By the time you read this, Succot will be over for another year. Etrogim [yellow citron) will be rotting in fruit baskets or being boiled into jam, the great slabs of wood used to build succot will be back in storage, and many of us will be resolving to go on a post-Yom Tov diet.
Of course, if you’re reading this in Israel, Succot will be long over, with a Friday and Shabbat in between. But for those of us living in the Diaspora, we'll only just be recovering from three interminably long days: two of Yom Tov, followed directly by Shabbat.
When, as will be the case for Succot once again next year, one of the Shalosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals) falls with a Wednesday evening start, I tend to approach the period with dread. I suspect I am not alone, for there is nothing quite like three consecutive days of eating, praying and sitting around to make you rather resent your faith. In contrast, I look enviously towards Israel, where the authorities permit a single, blissful day of Yom Tov. One Seder, one day of Shavuot, and far less repetition.
Short of making aliya, which seems a rather drastic solution, I am reduced to hoping that the rabbinic powers in the UK and elsewhere will come to their senses, and recognize that in the age of the iPhone, we no longer need to be quite so cautious. We no longer need to rely on a chain of bonfires to ascertain when Yom Tov falls, as in the days of the Sanhedrin; in 2013, surely a tweet would do?
But leaving aside the fact that two day Yom Tov is a post-biblical concept – Exodus commands us to eat unleavened bread for a paltry seven days during Passover – the issue goes further. If modern Israel is the Jewish state, then surely there should be consistency? If we are Am Yisrael
[the people of Israel], if global Jewry is one, then surely we should all be following the same rules and patterns?
That’s not to say that we need uniformity of tradition; there is no reason for the Sephardi Jews who conduct a Rosh Hashana seder to give it up; likewise if Ashkenazim want to eat stuffed cabbages in the succa, let them. But the key tenets of Judaism – circumcision, the huppa, the blowing of the Shofar – go beyond this; they create a necessary unity, a link between one Jew here and another there, between past and future, and between the Jewish state and the Jews of other states.
Succot, Passover and Shavuot are more than mere traditions, and the disparity between what the Diaspora and Israel observe creates an unnecessary disconnect. Given our history, the last thing the Jewish community needs is more to divide it. We should limit, not accept and keep alive, the things that pull us apart.
A cynic might suggest that in the Diaspora rabbis have no reason to push for change, since it expands the time for giving sermons. Most probably it goes deeper than that, and they wish to hold on to our double-dose of Yom Tov for reasons of rabbinic convention and heritage (or, astounding as it may seem, because they actually enjoy an extended period of festivities). But they are misguided if they believe that their congregants will always accept the status quo.
In Israel, Succot, Shavuot and Passover are part of the national fabric; people decorate their succa, not their Christmas tree. There may be a gulf between the religious and secular, but were Israelis to be challenged to keep two days, the country would work around it. In the Diaspora, life is structured around other calendars, with observance of Succot and Shavuot considered anomalous even within the community and much of the non-Jewish population left entirely baffled.
Put simply, it is difficult to balance so many days around work and school commitments. For all that observing religion is not designed to be easy, as diaspora Jews visit Israel for the Jewish holidays, or find the days ever more eating into their careers, how many will be willing to stick with it? How long can communities last with ever dwindling attendance at Shul on second day chag?
When it comes to changing with the times, Orthodox Judaism is no Speedy Gonzales – our outdated and wholly unjust divorce law is testament to that. Still, we have not got this far by being capricious, and there is something to be said for caution. We should not throw off ancient behaviors on a whim.
But quite apart from the fact that Jewish life goes on in Israel even despite the one-day rule, that doesn't mean changing to adapt should be totally ruled out. After all, this is hardly a change that requires religious leaders to accept anything antithetical to their beliefs - it does not necessitate a rethinking of the basic tenets of Judaism, nor contradict what the Torah says, and it is considered acceptable by rabbis a mere plane ride away.
Ultimately, this is a change that recognizes what having a Jewish state means - that we are no longer a wandering people, existing in exile and acting accordingly. Whether or not we choose to live there, today we have an Israel on which to base our calendar.
Sadly, I've little hope that the relevant authorities will gather the courage to make a change. It's a shame, because it causes too many Diaspora Jews to resent what can be the most positive parts of Jewish life. So perhaps we should approach the issue in a different way. What would Israelis say to keeping the second day?Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of
The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times. http/Jenniferlipman.wordpress.com
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