How To Measure Rosh Hashanah Services

My wife and I were speculating on how long last Friday’s Rosh Hashanah service would last. We both figured on two hours, but my wife said, “Services always last longer than you expect.”

My first reaction was to agree, but then I realized that couldn’t be so; it would imply that I didn’t have rational expectations. Having attended services for so many years, my overestimates and underestimates of their duration should balance out: on average, I should correctly estimate their duration.

It’s possible that I might make mistakes if the world changed; and perhaps our new rabbi goes longer than his predecessor. But even with that change, after a few years I should estimate correctly on average. In fact, taking Friday and Saturday together, I was correct: Friday night lasted only one and a half hours, but Saturday’s service lasted half an hour longer than I expected.

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  1. Andy says:

    Rational…if you have a perfect memory, though.

    Going only twice a year isn’t very frequent, so it’s possible that, come September, you only remember certain aspects of prior year’s services, or how the service felt. After all, feelings are generally easier committed to memory than factual details.

    As a result, unless one makes note to pay attention to duration and, perhaps, keep records, one’s estimation of service duration will be based on those other sorts of memory (well, the sermon’s message as I remember it couldn’t have taken more then 15 minutes…) or on rough imputation where necessary (well, a reader’s kaddish usually only takes a minute or two)[of course, on high holidays, it takes much longer].

    So, not irrational, given the sorts of memories people tend to put down.

    Though, I don’t mean to insinuate that you’ve been spending the holidays watching your watch.

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  2. UnderstatementJones says:

    Boy, we wouldn’t want to imply that you don’t have rational expectations, would we?

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  3. Stephen Jones says:

    Could be that your wife, like most of us, selectively remembers more cases when the thing dragged on than when it ended earlier.

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  4. MikeM says:

    Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

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  5. Steve Rosen says:

    L’Shana Tova.

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  6. Peter from Chicago says:

    I think you are considering the wrong question: It is not how long Rosh Hashanah services last, it is how long they seem to last. That is particularly true in a congregation with poor ventilation or hard seats.

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  7. N. Z. says:

    The length of your services (and your tendency to time them) probably has a relation to how much you enjoy sitting through them…

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  8. Tim H says:

    Someone has just rediscovered Hofstadter’s Law.

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  9. Paul Clapham says:

    Cripes — I see this in my blog reader and by the time I look at it, two people have already mentioned Hofstadter’s Law.

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  10. Cheryl says:

    And what about Sunday?

    For most people I know it lasts as long as they want it to. Most people show up late and leave early.

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  11. Anonymous says:

    First of all I’m ignorant to the jewish religion and I might misinterpret the service. I want to ask you if you enjoy these services? If not, in an economical mentality one will ask you what are you doing wasting our time? This way you opportunity cost is enormous since you are loosing your time, the most immense intangible cost. If you enjoy the services, I wonder why you wonder how much time it would last. Since you enjoy it your marginal benefits exceed your marginal cost. Therefore you are rational, since you are thinking at the margin. Also you can’t calculate a specific time since the service might vary every year, like a different rabbi, more interruptions, the speed it takes to preform the service, etc. I hope you enjoy these services no matter how much time you’ve wasted.

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  12. Svavar says:

    While your wife invoked Hofstadter’s Law, you may have suffered from Optimism bias, which is the “tendency for people to be over-optimistic about the outcome of planned actions” (, as well as Hindsight bias (

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  13. golda says:

    this is an interesting question- for me- I recall so many years of raising this question as a kid. Then I grew up and began reading the book (trying to figure out the message) and listening to the Rabbi’s speeches. And I must admit, for the last several years, I have found them real insightful when it comes to the question of the relationship between religion and science. This year was different though. I heard conservative fear creep into the speech. My kid got upset about the hate mongering (so did I) and we left early. I would have yelled out the L word– as in what is this really about?- but been there and heard that before and it is just plain disrepectful. I heard a while ago from a conservative republican high school friend that this is to be expected ever since Obama became president. I just did not expect it from a Rabbi. Have we forgotten about the separation of church and state and the rationale behind it. The problem is that this Rabbi was acting as a preacher, not a teacher. The other odd thing is, his first speech was about respecting our differences– So I thought he knew better. He must be struggling with mixed messages from within and without..

