WASHINGTON (JTA) – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court and a tireless advocate for gender equality, has died at 87.
A fierce jurist known for her outsized presence and outspokenness, Ginsburg died from “complications of metastatic pancreas cancer,” the Supreme Court announced Friday night. She had survived multiple bouts of different cancers over the course of two decades, vowing that she was healthy enough to continue her work and at times returning to the bench shortly after hospital stays.
Ginsburg’s death comes on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, six weeks before the presidential election and at a time of intense political polarization.
Four years ago, the Republican-held Senate refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will attempt to fill any spots that open up on the court while President Donald Trump is in office. He repeated that pledge on Friday night following news of Ginsburg’s death.
Trump has already appointed two judges, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, during his presidential tenure.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, released a statement warning McConnell to wait out the election.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” said Schumer, who is Jewish. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
McConnell used precisely the same words to justify delaying a Supreme Court nomination in 2016 following the death of Antonin Scalia, a conservative justice, much earlier in the election year than Ginsburg’s passing.
Ginsburg reportedly told her granddaughter Clara Spera in her final days: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
In her 27 years on the court, Ginsburg emerged not only as the putative leader of the court’s liberal wing but as a pop cultural phenomenon and feminist icon, earning as an octogenarian the moniker Notorious R.B.G. — a play off the deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G.
She won liberal acclaim by penning blistering dissents in high-profile cases concerning birth control, voter ID laws and affirmative action even as she maintained a legendary friendship with Scalia, the staunchly conservative firebrand who died in 2016.
Ginsburg was frank as well about the importance of Jewish tradition in influencing her life and career, hanging the Hebrew injunction to pursue justice on the walls of her chambers.
“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she said in an address to the American Jewish Committee following her 1993 appointment to the court. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
Ginsburg was nominated to the nation’s highest bench by President Bill Clinton following the retirement of Byron White. In her Rose Garden nominating ceremony, Clinton lauded Ginsburg for standing with the “the outsider in society … telling them that they have a place in our legal system, by giving them a sense that the Constitution and the laws protect all the American people, not simply the powerful.”
Ginsburg attributed that outsider perspective to her Jewish roots, pointing often to her heritage as a building block of her perspective on the bench.
“Laws as protectors of the oppressed, the poor, the loner, is evident in the work of my Jewish predecessors on the Supreme Court,” she wrote in an essay for the AJC. “The Biblical command: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue’ is a strand that ties them together.”
The Brooklyn native was the daughter of Nathan Bader, a Russian immigrant and furrier, and the former Celia Amster. She often noted that her mother was “barely second generation,” having been born a scant four months after her parents’ arrival from Hungary. Ginsburg was keenly aware of the Jewish immigrant experience and her own good fortune to be born on these shores.
The Holocaust colored her perspective of the world and the law.
“Our nation learned from Hitler’s racism and, in time, embarked on a mission to end law-sanctioned discrimination in our own country,” Ginsburg said at a 2004 Yom Hashoah commemoration at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “In the aftermath of World War II, in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in the burgeoning women’s rights movement of the 1970s, ‘We the People’ expanded to include all of humankind, to embrace all the people of this great nation. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum — of many one — signals our appreciation that we are the richer for the religious, ethnic and racial diversity of our citizens.”
But while Ginsburg was fortunate to be born in the United States, even brilliant women in the 1950s had no easy path. Following her graduation from Cornell University, where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, Ginsburg lived for two years in Oklahoma and experienced the setbacks that women faced at the time: She was demoted from her job at the Social Security Administration after her supervisor discovered she was three months pregnant.
Two years later, Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class with about 500 men. She had a 14-month old daughter and had to battle the endless skepticism of her professors and colleagues. A well-known story has it that at a meeting of her female classmates with the law school dean, the women were asked why they deserved a spot taken from men.
When Martin, a Harvard Law graduate, took a job at a New York law firm, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia. At both schools she served on the Law Review, and she finished Columbia tied for first in her class. Yet not a single law firm would hire her.
Ginsburg eventually clerked for Judge Edward Palmieri and went on to teach law at Rutgers University. She created the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and was the first tenured woman to teach law at Columbia. Ginsburg quickly built a reputation for establishing gender parity before the law, arguing six major sex-discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning all but one.
