Exams Interrupt Jewish High Holidays

As many students buckled down to take their first midterm exams this past Thursday, the Jewish community came together to usher in the New Year with the celebration of Rosh Hashana.

This year, Rosh Hashana—the date of which is determined by the lunar calendar—occurred later than usual and coincided with a spate of exams and paper due dates. Many students said they found themselves in a stressful bind of trying to set aside time for their religious obligations while also trying to prepare for exams—a problem exacerbated by the fact that many professors were unaware of the holiday, they said.

Emily S. Unger ’13, undergraduate co-chair of the Reform minyan at Harvard Hillel, said that she was not able to celebrate the New Year as she would have preferred. This past week, Unger not only planned Hillel’s Reform Rosh Hashana services, but also took three tests. Rather than reflecting upon the past year, she found herself cramming for exams between meetings with the rabbi.

“I can’t imagine professors trying to give exams on Christmas Eve and expecting students to study,” she explained. “I think it would be nice just if professors were aware that it was happening. It’s good to have that sort of awareness.”

Although less known to the non-Jewish public than the more secular Jewish holidays Hanukkah and Passover, Rosh Hashana is one of two High Holy Days in the Jewish religion. Rosh Hashana is meant to be a time of self-examination and repentance, inviting individuals to reflect upon their actions.

Arun A. Viswanath ’13, the president of Hillel’s Steering Committee, said he was also caught in the exam crunch as he tried to observe the holiday. Viswanath, who does not use electricity, attend class, or write during the Sabbath and the High Holy Days, said he had been studying non-stop for Science of Living Systems 20: “Psychological Sciences” since Saturday night, which marks the end of the Sabbath.

But Viswanath said he felt faculty were fairly accommodating to the High Holy Days.

SLS20 Professor Daniel Gilbert, who is also Jewish, did not hold class on Rosh Hashana and scheduled the midterm exam for Monday with the holiday in mind. Given efforts like these on the part of faculty members, Viswanath said that he believes Harvard’s current system is the best that it can be. Although he may have to do more work than some of his secular peers, he said, the challenge is feasible and ultimately worth it.

Rabbi Benjamin Greenberg, leader of Hillel’s Orthodox minyan, echoed Viswanath’s sentiments and said that in his experience professors had been generally accommodating of student needs.

“We are dedicated to finding points of intersection between academic work and the work of the High Holy Days,” he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.


The Oct. 3 article "Exams Interrupt Jewish High Holidays" incorrectly stated that the date of Rosh Hashanah is determined by the Gregorian calendar. In fact, it is determined by the lunar calendar. Additionally, Rosh Hashanah is not known as "the day of atonement," which refers to Yom Kippur. The article also misstated Emily Unger's class year. She is a member of the Class of 2013, not 2014.