A bittersweet New Year (Daf Yomi Eruvin 39)

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“Whether Rosh HaShana is today or yesterday.”

Today’s Daf Yomi reading converged nicely with the approaching onset of Rosh Hashanah. I learned that because I grew up in the diaspora – i.e., New Jersey – I celebrated Rosh Hashanah for two days instead of one. In the time before there were calendars and clocks and a Greenwich Mean Time, there were travelers who went from town to town announcing that they had seen the new moon and the holiday could commence. This was an imperfect process, with the travelers becoming weary the longer distance they had to travel from Jerusalem. Although my family would joke that New Jersey was the center of the universe, during the time of the Talmud, it was Jerusalem. The further one lived from Jerusalem, the more uncertainly there was concerning the exact start of the holiday, and as a result, those of us who lived very far away, celebrated the holiday for two days just to be certain to get one of the days correct.

We are also told in today’s Daf Yomi reading that if there was uncertainly as to the length of the month of Elul, and if it was “declared to be an extended, thirty-day month,” Rosh Hashanah was observed for two days. In today’s discussion, we are not free from the seemingly endless analysis of eruvs, which in yesterday’s text included a lesson on Boolean logic. We are told that if the month of Elul is extended and the holiday is celebrated for two days, one might want to travel in two directions and establish two eruvs, one in the east on the first day and one in the west on the second, or visa versa. Or alternatively, he might want to travel on the first day and establish an eruv accordingly but stay home the next one.

Rabbi Yosei brings an interesting perspective to the debate about the two days of Rosh Hashanah and rejects the theory that the two days are observed out of doubt of the actual occurrence. He says that in fact, the two days should be “imbued with one unified sanctity” and as a result, “it is impossible to divide them.”  Although Rabbi Yosei offers a wonderful sanctuary from every-day life with the concept of two days that are melded together to become one sanctified occasion to step out of one’s life and think and pray and ponder one’s transgressions over the past year, I have dispensed of observing the holiday for two days; this is mostly because I usually need to get back to work.

Rosh Hashanah was always a special day for my family. We would dress up in new clothes, which could be a challenge if the weather did not behave and became too hot for our fall wardrobe. We would pile into the car feeling extra glossy in our new clothes and shoes and take our seats in the conservative synagogue that my extended family attended. To be perfectly honest about it, although my parents came from religious homes, they went to synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The kids sat down in their seats in the sanctuary for about ten minutes and then gravitated outside to hang out.

I had a secret. In essence, like the discussion of two eruvs, I had two spiritual homes on the holiday. The synagogue that I went to seemed dark and dreary with hours of syncopated chanting and a service entirely in Hebrew. But down the street was a reform synagogue that was more accessible to me, with a service mostly in English. I would walk there while my parents were praying in the sanctuary of our family synagogue and sit up in the balcony where there were seats. The temple had an organ and a choir and the sanctuary was filled with wonderful music. My grandparents thought it was blasphemous to have an organ in a synagogue and would have been horrified if they knew I had visited such a place.

It has taken most of my adult life to find a synagogue where I felt the way I did in that reform temple in my hometown. I joined a congregation last February for the first time in my adult life with the hope that I would have a place to go over the Jewish High Holidays. I found a synagogue that had a service that was full of joyful music and was a place where I could feel like home in my faith. And sadly, this year, I will literally be home with the services conducted online. I intend to get dressed up like I did when I went to synagogue all those years ago and sit at my computer and make the best of a life that is now mostly being lived through online screens. It is the best we can do these days in the wake of the pandemic, and as much as everyone points to the benefits of conducting services online, it is just not the same. To repeat “shanah tovah” feels a little bit empty this year.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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