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  14. Jake says:

    Odd. . . all other things being equal, the Saturday Rosh HaShana services should have been shorter than usual, because the shofar service was omitted (the shofar isn’t blown on Shabbat). That generally saves about 15 minutes.

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  15. jonathan says:

    My explanation is fact based. Most people who do go to services regularly go on Friday night for Qabbalat Shabbat. This service is radically different from the regular Saturday service, which is based around the weekly Torah reading. I go to services often enough to have well-memorized the Friday service but I only go to a few Saturday services a year.* That can breed estimating error.

    *In part because many Saturdays are bar/bat mitzvah services and I don’t particularly enjoy hearing kids I don’t know reading Torah and then their interpretations.

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  16. MariferCMS says:

    Even though I don’t know much about the Jewish religion, I do have a friend that is a part of it. And, every year on Rosh Hashanah, her parents make her skip school and go to the service. You’d guess that for a teenager, the marginal benefits of skipping school would exceed the marginal costs of going to the service. But, in this case, that conclusion would be wrong. The truth is, that she finds this service to be very boring, and therefore, she finds the opportunity cost of sitting through a long service much higher than sitting through a whole day of school. I don’t know if you share her thoughts on it, all I want you to know is that you’re not the only person out there trying to guess how long or how short Rosh Hashanah services will be. Maybe one day all religions will have quotas on how many hours of service they can give per year; making it much easier for the people attending them to know how much of their day they’ll have to give up. This will result in a more balanced measurement of opportunity costs, and help people make more rational decisions.

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  17. anon says:

    Surprisingly, nobody has yet figured out what Hamermesh’s guess was… if he’s correct “on average” and he guessed 1.5 hours for Friday but was too short by 1.5 hours on Saturday… it means he guessed 3 hours, and the Saturday ceremony was 4.5 hours. The “average error” (-1.5 hours on Friday and +1.5 hours on Saturday gives an average of 0/2 = 0 hours) is “rational” but has a giant variance.

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  18. BSK says:

    Maybe you’re just wrong. Ever think of that?

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  19. ExileInLA says:

    I prefer to measure RH services by whether or not they motivate me to reconsider my behavior from the prior year, and act better in the coming year. If this motivation lasts a long time, it’s good…if not, it’s bad.

    If you try looking for the meaning of the time, not the meaning AS the time, you’ll get more out of it. That starts, btw, by showing up more often than just 3 days/year…

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  20. BSK says:

    Anon @17

    Um, what? He said they both figured on 2 hours for the Friday services. It went 1 1/2 hours (1/2 hour under). Saturday’s went 1/2 hour over, so 2 1/2 hours. 4 hours total, or 2 per service, as he said. Did you really think you cracked the code?

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  21. Let them eat Thomas Paine says:

    I know rational expectations played a role in my father’s choice as to which service to attend. We’re Catholic and he would always complain about the Creaster’s (people that only attended Christmas and Easter Mass) overcrowding the church. This led us to always go to 7:30 AM Mass. I hated this as a kid.

    Anyway to the point of the post, as someone else pointed out it only matters if you have perfect memory. I think it would happen more frequently that people would over estimate how long the service will take. In my experience I tend to remember the really long masses and forget the short ones. This has left a bad taste in my mouth; accordingly, mass is rarely as long as I think it will be. I just never remember this fact when estimating how long it will take.

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  22. Joshua says:

    Don’t forget the fact that if you ask the same question of someone multiple times, their average answer will be much closer to the actual answer.

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  23. Caitlyn says:

    we attend services twice a week anyway, so the normal services are pretty set – our rabbi hates going long, so holiday services are usually about half an hour longer. bar or bat mitzvahs are fifteen minutes longer than a normal service, concert services (we sometimes get a special performer in) depend on the musician and how likely he is to completely lose track of time.

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  24. ChristianCMS says:

    Even though services may seem boring, you still attend, which means that the services must mean something to you. You are giving up hours which you could be using for various other things, but you are willing to give up these hours and attend services, so either the opportunity cost of anything else you can be doing is lower than the value of the service or you are just not thinking rationally, which is unlikely.

