Rav Barry’s D’Var Torah

Shabbat Matot-Masei – July 22, 2017

Holiday Preparations, Ritual Customs and Yizkor

As I write this, it’s the middle of July, and yet in our Saturday morning prayers we are already beginning to see the liturgical approach of the High Holiday season. Normally the haftorah (selection from the prophets) that we read in the synagogue is connected thematically to whatever is going on in the Torah portion. Starting with parshat Pinchas, this year a disconnect crept into our haftorah selection: instead of reading something connected to Pinchas, we read the first of the “Three Haftorot of Admonition,” a series that reminds us of the sins and errors that led to the destruction of the Temple, marked by the observance of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, which this year falls on August 1 on the secular calendar.

To fully appreciate the meaning of the High Holidays takes preparation. Another change heralding the coming of the High Holidays is on August 22, when we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar. Elul is a month set aside for spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The rabbis encourage us to reflect on our deeds over the last year, especially the way we’ve treated other people, and seek ways to do teshuvah, to make amends, and to launch a program of spiritual self-improvement.

One tool I highly recommend is Rabbi Alan Lew’s (z”l) book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared (available on Amazon and other online outlets).” It’s far and away the best spiritual guide to the High Holidays I’ve ever seen. Other than the Torah, it’s the only book I re-read every year. The book is organized chronologically, going from the Tisha B’Av to Elul to Rosh Hashanah, etc. Reading the relevant chapter as we go through the holiday cycle is an excellent way to get into the “holiday spirit.”

With the coming holidays, you’ll notice a change in the way we are scheduling Yizkor. I met with the Ritual Committee this week, and was asked about the custom of observing a second day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora. Holidays that are only observed with holiday liturgy and restrictions for one day in Israel (the first and last days of Sukkot and Passover, and Shavuot) are traditionally observed for two days in the Diaspora. The question was raised, since we struggle to get a minyan for the second day of holidays, do we really need to maintain this custom?

This custom comes from a period of history when the calendar was not fixed ahead of time, but rather the new month began when an observer in Israel saw the new moon and testified to that effect before a beit din, a rabbinic court. Since the calendar has been fixed now for many centuries, we continue to observe it because it is the “custom of our ancestors.”

There are teshuvot (Jewish legal opinions) in the Conservative Movement that authorize congregations in the Diaspora to switch and follow the Israeli calendar (e.g., observe one day of festivals). In addition to the practical issues of many congregations struggling to make a minyan on the second day of festivals, and the fact that the calendar is fixed and we know what the proper date of the holidays are, this is seen as a statement of solidarity with the State of Israel.

Halachically, I approve of this change, but at the same time it’s not mandatory to make this change. So, the Ritual Committee wants to embark on a process to consider the idea and get input from the congregation on whether we should make this change or not.

In the meanwhile, we are going to implement one change, which is to observe Yizkor on the first day of festivals, not the second. It’s the custom in most congregations to observe Yizkor on the second day of the festival. This came about because people would attend on the first day (after all, it’s biblically the day that’s actually the festival!), so the rabbis wanted to encourage attendance on the second day. Unfortunately, in our day people aren’t as particular about attending on the first day, so moving Yizkor to the second day has the perverse effect of encouraging people to attend on a day that is not actually the festival in preference to the day that IS the festival.

This won’t result in an actual change until Passover. We normally recite Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret anyway (even though Simchat Torah is technically the second day of Shemini Atzeret). But when we get to Passover, we’ll recite Yizkor on the 7th day of Passover, the actual day of the Festival, and not the 8th day as we’ve done in the past.

B’vracha (with blessings),

Rav Barry