Rosh Hashana forces big decisions about work


One of the first major religious decisions that young, Jewish professionals make is whether or not to go into the office on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Most Jewish holidays start at sundown, a safe time to leave the office. However, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are all-day affairs, and this year Rosh Hashannah starts tonight — right in the middle of the week. Rabbi David Lerner, says the first time you decide whether or not you are going to work is “a big decision.”

”I can’t think of another event like this in Jewish life,” he says.

Sarah Maltzman is typical of those twentysomethings deciding how to prioritize work and religion. She does not go to synagogue regularly but grew up in a family where people skipped work on the high holy days. Now, as a teacher, she, too, will take time off. But she will work one of the two days of Rosh Hashana, because she says she doesn’t want her students to have too many days in a row with substitute teachers. ”If I were in a 9-to-5 job I would feel more comfortable taking time off,” she says.

There is no law granting the right to take off work for religious holidays, but according to Linda Saiger, executive director of Chicago’s Council on Jewish Workplace Issues, most people are able to get the days off if they want them.

The question is: What do people want?

There is a lot of peer pressure to stay home and observe the holidays. By some estimates, more than 95 percent of the families affiliated with a synagogue show up on Yom Kippur for a day of fasting and self-reflection. In fact, such a large percentage of the Jewish population stays home, that some schools close, some stores close, and towns with large Jewish populations seem to completely shut down.

However, there is also a lot of pressure to go to work. In some industries, like investment banking, people rarely take time off for anything, doing what it takes to get the job done and make a good impression.

Jessie Bodzin is managing editor of Heeb, a magazine for hipster Jews. She says that one of her friends had a new job with a heavy workload, so she went to work and fasted to allay some of her guilt. But Bodzin doesn’t recommend this tactic.

”This is the worst of both worlds, because she got a headache from fasting without the benefit of self-reflection,” Bodzin said. Another friend of Bodzin’s went to synagogue in the morning, then to work, then back to synagogue. For him, maybe the guilt of going to work was abated because Bodzin said he ended up spending more time in synagogue than he would have had he not gone to work.

Some of the most complicated decisions arise when a twentysomething relocates for work far away from family. Many feel compelled to take the day off, but have nowhere to go.

Leah Furman, author of Single Jewish Female: A Modern Guide to Sex and Dating, says that some people don’t go into work because that would be breaking tradition, but they don’t necessarily go to synagogue all day.

”For some people, it’s a time to get together with Jewish friends,” she says. ”Maybe they go to synagogue for a little while and then they go with friends out to lunch.”

For those on looking for meaning, Lerner reminds them that the core issue is not about missed deadlines at work or used up vacation days: ”There is a lot that people can do to have impact on a broken world,” he says, ”and the high holy days call to us, motivate us to do this.”

For those who forgo the pursuit of synagogue tickets, Esther Kustanowitz, author of My Urban Kvetch, points out an enticing alternative: That’s two full days out of the work week for Rosh Hashana, and if you take three more vacation days you can go away on a trip for nine days.

21 replies
  1. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Penelope, thanks for this.

    “There is no law granting the right to take off work for religious holidays.”

    In his book “In Spite of the Gods”, the Economist’s former SE Asia editor, now in Washington DC, Edward Luce describes the model of Indian secularism.

    While it separates the state from religion, and the republic itself is set up as a secular state, there is a peculiar practice that nearly all major festivals of major religions (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism and Buddhism) get one or more days off as a national holiday. This does leave out the Jewish and the Zoroastrian communities (as well as a few other ones) who do not get this benefit, while being forced to take days off on festivals that they do not celebrate. As far as I know there is no system of compensation of one holiday with another, in operation.

    I think it is a question of how the secular model has been set up in a country. In Britain, for instance, the Queen is the head of the Church and the predominant public holidays are Christian festivals (we get 4 days off on Easter when a few million leave Britain for a long holiday! So much for religious holidays.). If and when Prince Charles gets to be king, he wants to be head of all faiths but I doubt he will try to mess with the national get-away holiday habits. The others just take days off for their festivals.

    But as far as I know, no other religion prohibits people expressly to work on festivals. Most people tend to take off to eat (mainly) and to celebrate. In fact, today begins a whole month of fasting for Muslims and some of my Muslim friends are greatly looking forward to their annual weight loss achievements although not to the daily dose of self-control required as colleagues at work eat lunch around them.

    Of course, in India, if you got a day off for every Hindu festival, you never have to go to work again in your life! :-)

    I think religion, where people follow one, is a very private choice. In a multi-culti society, everybody is never going to be happy. Individual adjustments and sacrifices are where it shall have to be, as you point out.


  2. Aimee
    Aimee says:

    My roommates boss is staying home today, but reading through several reports and materials that she hasn’t had time to read before. Apparently picking up the phone or writing are out of the question, but she doesn’t feel that reading through materials constitutes real work.

