Last week, Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, the Conservative synagogue in Springfield, celebrated the Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah holidays on a single day, rather than on two consecutive days as is normally the case in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues outside Israel.
Israel and the Diaspora have different customs for celebrating the three major pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In Israel, Passover and Sukkot begin and end with one-day “yom tovim,” or holy days, and Shavuot is celebrated for one day. Outside Israel, and with the general exception of most Reform synagogues, Passover is marked with two-day holy days at the beginning and end, Sukkot ends with the two days of Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, and Shavuot is observed for two days.
JTA spoke to Rabbi Mark Mallach, the senior rabbi at TBAY, about why he sought to implement the change.
JTA: What motivated you to combine the celebration of the two holidays into one?
Mallach: I’m looking to encourage more solidarity with us and our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel. Israel follows a liturgical calendar that is based upon the Torah and does not contain what is called the rabbinically ordained doubling of the first and last days of the three pilgrimage festivals. And my way of explaining this to the congregation is to draw us closer to the practices of the Land of Israel, to encourage solidarity and an understanding of how Jewish history has changed.
JTA: Why do Israel and the Diaspora observe these holidays differently?
Mallach: From my research, it was really a very political thing. After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era by the Romans, more and more of the Jewish population were exiled to Babylonia. Meanwhile, back in Israel, those who had fled Jerusalem went to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, and they established a rabbinic community, and there they wrote what is known as the Palestinian Talmud. But as the power of the rabbis in Tiberias began to weaken, there were conflicts. One of the last things they tried to do to maintain the power of the rabbis in Tiberias was to say: Even though we can calculate the calendar, you still must — because you live outside of Israel — observe the extra days of the three pilgrimage festivals.
JTA: Wait, I thought the extra days were added because it was impossible for ancient Jewish communities to know exactly which day was the holiday, so they observed two days just in case.
Mallach: There is no disagreement that that is the origin. But understand that even early in the Common Era, the ability to do a calendar multiple years in advance was already well established. The idea that we wouldn’t want to make a mistake was no longer valid back then, and that’s even more the case in the modern day.
JTA: Some people feel that observing one day is more convenient, and that synagogue attendance will be higher if holidays are only one day.
Mallach: Well, I’ve heard that. With busy schedules, the current generation is less likely to take time off from work. That is a legitimate statement which you hear, but that’s not the motivation behind our decision to follow the Israeli calendar.
JTA: Have there been any concerns about the change?
Mallach: The main concern is that it does get confusing to people — What day is which? It does take a lot of notification and reminders, and there are also those who take a more conservative point of view —with a small “c” — and they don’t think we should change these things. It’s not wholly accepted, I’ll be very frank. Nor do the majority of my colleagues accept it, mainly because it is very complicated to try and make these adjustments.
JTA: Do you think this is going to be a trend? Will other Conservative synagogues follow suit?
Mallach: That’s hard to say. It’s very complicated and people are very fixed in their ways. Any change takes slow, deliberate motions. I know one time, about 10 years ago, the Jewish Center of Princeton did this, but after about four or five years they had to abandon it as it was causing too many issues and complications. I’m doing it experimentally in slower steps. I don’t know what we will do next year yet.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)