Rabbi Reflection: This Year’s Early “Festivals of the Eternal”

Prepare for autumn High Holy Days in summer this year

By Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

Are the High Holy Days going to be early or late this year? The answer is that they will be as they are every year. Rosh Hashanah is on 1 Tishrei, and Yom Kippur will be observed ten days later. But that is according to the Jewish calendar, and we tap out the rhythm of our lives on the secular calendar. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of Monday, September 6. Rosh Hashanah shares the date with Labor Day. Based on how we measure time, the holidays sure do seem super early.

Determining when holidays fall has long been a deep consideration for our people. Leviticus 23 tells us the precise dates upon which the holidays fall. “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘These are the Festivals of the Eternal that you shall declare as holy’” (23:2). Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot all find origins in this biblical chapter, coupled with basic instructions as to what is expected of us on these holidays. Entire volumes of Talmud and later legal codes are filled with guidelines as to how and when we are to observe particular holidays. The Jewish institutional world is organized around the calendar. We are event-based.

Given our obsession with dating and timing our holidays, the art and science of Jewish scheduling has not been without controversy. In I Kings, Jeroboam seems to have approved a deviation from calendar norms. In Talmudic and late Antiquity, sectarians adjusted for how they thought best to observe the festivals. In the 10th Century, the calendar was used to assert the political and religious power of one Jewish community over another. Babylonian rabbis challenged the authority of rabbis living in the Land of Israel, disputing the calculation of the Hebrew calendar. The dispute and severing that ensued marked the beginning of a new creative period in Jewish thought.

We still struggle to figure out when to observe particular holidays. Jews in Israel observe seven-day festivals, while in the Diaspora, we add in an additional day. The American Reform movement follows the Israeli calendar, and in many cases does not observe the extra days of chag. In our blended lives, we also wrestle with how to fit it all in: do our academic calendars match up with our Jewish calendar? What about our regular workflows and interrupting them for various holidays? What about summer plans and when Tisha b’Av falls? (July 18/19 this year)

If we are serious about making Judaism a part of our lives, answering such questions is part of the process. Moreover, prioritizing Jewish practice over other calendar conflicts testifies to the seriousness of our spiritual pursuits. This past year has given many the opportunity to recalibrate the many priorities that fill our days. Pandemic restrictions have transformed how we experience time. Days flow into one another.

This year, the holidays fall unbelievably early on the secular calendar. Let us come back into our communities, at the appointed times, with full hearts, ready to start this new year with joy and awe. The rabbis of Berkshire County look forward to seeing you over the holidays.

Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch serves the congregation of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.