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What Do We Mean by 'Erev Rosh Hashanah?'

Seth Cohen sends an email from Mamaroneck, New York, accompanied by an Internet link to an English-language advertisement, run in Israel, for a communal “Erev Rosh Hashanah” dinner in Tel Aviv. And Mr. Cohen asks, “Is an expression like erev rosh ha-shanah in the sense of ‘Rosh Hashanah evening’ proper colloquial Israeli Hebrew or an Americanism?”

In traditional Hebrew, as Mr. Cohen points out, erev, “evening,” followed by the name of a day or holiday, always means the day before the designated day rather than the evening of it. Thus, erev shabbat means Friday, not Friday night; erev pesaḥ means the day preceding the Passover Seder, not the evening of the Seder, and erev rosh hashanah means the day before Rosh Hashanah. “Yet in American Jewish circles,” Mr. Cohen observes, “Friday night observances are regularly and incorrectly referred to as belonging to ‘Erev Shabbat’ — a custom that began, I believe, with the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah, which influenced several generations of future American Jewish leaders. Do Hebrew speakers in Israel do the same? Or do they correctly speak of leyl shabbat [“the night of the Sabbath”], leyl ha-seder [“the night of the Seder”], and so on?”

They actually do a bit of both. The night of the Seder is almost always called by Israelis leyl ha-seder, but aruḥat erev shabbat for the Friday night meal is common, as is aruḥat erev rosh ha-shanah. I very much doubt, though, that this has anything to do with an American Jewish influence. If only there were enough American Jews living in Israel to exert one!

One might say, to be sure, that a similar ambiguity exists in English, in which an expression like “Christmas Eve” can mean either the entire day before Christmas or just the night of the midnight mass. Yet the situation in English is different, because English speakers, like the speakers of most languages nowadays, date each new day from midnight, so that Christmas, which is December 25, begins at 12 p.m. of December 24. Traditionally, though, the Jewish day begins at sunset, so that this year, the evening of Wednesday, September 24, is already the start of Rosh Hashanah, which ends two days later, with sunset on September 26. This makes the erev of erev shabbat or erev rosh rashanah more ambiguous to speakers of Hebrew, especially to those not well versed in Jewish tradition.

Dating the start of each 24-hour day to sunset rather than to midnight or to sunrise goes back, of course, to the first chapter of the Bible, whose account of each of the seven days of Creation ends with, “And it was evening and it was morning, the first [or second, third, etc.] day.” When it comes to ordinary weekdays, however, Israelis follow the rest of the world in dating them from midnight: If you suggest meeting someone in Hebrew on yom shlishi ba’erev — literally, “Tuesday in the evening” — you’re talking about Tuesday evening, not about a Monday evening that is already part of Tuesday. There is confusion only when it comes to Sabbaths and holidays (secular ones, too), and only when erev precedes the name of the day. Erev yom ha-atzma’ut, for example, can mean either the day before Independence Day or the evening of Independence Day, when its ceremonies start. One has to judge by the context.

To an extent, there is a measure of confusion about days and nights even in rabbinic sources. For example, in the Gemara of Pesaḥim, which deals with the laws of Passover, there is a debate over whether the Hebrew word yom, “day,” as opposed to layla, “night,” refers to the period from one sunset to the next or only to the period from sunrise to sunset. The debate centers on the meaning of the word or in the Mishnaic dictum, “[With] Or on the fourteenth [day of the month of Nisan], one searches for ḥametz with a candle [to make sure one’s house has been cleaned of leavened food].” The common meaning of or, which is “light,” would indicate that the Mishnah intends us to conduct such a search at sunrise and to roast the paschal lamb before sunset; yet since the Bible says in the book of Numbers, “and on the fourteenth day of the first month [Nisan] is the Passover of the Lord,” would this not imply that this day begins at dawn?

The argument in the Gemara goes back and forth between different voices citing different biblical verses in support of their positions. Those maintaining that the search for ḥametz should begin not at sunrise but with the previous sunset point to the Aramaic word orta, meaning “evening,” and claim that evening, not light, is what the word or in the Mishnah means. Besides which, they add, there is light from the moon and stars in the nighttime, too. And why would you have to search with a candle in daylight?

All of which makes sense. Yet so does the opposite, and the rabbinical ruling, of course, is that we search for ḥametz on the morning of the 14th of Nisan. When it comes to Jewish holidays, things aren’t always as clear as day and night.

Have a happy 5775!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

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