In one of those winning cases, Weinburger v. Wiesenfeld in 1975, Ginsburg represented a widower left with a child in his care when his wife died in childbirth. The father requested the childcare benefits that a woman would receive if her husband died but which were then denied to men.
“From the outset, she insisted that gender discrimination was not only an issue of women’s rights, demonstrating how using gender as a basis for different treatment was also harmful to men,” Judith Rosenbaum of the Jewish Women’s Archive said.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Her nomination to the Supreme Court was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate on Aug. 3, 1993. She took her judicial oath of office a week later, becoming only the second woman to serve on the court after Sandra Day O’Connor.
As a Supreme Court jurist, Ginsburg continued her fight for gender equality. In 1996, she wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which deemed the Virginia Military Institute’s policy of not admitting women unconstitutional. She also authored the dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, a pay discrimination case that would lead to the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Though a critic of the landmark Roe v. Wade case that decriminalized abortion nationally, Ginsburg consistently argued for protecting the right to abortion.
Late in her career, she emerged as a cultural icon. In 2013, law student Shana Knizhik started a Tumblr blog collecting all manner of Ginsburg fan art, from celebratory tattoos to coffee mugs, T-shirts and onesies. The blog spawned a 2015 book with the Notorious R.B.G. tag co-authored with Irin Carmon.
“Justice Ginsburg more than earned her Notorious crown and the admiration of millions of people with her fearless advocacy for marginalized people and her stubborn belief that women are people,” Carmon said. “People felt moved to make fan art and tattoo her face on their bodies because she spoke for them when it mattered.”
Ginsburg is survived by two children — Jane, a law professor at Columbia, and James, a music producer — and four grandchildren. Martin Ginsburg died in 2010.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah actually means “Head of the Year.” Just like the head controls the body, our actions on Rosh Hashanah have a tremendous impact on the rest of the year.
What’s It Called?
● The most common name for this holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the name used in the eponymous tractate of Talmud devoted to the holiday.
● The Torah refers to this day as Yom Teruah (Day of Shofar Blowing).1
● In our prayers, we often call it Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Hadin (Day of Judgement) since this is the day when G‑d recalls all of His creations and determines their fate for the year ahead.
● Together with Yom Kippur (which follows 10 days later), it is part of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe, or: High Holidays).
First Priority: Hear the Shofar
The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on both days of the holiday (except if the first day is Shabbat, in which case we blow the shofar only on the second day).
The first 30 blasts of the shofar are blown following the Torah reading during morning services, and as many as 70 additional are blown during (and immediately after) the Musaf service, adding up to 100 blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah morning services (some communities sound another round of 30 blasts after services as well). For someone who cannot come to synagogue, the shofar may be heard the rest of the day. If you cannot make it out of your home, please contact your closest Chabad center to see about arranging a “house call,” or click here to learn to blow shofar yourself.
The shofar blowing contains a series of three types of blasts: tekiah, a long sob-like blast; shevarim, a series of three short wails; and teruah, at least nine piercing staccato bursts.
(Read more about the shofar blasts here.)
The blowing of the shofar represents the trumpet blast that is sounded at a king’s coronation. Its plaintive cry also serves as a call to repentance. The shofar itself recalls the Binding of Isaac, an event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to G‑d. (Read more on the reasons for shofar here.)
Other Rosh Hashanah Observances
Greetings: On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, wish a male, “Leshanah tovah tikatev vetichatem;” for a female say,“Leshanah tovah tikatevee vetichatemee” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”). At other times, wish them a “Gemar chatimah tovah” (“A good inscription and sealing [in the Book of Life]”). (More on the Rosh Hashanah greetings here.)
Candles: As with every major Jewish holiday, women and girls light candles on each evening of Rosh Hashanah and recite the appropriate blessings. On the second night, make sure to use an existing flame and think about a new fruit that you will be eating (or garment that you are wearing) while you say the Shehechiyanu blessing. Click here for candle lighting times in your area and here for the blessings.
Tashlich: On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (provided that it is not Shabbat), it is customary to go to a body of water (ocean, river, pond, etc.) and perform the Tashlich ceremony, in which we ceremonially cast our sins into the water. With this tradition we are symbolically evoking the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” The short prayer for this service can be found in your machzor.