    Another deal with attending services is having a set time you plan on giving up, and the time that may actually be consumed. You were expecting to give up 2 hours of service, but the event lasted more than that. The extra time may represent sunk cost, as it was a slightly unexpected “extra” that you had to sit through. If we think of it over, though, that is the issue with estimating, we can never be 100% sure of the outcome.

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  25. Rose says:

    Given the price of tickets/membership… I hope you enjoyed EVERY SINGLE MINUTE!!!!!

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  26. LAS, Redmond, WA says:

    It is time for synagogues to drop the insulting and alienating practice of selling tickets and admiting only ticket holders to High Holy Day services. When people are supposed to be examining their lives and actions, they put lower income Jews in the position of having to ask for a reduced price or just stay away. This year tickets in this part of the country were about $250 and this area doesn’t have large, free university services. The time of atonement becomes the height of arrogance and exclusivity. Why don’t more synagogue leaders, especially reformed, understand that if they create a welcoming atmosphere, people will attend more and contribute throughout the year and it will add up to the same total? I was born and raised in Judaism but I can go into any church on Christmas and Easter while encountering the ticket barrier in what is supposed to be my own religion. I find that the ticket policies are contrary to the philosophy of the religion the tickets are being sold for. Christian churches charge higher dues than synagogues, but churches don’t ask for major donations until months or even a year or more after a person has gotten to know the congregation. Concerning the matter of the duration of services, the idea is to spend the entire day in prayer and meditation. What other activities would one wish to take place on the holiday? Isn’t it a positive thing to have a few days set aside to think about where one’s life is going?

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  27. non says:


    Oh, I completely disagree. Those who go more often understand the hebrew and the service and are much less likely to be bored. It’s probably quite dull to sit through a service three times a year that you don’t follow and has not much connection to anything else you are doing the rest of the year…

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  28. dorset says:

    Golda–be sure to share your thoughts with the Rabbi. They can only teach that which they have learned.
    Shana Tovah!

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  29. Rationalizer says:

    Exile in LA makes an important point about what I see as a common error in economics. The economist decides that a particular metric is “rational” and that decisions based on other metrics are “irrational.” I aver that this jumping to conclusions is plain old bad science.

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  30. annabanana says:

    And there’s a piece of info that can be very important, the length of the service relative to the preparations being made at home for a meal afterwards. Esp if having guests — very common on RH — it’s helpful to have a realistic sense of how long services will last, how long it takes to travel home, and what amt of time last-minute prep will consume. I have missed the end of many such services to run home and heat up part of the meal; in such cases, it would be a major inconvenience if guests arrived 30 minutes later than expected or — far worse! — 30 minutes before.

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  31. Not trying to be rude says:

    Not to be rude – but does it really make sense to ponder rationality when discussing a religious event? All faith based (as opposed to factually based) events are at their core somewhat irrational (at least according to standard economics dogma) so why should it be surprising that perceptions might be someone irrational regarding said event as well?…

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  32. Joel M says:

    The real question was whether or not you took into account that Rosh Hashanah fell on the Sabbath this year. So you have to read all those extra bits that are marked “on the Sabbath we say”.

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  33. robin says:

    Most Reform congregations are very time conscious and members usually arrive on time and remain for the entire service-which does not exceed 2 hours. Services are usually scheduled with the “secret 15 minutes”-that is scheduled 15 minutes earlier than they really begin, and are timed to the minute. There isn’t the incessant entering and leaving that one finds in a Conserviative or Orthodox service-which also tend to last much longer. Finally-although Conservictive and Orthodox congregations do not blow the Shofar on Saturday, Reform congregations do-the Saturday service is only lengthened by the few extra items included for Shabbat.

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  34. Grumpy Boomer says:

    @AngelPeñaCMS #11

    Your comment and question about how much the economist “enjoyed” a Jewish High Holy Day service while contemplating how long it went on is wonderful: certainly you need to be from a different culture (Hispanic?) to even ask this question.

