Q. Why do they keep Rosh HaShanah for two days in Israel, although only one day is observed there on the other festivals?
A. In Israel, Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot are one-day festivals, but there are two days of Rosh HaShanah, despite the fact that the Torah calls it yom t’ruah – “a (i.e. one) day of blowing the shofar” (Num. 29:1). Recognising that the festival has been expanded, tradition calls it yoma arichta, “one long (i.e. 48-hour) day”.
The historical reason for the doubling up of Rosh HaShanah is that this is the only yom-tov that occurs on the first of a Hebrew month, and even in Israel, before the establishment of a fixed calendar, it was not always certain that the new moon had emerged until eye-witness testimony was brought, so a second day was a good safeguard.
A later rationalisation of the second day links Rosh HaShanah – yom ha-din, the day of Divine judgment – with the Talmudic rule that in law cases involving life and death, a Jewish court did not complete the proceedings in one day. By leaving the completion of the case to the next day there was the possibility of finding an argument in the accused’s favour overnight.
In our case, we are all on trial on Rosh HaShanah, and God is anxious not to comdemn us too summarily and allows more time for a favourable verdict to be earned. (This is why people should not give themselves a dispensation to ignore the second day and not attend the service.)
Theodore Friedman looks at the festival Torah readings and says that the first day on its own would give an unbalanced impression.
That day’s reading describes the birth of Isaac; its theme is joy, laughter and blessing. But joy is not all there is to life. The second day, when we read of the anguish of the binding of Isaac, tells us that life has its sombre side, its anxieties, tests and trials.
Life is a kaleidoscope. We go from one emotion to another, and back again. We need two days of Rosh HaShanah to recognise what life really is.