United Nations General Assembly trip to thwart Prime Minister’s celebration of Simhat Torah
A quirk of the Jewish calendar and the timing of his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York means Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is set to miss the opportunity to celebrate the feast of Simhat Torah this year .
Bennett takes off from Ben Gurion International Airport in New York on Saturday night – his ssecond official visit to the United States as Prime Minister – and will speak at the 76th United Nations General Assembly on Monday, September 27.
Shemini Atzeret’s feast, during which observant Jews refrain from work and travel, begins Monday evening, which will keep Bennett in New York City until Tuesday evening.
But then things get a bit more complicated.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret – like almost all festivals – lasts one day and is further combined with the feast of Simhat Torah.
Simhat Torah marks the conclusion and beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle, and features joyful dances, prayers, and unique customs around Torah reading, and often drink and general hijinks.
However, outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret – like almost all holidays – lasts for two days, and Simhat Torah falls on the second day, which begins on Tuesday evening.
As many Israelis briefly visiting foreign countries continue to follow the celebration at home, the one-day Chemini Atzeret, which Israelis in Israel will celebrate in concert with Simchat Torah, will end for Bennett and the Israeli delegation to the nightfall Tuesday evening. There will be few opportunities to celebrate Simhat Torah in New York on Monday evening, as synagogues will not begin their celebration until Tuesday evening.
With the holidays over for the Israelis, the prime minister will then head to the airport for his return flight, just as the mirth of Simchat Torah begins in New York City and around the Jewish diaspora.
Bennett, the first Israeli prime minister wearing the kippah, will not violate any Jewish law by this arrangement, but will simply miss the feast of Simhat Torah, but not the feast of Shemini Atzeret.
According to Massye Kestenbaum, a Jerusalem-based rabbi, someone in Bennett’s position “would be obligated to publicly respect the local community’s observance of only Chemini Atzeret on Monday evenings, and therefore should not mark Sim’hat Torah with ‘in a way that would be noticeable to others. “
Nonetheless, Kestenbaum noted, given Bennett’s unique position and visibility, this 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 doubt about the date of Jewish holidays. When the two Jewish temples stood in Jerusalem, the month began when witnesses reported seeing the new moon. The new month would be declared in Jerusalem, but the messengers could not reach all diaspora communities to tell them the exact date of that month’s vacation before it took place. Diaspora communities observed the two possible days in order to deal with this doubt about the timing of the holidays.
“However, even now with a fixed schedule,” Kestenbaum noted, “the practice has become enshrined in rabbinical law as a guarantee for the future, and in deference to the custom practiced for hundreds of years.”
During his August trip to the White House, Bennett was forced to stay in Washington, DC, on Shabbat after his meeting with US President Joe Biden was delayed due to a major suicide bombing in Kabul International Airport. He offered words of Torah and prayed during the impromptu Shabbat service at his hotel on 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 proxy armed groups.
Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was known to make headlines with his speeches about the Iranian nuclear threat at the United Nations General Assembly, often using cardboard graphics and other props to get his point across .
The two-week event kicked off last Tuesday and is very different from last year’s event, which took place primarily online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bennett will be one of at least 83 world leaders planning to attend in person, according to Turkish diplomat Volkan Bozkir, chairman of last year’s rally. Twenty-six executives have requested to speak remotely, Bozkir said earlier this month.
The general debate, in which world leaders and other senior officials will speak, begins on September 21.
According to a provisional list of speakers, Biden will speak on the morning of September 21, in the traditional American niche as the second speaker in 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 the new Israeli Gulf allies, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, will speak.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas and new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi are both delivering pre-recorded speeches which will be broadcast at the event.