Asks Rabbi Zaira, “It makes sense if you say that they sang the weekday song, hence they bungled.  But if you say that they wouldn’t sing anything, then what was the bungle?”

The Talmud answers: “There is no greater bungle than not singing anything at all.”

While it’s certainly far from ideal to be celebrating Passover a week early, at least these people are still celebrating Passover!  They might be ‘singing to their own tune,’ but at least they’re still singing.  Just think of all our brothers and sisters who are not celebrating at all!

All too often, we are quick to pass judgment on those who aren’t doing their Judaism quite right.  We look at them with disdain and wonder whether they should even bother with their convoluted version of our tradition.  But some form of singing is always better than no singing at all.  At least they’re engaged with their Judaism.   With G-d’s help, one day, they or their children might be inspired to ‘sing the right song.’


Never be quick to judge anyone for how they engage with our heritage.  As long as they feel engaged, you can engage with them and begin the conversation of how the right song sounds.  Once our brothers and sisters are no longer singing at all, it is much harder to reach out to them – sadly they no longer remember how music even sounds. . .