Days of Awe — awfully early

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

With 5774 set to commence the same week as Labor Day, many across the St. Louis area are noticing the distinctly early arrival of Rosh Hashanah this year.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon. Regardless of when the holidays fall out, everyone always says I can’t believe the holidays are almost upon us,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. “I think if Rosh Hashanah fell out in December people would say the same thing.”

That may be but the High Holidays are certainly on the early side this fall. Rosh Hashanah is set to get underway the evening of Sept. 4 with Yom Kippur arriving on Sept. 13. The season will conclude with Simchat Torah falling on Sept. 27.

Perhaps more interesting is that Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving, an unusual occurrence for a festival that normally arrives in December. The first night candles will actually be lit Wednesday, Nov. 27 — the night before Thanksgiving.

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“That means we’re going to be able to have turkey-flavored latkes for the first time in decades,” joked Smason. “A little cranberry sauce on a latke. That’ll be a taste sensation.”

The early arrivals are due to the nature of the Jewish calendar, which operates on a 19-year cycle. Seven of those years include a leap month to realign the 354-day lunar system with its 365-day solar counterpart. This is in contrast to the Islamic calendar, a purely lunar arrangement, which has no extra months and allows holidays to float freely in relation to the solar year.

But while the Jewish lunisolar methodology keeps the holidays in more or less the same general season, they do move to a degree and this year, the 16th of the cycle, is where they fall the earliest.

“That’s the math of it,” Smason said. “The sociology of it is that some like chocolate and some like vanilla. Some people love to have the holidays early because they feel it is free and clear sailing throughout a good deal of the early fall and some people – maybe the rabbis, maybe I can put myself into this category – say ‘Whoa, I didn’t even get a summer and now here I am preparing for the holidays with hardly any time to prepare sermons.’”

But Smason doesn’t think the early holidays will create many scheduling issues noting that people always seem to rush at the last minute to get things done, no matter what. He often sees the same phenomenon with preparations for Shabbat, whether it comes at the end of a long summer day or arrives with the early onset of a winter evening.

“It’s human nature,” he said. “We only start our preparations when we feel the imminence of the deadline is upon us.”

However, he does believe that this year’s combination of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving could create interesting possibilities for ways to link the two holidays together. Perhaps, more importantly, it will bring an opportunity for college students on Thanksgiving break to also enjoy the Festival of Lights with their families.

“I think people are going to be very creative in the way they are going to merge family time and the celebrations,” the rabbi said.

That’s certainly true for the Lang family of Olivette. Smason may be kidding about the turkey flavored latkes but Suzanne Epstein-Lang said she and husband David Lang will indeed have the potato pancakes and turkey on the table at the same time, one of several menu changes they’ll be making due to the Hanukkah-Thanksgiving combo.

“We’ll light our candles and eat our turkey at the same time,” she said.

The Olivette resident does worry a bit about how her daughters, Naomi, 8, and Annabelle, 6, will react since Hanukkah won’t fall near Christmas for the first time in their lives. That means they will see friends engaged in holiday activities while theirs are over.

“Other people are celebrating their holidays and they are not in on the action so we are kind of prepared to say, ‘Remember, you had a holiday, you got gifts, you did your tzedakah,’” she said. “I’m sure that that’s going to come up.”

Meanwhile, other family traditions near the High Holidays will be put off including shopping for winter dresses for the children and the family’s annual orchard visit around Rosh Hashanah.

“You can’t go apple-picking until the apples are ready,” said Epstein-Lang.

Elsewhere in the community, schedules are adjusting easily to the realities of the Jewish calendar this year. Still, at day schools, it can present some minor challenges. Rabbi Gabriel Munk, headmaster of Block Yeshiva High School, said teachers will have to work to get students settled in quickly amongst frequent holiday breaks.

“We only have 11 school days before October starting this week,” he said, adding that one scheduling concern has to do with an anatomy class. The for-credit class to be held in cooperation with the University of Missouri will still be offered at Block, but initial plans to advertise it more heavily were changed.

“We decided not to [promote it as strongly] because we didn’t know how to get people involved when we’re going to be off most of this month,” he said.

At Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, head of school Cheryl Maayan says more of an issue than the holidays coming early is the fact that so many fall on school days.

“It is a huge challenge this year because most of the month of September we don’t have any full five-day weeks,” she said. “With the children making the transition from summer to school, it becomes very choppy.”

But she said that the holidays are always welcome regardless of when they arrive. Maayan doesn’t expect any major scheduling impacts because of the High Holidays themselves but did note that Hanukkah’s placement may necessitate a change.

“That is actually a challenge because we normally have a Hanukkah family program on a Sunday and the Sunday of Hanukkah this year is actually over vacation so we won’t be able to have it,” she said. “People will be out of town. We’ll have to reschedule that.”

Meanwhile, at Congregation B’nai Amoona, Assistant Rabbi Ari Kaiman said he hasn’t heard much unusual from congregants about the impending arrival of Tishrei.

“I think there is a general ‘I can’t believe it is so early this year,’” he said, “but I don’t think anyone is particularly overwhelmed any more so than usual. The reality is that the High Holidays are always an overwhelming experience. That’s why they are so powerful.”