Ask the Rabbi: Short-shrifted on holidays?

Ask the Rabbi Short-shr

Q. Why do many Jews in the Diaspora observe two days of each festival, while Jews living in Israel only observe one? - D.R., Jerusalem As an immigrant who previously (and happily) observed two days of the festivals but now enjoys the Israeli norm of one day, I can assure all prospective olim: Switching to one day will be the easiest part of your acclimation! In seriousness, however, the observance of a second day of festivals like Succot and Pessah has greatly divided the Jewish people over the past two centuries, reflecting schisms regarding acculturation, tradition and the legal process. The Torah mandates several festivals which, like Shabbat, demand greater spiritual intensity and abstinence from creative work activities (Leviticus 23). These dates include: Rosh Hashana (1 Tishrei), Yom Kippur (10 Tishrei), Succot (15 Tishrei), Shmini Atzeret (22 Tishrei), the first day of Pessah (15 Nisan), the seventh day of Pessah (21 Nisan) and Shavuot (6 Sivan). Even as the dates remained fairly established, any given year's schedule fluctuated, since the lunar month could have 29 or 30 days. Jews in antiquity did not establish a fixed monthly calendar but instead, following biblical mandates (Exodus 12), declared the new month based on sightings of the new moon. Once declared by judicial bodies in Jerusalem, torches were lit on the Mount of Olives and subsequent hilltops to announce the date to outlying communities. When the sectarian Cutheans challenged the rabbinic calendar and interfered with the scheme, the sages instituted an authorized messenger system (Rosh Hashana 22b). From the outset, this system remained complex for Rosh Hashana, as testimony regarding the new moon, which triggered numerous ritual obligations, could happen at any point of the day. While various decrees ensured the proper fulfillment of the Temple ceremonies, Jews abstained from work on 30 Elul and the following day, ensuring that forbidden work was not performed on a day that might be declared Rosh Hashana (Beitza 5a). With the other festivals, which occur later within a given month, Israeli communities observed the singular biblical date, as messengers could timely announce the proper calendar day. In the Diaspora (primarily Babylonia), however, two festival days were observed, as they remained in doubt regarding the actual calendar date. Following the turmoil of the Temple's destruction, a fixed calendar was established in the mid-fourth century CE by Hillel II and disseminated throughout the Jewish world, thereby making the second festival day theoretically unnecessary. Nonetheless, scholars in the Land of Israel declared to their Diaspora brethren, "Heed the customs of your ancestors" (Beitza 4b, PT Eruvin 3:9). This conservatism further reflected both messianic hopes for the restoration of the old system, as well as fear that evil promulgations against Torah study might lead to mistakes in the fixed calendar. Within Israel itself, it appears that local inhabitants initially observed only one day of Rosh Hashana (Ba'al Hameor Beitza), but began in the 10th century to celebrate two days (Milhamot Beitza). With the exception of rare pious sages, Yom Kippur was never observed anywhere for two days, given the difficulties of extended fasting (OC 624:5). While widely practiced until the 19th century, these strict practices were challenged by the medieval Karaites, who criticized rabbinic scholars for illegitimate augmentations to biblical law. Medieval rabbis retorted that the Torah itself empowers the sages to govern the calendar (Terumat Hadeshen Psakim 116) and that moreover, the second day observance was a rabbinic decree that could not be nullified (Otzar Geonim Beitza), in line with the judicial principle that only a greater synod could overturn a previous decree, even if the underlying reason for the decree became irrelevant (Eduyot 1:5). This last claim became particularly common in the 19th century when the nascent Reform movement clamored to abolish this practice. As Prof. Jacob Katz documented, a variety of factors motivated these reformers. On the legal level, many of these enlightened Jews contended that it was irrational and counter to the biblical spirit to observe this outdated "custom." This was particularly true due to perceived economic hardships that the additional days of rest imposed, especially when dealing with a population which had begun to abandon observing the festivals entirely. (One compromise proposal reflects well this tension: Keep the festival prayers, but drop the work restrictions!). Similar tensions have emerged in recent decades within the American Conservative movement, which continues to debate this issue. As with other reforms, the Orthodox response was firm and uncompromising, ranging from the legal (this custom constitutes an unbreakable law) to the sentimental (your poor ancestors sacrificed under worse conditions, their wealthier descendents can do the same) to the polemical (these are neo-Karaites who simply want to assimilate). These standpoints came to largely exemplify denominational polemics, thus turning these joyful days into contentious times. The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and edits the Text & Texture blog (Text.Rcarabbis.Org). Submit questions to: