Today is a day of déjà vous. We just celebrated the first day of Passover, so why are we doing it again? On Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah at least we create differences in liturgy, doing the prayer for rain and yizkor on Shmini Atzeret and beginning the Torah anew on Simhat Torah. On the two days of Shavuot we also have a liturgical difference, reading the poem Akdamut on the first day and reading the Book of Ruth and doing Yizkor on the second day. On Passover and Sukkot, however, there is no liturgical difference between the 1st and 2nd days. On the 2nd days of both holidays we read the same Torah reading, which also gives me cause to pause. Why do we need 2 days of yuntif?
When I was in Israel we only had 1 day of each yuntif. I followed the teshuva (responsa) by Rabbi Meir Rabinowitz stating that American students studying in Israel only need to observe 1 day of yuntif like Israelis do. This was my first exposure to having only 1 Seder and 1 fewer day of not eating leavened products. It made me think about why that extra day is there in the Diaspora.
The explanation for 2 day yuntif is based off the Jewish lunar calendar. Jews calculated their months by the cycle of the moon, with the new moon being the beginning of a month, the full moon being the middle (and when most festivals occurred) and the next new moon being the start of the next month. In order to determine the start of each month, 2 witnesses went out to look for the new moon. When they saw it, they went to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court in Jerusalem, to proclaim the new month (Rosh Chodesh). They then dispersed to proclaim the new month throughout the Jewish villages. However, it sometimes took them an extra day to reach the communities in the Diaspora, so the Diaspora Jews, out of uncertainty as to when the new month began, created a 2 day Rosh Chodesh. Subsequently, this threw off all the holidays that occurred during that month, as if one was not sure which day was the beginning of the new month, he/she would not be sure what day was the beginning of the holiday (or the ending for that matter). Therefore, communities in the Diaspora decided to make the beginning and ending of each holiday 2 days.
The question that emanates from this is that in the modern era, when we calculate the beginning of the new month without needing witnesses, why do we still have a 2 day yuntif? The answer to this is a Jewish principle called מנהג אבותנו בידנו, meaning “the custom of our ancestors is in our hands.” This means that if our ancestors practiced a certain way, so should we, for the alternative is tantamount to telling our ancestors “we know better than you.” Judaism generally gives high weight to past tradition or precedent, often at the expense of innovation.
What’s of interest to me is that the Teshuvot, written responsa, have been written about Yom Tov Sheni (the second day of yuntif) by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Law and Jewish Standards since the 1960s, expressing frustration for low synagogue attendance on the second day of every festival. One of the opinions required Conservative synagogues to keep Yom Tov Sheni but the other three made it the rabbi’s decision as to whether or not Yom Tov Sheni would be kept. Almost every other time the Law Committee has made a lenient opinion a large percentage of Conservative synagogues have followed it. However, I can count on one hand those Conservative synagogues that I know which only keep one day of yuntif. That indicates to me that there is something compelling about Yom Tov Sheni that is causing Conservative synagogues to hold onto it.
Personally I am not in favor of going to one day of Yom Tov, as I feel strongly connected to the traditions of our ancestors, and I get an extra day to celebrate the holiday. I enjoy having 2 Sedarim, as it gives me more opportunities to reflect on what it means to be free from slavery and to have undergone an exodus from Egypt, the place which is narrow. It’s also nice to have 2 days for family and friends to come together, as I see with Karina and my families being together at this time. At times I wish I only had 1 day of yuntif, as it is hard refraining from electricity, writing, and so many other things that I take for granted the rest of the week. At the same time, however, I find value in continuing existing traditions. In a way, each of you has shown what’s important to you by coming here to celebrate Passover after what was most likely a long night at home or with friends.
What are your feelings about the 2nd Day of Yuntif, or about continuing existing traditions versus modifying the traditions to suit our modern day lifestyle? Do your feelings change when the original reasons for the tradition no longer exist (i.e. being able to calculate the month without witnesses, or knowing the differences between wheat products or kitniyot-legumes?)
As we near the end of Passover, I hope each of us takes time to think about what traditions are important to us and why they are important. Our decision to retain or innovate is less important that the process we use to determine this and the reasons for our decision. In an age where all of us are ‘Jews by choice,’ it is crucial for us to know what’s important to us and to determine what gives our lives personal meaning while concurrently thinking about our obligations to those around us. May the rest of your yuntif be a time of reflection as to where our Jewish lives are currently at and where we hope they will go. Hag Sameach.