No Simcha? UN General Assembly trip to stymie PM’s celebration of Simchat Torah

Different Jewish calendars in Israel and in the Diaspora mean Bennett is set to miss the festivities marking the conclusion and restart of the annual Torah-reading cycle

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recites morning prayers at his hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recites morning prayers at his hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

A quirk of the Jewish calendar and the timing of his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York mean Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is set to miss out on the chance to celebrate the Simchat Torah holiday this year.

Bennett is taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport to New York City on Saturday night — his second official visit to the United States as prime minister — and will be speaking at the 76th UN General Assembly on Monday, September 27.

The holiday of Shemini Atzeret, during which observant Jews refrain from work and travel, begins on Monday night, which will keep Bennett in New York until Tuesday night.

But then things get a bit complicated.

In Israel, Shemini Atzeret — like nearly all holidays — lasts one day, and is additionally combined with the Simchat Torah holiday.

Simchat Torah marks the conclusion and beginning of the annual Torah-reading cycle, and features joyous dancing, unique prayers and customs around Torah reading, and often drinking and general hijinks.

Israelis dance with Torah scrolls during the festival of Simchat Torah, September 2010. (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Israelis dance with Torah scrolls during the festival of Simchat Torah, September 2010. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

However, outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret — like nearly all holidays — lasts for two days, and Simchat Torah falls on the second day, which begins on Tuesday night.

Since many Israelis briefly visiting foreign countries continue to follow the observance back home, the one-day Shemini Atzeret, which Israelis in Israel will celebrate in concert with Simchat Torah, will end for Bennett and the Israeli delegation at nightfall Tuesday evening. There will be little opportunity to mark Simchat Torah in New York on Monday night, since the synagogues there will only begin their celebration on Tuesday night.

The holiday having ended for Israelis, the prime minister will then head to the airport for his flight back, just as Simchat Torah merriment begins in New York and around the Jewish Diaspora.

Bennett, Israel’s first yarmulke-wearing prime minister, will violate no Jewish laws by this arrangement, but will simply miss out on the Simchat Torah, but not the Shemini Atzeret, holiday.

Illustrative: People gather at the General Assembly, prior to a vote, December 21, 2017, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

According to Massye Kestenbaum, a Jerusalem-based rabbi, someone in Bennett’s situation “would be obliged to publicly respect the local community’s observance of only Shemini Atzeret on Monday night, and therefore shouldn’t mark Simchat Torah in a way that would be noticeable to others.”

Still, Kestenbaum noted, given Bennett’s unique position and visibility, that decision is best made after consultations between the prime minister and his own rabbi.

The practice of marking two days outside of Israel initially developed out of a doubt as to when Jewish holidays would fall. When the two Jewish Temples stood in Jerusalem, the month would begin when witnesses reported seeing the new moon. The new month would be declared in Jerusalem, but messengers could not reach all Diaspora communities to tell them the precise date of that month’s holiday before it occurred. Diaspora communities observed both possible days in order to cope with this doubt around the timing of holidays.

“However, even now with a fixed calendar,” noted Kestenbaum, “the practice has become enshrined in rabbinic law as a safeguard for the future, and out of deference to the custom practiced over hundreds of years.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gives a Dvar Torah before Friday night Shabbat services in Washington DC, August 27, 2021 (screenshot)

During his August trip to the White House, Bennett was forced to remain in Washington, DC, over Shabbat after his meeting with US President Joe Biden was delayed because of a major suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport. He offered words of Torah and prayed at the impromptu Shabbat service at his hotel Friday night.

At the UN, Bennett will speak about Israel’s national security and regional issues, according to his office. His remarks will likely focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its support for armed proxy groups.

Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was known for making headlines with his speeches on the Iranian nuclear threat at the UN General Assembly, often using cardboard graphics and other props to get his point across.

The two-week event kicked off last Tuesday, and is markedly different from last year’s event, which was conducted mostly online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

United Nations General Assembly President-elect Volkan Bozkir in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020 (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Bennett will be one of at least 83 world leaders who plan on attending in person, according to Turkish diplomat Volkan Bozkir, president of last year’s gathering. Twenty-six leaders applied to speak remotely, Bozkir said earlier this month.

The General Debate, at which world leaders and other top officials will speak, begins on September 21.

According to a provisional list of speakers, Biden will speak on the morning of September 21, in America’s traditional slot as the second speaker of the General Debate.

Israel’s regional partners will also be represented, according to the provisional list. Egypt and Jordan will send their heads of state, while the foreign ministers of Israel’s new Gulf allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, will speak.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi are both sending prerecorded addresses to be broadcast at the event.

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