Survival of the second day of the festival is a vexing enigma of Diaspora
Judaism. Every schoolchild knows of its primordial origins, when the calendar
was fixed according to sightings of the moon. But the extra day should have
become a mere historical curiosity after the adoption of the mathematical
Logic does not prevail in the ways of love or religion, and so
this time of year those of us who toil amongst the gentiles live in great
tension. “Another holiday?” they ask us every week.
The procedure for
establishing the calendar in ancient times was a divinely orchestrated
Witnesses traveled to the Sanhedrin from all over Israel to testify
their lunar visions. The witnesses’ mission was so important that they
permitted to break Shabbat on their journey.
Was there glory in offering
testimony? Clearly there was power in it; the witnesses obtained
the nation’s elite and their words controlled its life cycle.
heretics so abused the open populism of the system that eventually only
witnesses were permitted to testify.
Once sufficient evidence of the new
moon had accumulated, someone lit a torch on the Mount of Olives, waving
and forth, up and down, until he saw a similar fire being lit on the
and so on until all of Israel was aflame with news of the month.
Cutheans wrought mischief with the fiery telegraph and it was replaced
human messengers spreading the word to Jewish settlements.
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suspense drove the calendar-making; participants were drawn from all
society: witnesses, judges, messengers, firemakers, troublemakers. It
dialectic system, requiring travel by ordinary folk for the purpose of
communication with central leadership. Great feasts were prepared for
witnesses, giving an opportunity to exchange intelligence beyond the
the moon. As witnesses were released and messengers sent out to announce
month, outlying communities received news of the happenings at the
process formed a loop of give and take, of information from the people
leaders and back to the people.
Messengers were also sent to the Diaspora
regarding Rosh Hodesh, but often they did not arrive in time for the
to learn the precise festival dates, and so they kept two days each
By the time of Hillel II, the witness and messenger system
had broken down. A calendar based on astronomical calculations was
and it has served better than the Gregorian calendar in choreographing
relationship between the life of man and the rhythm of the universe she
There is no drama, no dialogue; there is the fixed and unmovable
And in the Diaspora, the luah tells us we keep two days, even
though there is no whiff of uncertainty as to holiday dates, no sfeika
“Every autumn a Jew takes up to seven days off from
harvesting, money-lending, tax-collecting; how could this be sustained
centuries we lived hand to mouth?” I marvel to myself on the third and
round of a “three day” holiday. We have been shuling and cooking and
a whole season and everyone is weary. The piles of papers and e-mails
restlessly for us at our offices, and the dishes sit unwashed in the
The rabbis were fanatical about preserving the sanctity of the
second day. They knew it would be disparaged, so they built sturdy walls
it. Jews in Israel keep one day, but if they travel, they must not
second day in public, or and only in limited ways in private. Diaspora
visiting Israel must keep two days unless they are certain of their
My uncle kept two days for seven years after making aliya, ever unsure
I am blessed with an abundant shower of relatives on many
continents, but in America where I live, I have only one cousin. Succot
difficult for him when he lived in an apartment, so we invited him to
us for the holiday when we bought a house with a garden. The time spent
was at least two days, and with Shabbat, stretched to three or four.
has been many years now, and my cousin has a house too, but he still
Succot. Every other year he adds to his clan and we add to the succa.
his children can remember a Tishrei we didn’t spend together. This is
not a mere
daylong confab, it is a whole-season jamboree in which we cook, dine and
succa-hop together, talking of shidduchim
and exchanging business intelligence
and child-rearing advice.
Observant Jews, fewer than one million in
number, rattle around on this planet of seven billion or so; no longer
witnesses or messengers link the centers and the peripheries.
caravans of fringed Jews travel the world’s highways this time of year,
in each other’s succot. And during long, languid hours under impermanent
we might find a business partner or win a neighbor’s hand in
None of this would be necessary or possible for a one-day hag.
In a society that expects 60- to 80-hour workweeks, in which we sleep
BlackBerrys, a three-day festival may be the only extended time we spend
our landsmen. The luah tells us we must.
My logic is not your logic,
neither are my ways yours.The writer is a Washington tax
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