In Defense of Yom Tov Sheni (The second day of Yom Tov outside the Land of Israel)
Tablet Magazine tells us that there is a new crisis in the orthodox Jewish community. Keeping two days of yom tov outside the Land of Israel is under attack.
The Torah commands the Jewish people to celebrate certain holidays with restrictions on creative activity akin to Shabbos. There are 6 days like this in the Torah. Rosh Hashanah (1), Sukkos (2), Shmini Atzeres (3), Pesach (4,5) and Shavuos (6). In the Diaspora these days are celebrated for two days of restrictions on creative activity akin to Shabbos. When these days fall out on Thursday and Friday it creates the proverbial 3 day yom tov. For 3 straight days, one is bound by those restrictions and it can make even the most fervently religious and observant person uncomfortable.
It seems that the discomfort is becoming so great that liberties are being taken with the “2nd day”.
An article in Tablet describes one orthodox family that allows their family to use “electronic entertainment” on the 2nd day. They have basically abandoned the 2nd day but supposedly keep everything else. Over time they have found more families that observe similarly and they feel less guilty. In fact the mother was quoted as saying “Mostly, I feel like I know a fabulous secret that no one else knows.”
The article assumes that the backlash and difficulty in keeping the 2nd day comes from a lack of understanding or appreciation for why we keep the 2nd day. I tend to agree.
As a rabbi in a very diverse community I have been asked this very question in many way, shapes, forms and formats. Perhaps my understanding of the issue will help illuminate some of the people who are on the fence or even if they are not on the fence, curious, as they should be about the observance of 2 days in modern times.
First, a bit of background and history.
The first commandment given to the Jewish people as a nation was the requirement that they follow the lunar calendar and establish the new months via witnesses who testify that the new month had begun. When 2 witnesses would see the new moon they would come to the court and testify as what they saw. If their testimony was accepted, the new month would begin immediately.
Sometime during the Second Temple a comprehensive lunar calendar became available. But the Biblical requirement to establish the new month via witnesses remained. Further, there was a bit of ambiguity that remained in the calendar. The previous month could be 29 or 30 days. This would be determined by the witnesses. If the moon was seen the eve of the 30th day it would become the 1st of the next month and the previous month would have had 29 days. If it was seen the eve of the 31st day the previous month will have had 30 days and the next day would the 1st.
The news of the new month was sent across the Land of Israel and the territories with Jewish inhabitants. News of the new month would hit almost immediately in Israel. But the outlying territories would not hear about the precise date of the new month for up to 2 weeks.
So in Israel it was simple to establish the start of the holidays that begin on the 15th of the month (Sukkos and Pesach) and on the 15th the holiday began, they celebrated one day as the Torah commands. But in the outlying territories, news of the which kind of month, the 29 day month or the 30 day month, was not heard before the holiday was scheduled to commence.
So let’s assume the 29th was Sunday. If the 30th day was really the 1st day of the new month, the 15th would be Monday. If the first day of the new month was the day after the 30th, the new month would begin on Tuesday and the 15th would be Tuesday as well.
In the outlying areas they would celebrate Monday AND Tuesday as the holiday just to be certain that it was being celebrated at the right time. This became the established law during the time of the Talmud.
Today, we have a set calendar and there is no court to establish the new month via witnesses. There is no doubt as to which day is yom tov. So why do we celebrate the 2nd day in 2011?
Tablet correctly notes that since it was established in the Talmud as law we are bound to it. What they do not explain is why the Talmudic scholars may have done so.
There is significance to the fact that the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation is the commandment to establish the new month. Many reasons and explanations are given. One of the more poignant proposals is that of R’ Hirsch.
R’ Hirsch compares the Jewish people to the moon. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, so too the Jewish people rise and fall. Sometimes we are up. sometimes we are down. Just as the moon reflects light from the sun, so too the Jewish people reflect the light of God and the Torah.
This comparison reminds us that we are constantly forming and reforming ourselves. The story is never over. Our choices can change who we are at any time. We are anything but complete.
Further, the power of the people to proclaim the new month, the requirement that the new month be established by the people serves as a constant reminder that we have so much power as human beings. We can control time and we must harness it to work for us.
This is an integral lesson for the Jewish people and the entire world. The Torah clearly wants us to master this life lesson as indicated by the very prominent place the Torah gives this commandment. It is the first commandment given to the Jewish people as a nation.
But how are we to integrate this lesson into our lives with action if the commandment to establish the new month with witnesses has become obsolete? If our calendar is set, we miss out on learning this valuable lesson.
It is for this reason, the rabbis established that we celebrate 2 days in the diaspora even when we no longer rely on witnesses to begin the new month. By keeping the 2nd day we remind ourselves of the important lessons of the moon and the important lessons of human beings establishing the new month. If we always kept one day, we would lose that opportunity. Forever. That would be tragic.
To make sure that this lesson remained part of the Jewish experience the rabbis of the Talmud mandated that we keep the 2nd day in the Diaspora. Even today.
I think that if we view the 2nd day as an opportunity for making these lessons real, we have a better chance of withstanding the temptation to dismiss the 2nd day. However if we view it as a quirk of history, a mistake as it were, then it is far too easy to do away with the 2nd day.
It is my hope that we can inspire each other to commit to the 2nd day with as much fervor, excitement and passion as the 1st day and use it is a springboard for greater personal growth through the years.
Posted On: October 5, 2011