“The Longest Day”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

If you were asked, what day is the longest day of the year, you would most likely respond that it is on or about June 21st of each year. This day, known as the “Summer Solstice” in the Northern Hemisphere, is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. June 21st is thus the longest day of sunlight for the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day for locations South of the Equator.

But June 21st is not really the longest day of the year, it is merely the longest day of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. After all, every single day has exactly 24 hours.

So let’s start again. From a Jewish perspective, what day of the Jewish calendar is probably regarded as the longest day of the year? I think I hear a huge chorus saying: “Yom Kippur.” On the other hand, there are a few voices of dissent that I hear coming from up in the balcony saying: “It’s Tishah B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.” After all, the fast of Yom Kippur is usually over by 7:30 PM or 7:45 PM, while Tisha b’Av often doesn’t end until around 9:00 PM. But fast days are not really longer than the other days, only more arduous, making them seem longer.

There is another day in the Jewish calendar that scholars might argue is really the longest day of the year, and that is Rosh Hashana. In fact, in rabbinic literature, Rosh Hashana is known as Yoma Arikhta–one very long day. You see, the rabbis consider both days of Rosh Hashana as one single day, an extended day of 48+ hours.

It is well known that outside of Israel many Jews observe an extra day at the beginning and at the end of Passover and Sukkot. Shavuot, a one day holiday in Israel, also has an added day in the diaspora. These added days are known as Yom Tov shay’nee shel gah’loo’yot–the second festival day of the diaspora. Each of the added days is a separate day, possessing virtually equal sanctity to the preceding day. The reason for the second day of the diaspora is because in ancient times the new month was announced only after the new moon was sighted as it appeared over the horizon. Witnesses came to Jerusalem to testify that they had seen the new moon, and messengers were sent to the various communities in Israel to declare that Rosh Chodesh (the new moon festival) had commenced.

Since Passover and Sukkot are both observed on the 15th day of the Hebrew month, there was ample time to convey the message and inform the various communities living in Israel when to properly observe the festival. For residents outside of Israel, sometimes 15 days was not enough, so the rabbis added an extra day of observance for those living in the Diaspora, to cover both possible dates.

Since Rosh Hashana always occurs on the first day of Tishrei, two witnesses were required to testify that they saw the new moon. Unfortunately, if, on occasion, the witnesses were delayed, the Temple services were delayed as well. Because of this possible disruption, the rabbis declared that after a certain time of the day, the witnesses’ testimony would not be accepted, and Rosh Hashana was observed on the following day. Since the people had already begun observing the holiday on the first day, the rabbis declared that both the first and second day of Tishrei be observed as holidays. Eventually, in order to permanently avoid these complications, Rosh Hashana was established as a two day holiday, with the second day of Rosh Hashana regarded not as a separate day, but rather as an extension of the first, forming one very long day.

Beyond the logistical explanation for the added second day, there is also the spiritual explanation for the added day of Rosh Hashana.

I don’t believe that there is a person alive who hasn’t at one point, and probably at many points, in his or her life uttered a prayer for a little extra time. Time to finish an important examination, time to extend a vacation, time to be with a cherished friend, time to take care of all those things that we never get around to taking care of. Time, is surely the greatest gift.

Could it be that beyond the halachic issues that mandate a second day of Rosh Hashana, the Al-mighty is saying to us, “I am giving you more time. More time to consider your life, more time to consider your actions, more time to ask for forgiveness, more time to mend your relationship with others and with G-d, more time to spend in prayer at the synagogue, more time to cast your sins into the sea, more time to celebrate the miracle of creation, more time to rejoice with your family.”

Can there be any greater gift than the gift of time? What a wonderful gift G-d has so graciously given us for this New Year.

May this be a year of health and peace for all of humankind, and may we have time to enjoy G-d’s manifold blessings.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5767 begins on Friday evening, September 22nd and continues through Sunday evening, September 24, 2006.