  3. MS
    MS says:

    One solution I’ve seen is to allocate more floating holidays, while removing some of the religious ones. (of course, in the US Christmas still stands, of course). This has the advantage of letting everyone prioritize their own religious obligations at the cost of losing some of the synchronization of the times off. This seems to work well enough in some of the more diverse environments I’ve seen.

  4. MS
    MS says:

    Sorry about the double “of course”. I picked that habit up when I worked for the Department of Redundancy Department..

  5. +dj funkygrrl+
    +dj funkygrrl+ says:

    In my opinion, I think it would make sense to take off the Jewish holiday. As ‘some crass’ supervisors, have the tendecy to bring up situations; whereby, the employee did not take off a certain holiday although he/she claims to be a follower of a certain religion.

  6. d
    d says:

    I wondered about your thoughts on this very question, and was glad to see you addressed it!

    I compromise by taking the first day only. I have a theological justification for that, as well, but I’ll address that argument at the end of this post.

    I do have a problem with having to use floating holidays for the High Holy Days: Christians, of course, do not have to use PTO for Christmas or Easter–their High Holy Days, as it were. So why do we have to?

    Still, the fact is that this is a Christian nation at the end of the day, so one can only gain so much traction with this point. So, the way I’ve always solved the issue is by getting my boss to agree to let me work on days off, such as Christmas Eve/Day. (The _NYT_ actually reported a few years ago that in cities like NYC, with large Jewish populations, this is a pretty common practice.)

    ***theology-related postscript***

    Why is Rosh Hashana two days? Because, without the benefit of modern communications, people living in the Diaspora couldn’t be 100% sure as to when the new moon was sighted in Israel. (More on this topic at )

    Since the Conservative movement has never been shy about adapting to modern ways, I made my own decision that the “lack of communications” problem no longer applies, and one day is just fine.

  7. Quasar9
    Quasar9 says:

    >>However, there is also a lot of pressure to go to work. In some industries, like investment banking, people rarely take time off for anything, doing what it takes to get the job done and make a good impression.

    Isn't it a national Bank Holiday anywhere on earth? – do banks still charge interest on bank holidays?

    You could just swap and work in lieu on xmas day, or should that be on good friday – well as long as you finish work by three PM – its ok – lol

  8. tamar
    tamar says:

    Sorry, I don't see anything about Rosh Hashana or religious observance or personal faith convictions and practices in this post, and I think the words "Rosh Hashana" in the title could easily be replaced with "Rose Bowl" or "Groundhog Day" or any time people take off work for whatever their reason.

    Rosh Hashana forces big decisions (for someone who observes the festival) about such questions: How have I lived the previous year? What changes in my living are in order?

    * * * * * * * *

    I think JR nails it (below) that the issue is: Is this important enough to take time off from work. Tamar, we are each capable of asking those questions under a lot of circumstances. But if you take a day off of work to ask those questions then you elevate them. So deciding about the day off is really deciding about how important the questions are.

    I should have laid this out more clearly.

    – €“Penelope

  9. JR Varga
    JR Varga says:

    The big decision? Answer the following question:

    Am I devout enough in my religion of choice to “use” one of my precious VACATION DAYS??!!??

  10. MS
    MS says:

    While it’s nominally a religious holiday, Christmas will continue be a US-wide holiday for practical reasons. Even if a given person doesn’t celebrate, it is likely that too many of the co-workers, vendors, customers, etc. will be OOO to make the workplace fully (or even partially) productive.

    Of course, a smart supervisor and a self-motivated employee might work out a day for day swap.

  11. Paula
    Paula says:

    Of course, in the service and hospitality industries, it’s quite normal for management to work through Christian holidays, and hourly employees who are willing to work the Christian holiday while scheduling a Jewish or other holiday can earn holiday pay in that way.

  12. Quasar9
    Quasar9 says:

    So anyway,
    wishing everyone a new year filled with honey
    May you start your new year wishing everyone the best, not just your friends and ‘sod’ the rest
    else next year will be like last year (again)

    * * * * * *
    This is such a nice comment. Thanks. Happy New Year to everyone from me, too :)


  13. Esther
    Esther says:

    Sigh. The quote that will follow me to my grave…

    My context for saying that was that for people who are NOT observant, working at Jewish organizations is a lot of fun because they can take all that time as vacation and actually go on vacation. But for those of us who are observant, RH/YK and Sukkot through to Simchat Torah are NOT vacation days. There’s lots of praying, and too much food, and likely days of being in the house with your family in close quarters–which, depending on your family relationships, can be very good, or very bad, but certainly not vacation.

    Happy new year to all…

  14. JenK
    JenK says:

    Dustin –

    In software, I have been asked to work on Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas. One boss assumed I would work Easter weekend; he backed down when I pointed out I was going to be participating in a 6-hour religious ritual that Saturday. (I was being baptized an Episcopalian, actually, after 6 months of preparation – but I didn’t bother to clarify, I just said I was in a 6-hour religious ritual and left it at that).

  15. Unknown
    Unknown says:

    So anyway,
    wishing everyone a new year filled with honey
    May you start your new year wishing everyone the best, not just your friends and 'sod' the rest
    else next year will be like last yea

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