    I had a Jewish upbringing and was did the traditional Bar Mitzvah service at age 13 where a child reads a portion of the Old Testament in Hebrew from a scroll. The first thing you have to understand is that all these services are conducted mostly in Hebrew, which few Americans speak conversationally. So, like the old Catholic services, most of the hour or two are spent chanting or mumbling — or listening to a prayer leader doing so — mostly formulaic and formal prayers in a language you don’t understand one word of.

    As a child, and even as an adult mostly familiar with the content, these services are, sorry to say, a prescription for boredom. No one really “enjoys” these services in the sense that one would enjoy a book, movie or conversation. At best, it’s enjoy in the sense of doing meditation or something, where you feel better when its over.

    I remember Christian kids and cow-workers over the years asking me whether I “enjoyed” the Jewish holidays. I think they were already aware of the dolorous and serious nature of these holidays when I responded with fake enthusiasm as one might describe one’s Christmas or secular New Years’ Eve holidays, “they were great, we had a blast!”. The looks on their faces were priceless.

    So, yeah, I think it would not be out of an economist’s nature to wonder how much money he lost by sitting in a temple or synagogue and listening to some boring blah.

    Your mileage may vary and I expect to be blasted by some as a “self-hating Jew” for saying this, but I think Jewish services in general strike the wrong balance between tradition and relevance.

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  35. joelb says:

    great post, and highly engaging comments.

    sadly i was 1 hr late (by the clock) for services, and then they only lasted 1 more hr. fortunately i had done a lot of praying on my cycle ride getting there. (and

    am not sure whether either being late or praying were rational, but the rationale, at least in my head, was clearly there for both.

    in any case, wishing y’all health, peace & prosperity this new year.

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  36. Diversity says:

    The master text in this area is “The Great Sermon Handicap” by P.G. Wodehouse. Don’t look at the end of the story, look at how it is set up. Congregations have firm rational expectations about the length of services. However, economists probably don’t; they set up a model of what they think ought to happen, and don’t chck it adequately against outcomes.

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  37. Matt Cvetic says:

    I find synagogue services incredibly off-putting and unwelcoming. I wish Judaism was a more inclusive religion and didn’t do anything possible to drive people away. It is ironic to sit through a 2+hour service (mostly in Hebrew) and then hear how inter-marriage is killing Judaism.

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  38. BSK says:

    Rationalizer @29-

    Bravo. Great point. Why is considering things other than economics inefficient? Perhaps there are efficiencies or maximizations that people seek outside of the economic/financial realm.

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  39. Arielle says:

    He clearly just doesn’t know that much about service times. Evening services for Rosh Hashanah are very short; it would be almost impossible for them to last 2 hours. For all the people suggesting that he estimated 2 hours for Saturday morning services, that is also impossible: more traditional services would last on the order of 5 hours, and the most Reform congregation would have trouble getting them down to less than 3.

    Clearly going only twice a year – even if it’s for many years – isn’t enough to be able to predict service times.

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  40. David Chowes, New York City says:

    A question for Mr. Hamermesh: do I infer correctly that you would prefer a shorter time in the synagogue?

    I am a secular Jew: agnostic/atheist — who can know? I find any time in a temple real b o r i n g ! My heritage and culture clearly contain many Jewish components — but, the religious rituals — like…, give me a break.

    So, if I am correct about what I may be implying correctly — your wanting to be in shoul for less time, go all the way as I always do… And forget about the Yom Kiper fasting — have something to eat, for G-d’s sake.

    Just say, “No.” Two hours [+ or — x ] (in my not so humble opinion) is far from optimal. Try not going or, as the former first lady (Mrs. Reagan) would say, “Just say no!”

    And your ethics and morals will remain the same.

    [Sorry for prosletizing.]

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  41. RR says:

    Given my experience with changing the oil of my previous cars, I expected that changing the oil in my new car would take 30 minutes. But where did I put that oil filter wrench? Where is the oil filter on this car? How much oil am I supposed to put in this car? I should check the manual, but what page is this information on? Took me an hour.

    Point is that unforeseeable events usually increase complexity but rarely decrease it, which is why we tend to underestimate the amount of time something takes.

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  42. cluelessinky says:

    When I went to religious services many years ago I knew that the ritual had several distinct phases and these phases had specific time increments. When the phases ran longer than anticipated i felt that had been deceived and resented the rest of the service

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