For additional instruction regarding this year, see our Rosh Hashanah calendar.
Rosh Hashanah Prayers
Much of the day is spent in synagogue, where we pray that G‑d grant all of His creations a sweet new year. The evening and afternoon prayers are similar to the prayers said on a regular holiday. However, the morning services are significantly longer.
The holiday prayerbook—called a machzor—contains all the prayers and Torah readings for the entire day. The most significant addition is the shofar blowing ceremony. However, there are also other important elements of the prayer service that are unique to Rosh Hashanah.
The Torah is read on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah.
On the first day, we read about Isaac’s birth and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Ishmael.2 Appropriately, the reading is followed by a haftarahreading about the birth of Samuel the Prophet.3 Both readings contain the theme of prayers for children being answered, and both of these births took place on Rosh Hashanah.
On the second morning, we read about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.4 As mentioned above, the shofar blowing recalls the ram, which figures prominently in this story as a powerful display of Abraham’s devotion to G‑d that has characterized His children ever since. The haftarah5 tells of G‑d’s eternal love for His people.
(More on the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, here.)
The cantor’s repetition of the Amidah (Silent Prayer) is peppered with piyyutim, poetic prayers that express our prayerful wishes for the year and other themes of the day. For certain selections, those deemed especially powerful, the ark is opened. Many of these additions are meant to be said responsively, as a joint effort between the prayer leader and the congregation.
Even without the added piyyutim, the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer is significantly longer than it is the rest of the year. This is because its single middle blessing is divided into three additional blessings, each focusing on another one of the holiday’s main themes: G‑d’s kingship, our wish that He “remember” us for the good, and the shofar. Each blessing contains a collage of Biblical verses that express its theme, and is then followed by a round of shofar blowing.
Rosh Hashanah Feasts
We eat festive meals every night and day of the holiday. Like all other holiday meals, we begin by reciting kiddush over wine and then say the blessing over bread. But there are some important differences:
a. The bread (traditionally baked into round challah loaves, and often sprinkled with raisins) is dipped into honey instead of salt, expressing our wish for a sweet year. We do this on Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat before Yom Kippur), in the pre-Yom Kippur meal and during Sukkot.
b. Furthering the sweet theme, it is traditional to begin the meal on the first night with slices of apple dipped in honey. Before eating the apple, we make the ha’eitz blessing and then say, “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
c. Many people eat parts of the head of a fish or a ram, expressing the wish that “we be a head and not a tail.”
d. In many communities, there are additional traditional foods eaten, each symbolizing a wish for the coming year. Many eat pomegranates, giving voice to a wish that “our merits be many like the [seeds of the] pomegranate.” Another common food is tzimmes, a sweet carrot-based dish eaten because of its Yiddish name, merren, which means both “carrot” and “increase,” symbolizing a wish for a year of abundance.
e. It is traditional to avoid nuts (here’s why) as well as vinegar-based, sharp foods, most notably the horseradish traditionally eaten with gefilte fish, since we don’t want a bitter year.
f. On the second night of the holiday, we do not eat the apples, fish heads, pomegranates, etc. However, before we break bread (and dip it in honey), we eat a “new fruit,” something we have not tasted since the last time it was in season. (Read this blog post to learn the reason for the new fruit and the other traditional foods.)
(Read about the elaborate array of symbolic foods eaten in Sephardic communities here.)
Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays). The holy day of Yom Kippur when we gather in synagogue for 25 hours of fasting, prayer and inspiration, is just a week later. The days in between (known as the 10 Days of Repentance, or the Ten Days of Return) are an especially propitious time for teshuvah, returning to G‑d. Yom Kippur is followed by the joyous holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
The season of the High Holidays is a time for an epic journey for the soul, and Rosh Hashanah is where it all begins.
More Heads of the Year
Although this is the most famous Rosh Hashanah, the Mishnah actually lists four heads of the year. One is 1 Nissan, in the springtime month when we left egypt, and another is 15 Shevat, the New Year for Trees. And just to make things exciting, chassidic tradition celebrates 19 Kislev as the New Year for Chassidism.