Double the Fun?  Why Are There Two Days of Yom Tov (Yuntif)?-Passover Day 2

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.

The Bread of Our Affliction-Passover Day 1

What’s the point in the Seder when you realize “this is it”? For some it is from the moment they step through the door and see the Seder plate and the table set. For others it is hearing the Four Questions from the youngest member of their family. For me it has been the beginning of the telling of the Passover story.

For many, the Maggid section is the most boring-something to race through in anticipation of the Seder meal. I would argue, however, that the first paragraph sets the tone for why we observe a Seder in the first place. The paragraph reads (in English), “This is the bread of our affliction-let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need partake in our Passover.” This in my opinion is the reason why we gather together at the Seder. Some of us think of Jewish holidays in the sense of “They try to kill us-we won-let’s eat!” However, our holidays go beyond that-their focus is to teach us that now that we are free, what are we going to do to uphold that freedom? Now that we are no longer slaves, what will we do to ensure that there will not be slavery in the world?

According to an article in Reuters, there are 29,6 million slaves around the world, more than ever before, roughly equivalent to the population of Australia and Denmark combined. Modern-day slavery is a fast-growing industry worth $32 billion a year, equal to the profit of McDonalds and Walmart combined. There are currently 880,000 people engaged in forced labor across the European Union. 58% are women, the majority victims of sexual exploitation – the most lucrative form of slavery. India – with a population of over 1.2 billion – has more slaves than any other country in the world: 14.7 million.

What does this have to do with us? Unfortunately, the slavery situation in the United States is not much better. A January article from The Huffington Post stated that human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing crime, occupying 90% of the work of the Department of Defense. There are estimated hundreds of thousands enslaved in the United States. One of those was Ima Matul who received a job offer in the states from Indonesia. After arriving in the states, her passport was confiscated and she had to work seven days a week without pay. If she tried had tried to report it, she would have been thrown in jail as an illegal for not having her passport. President Obama acknowledged this 2 and a half years ago when he stated, “but for all the progress that we’ve made, the bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here, in the United States.  It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker.  The man, lured here with the promise of a job, his documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen.  The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets.  This should not be happening in the United States of America.”  

If we think this is not a Jewish issue, let us remember the hundreds of Mexican workers who were bussed up from the border to the Agroprocesors glatt kosher plant in Postville, Iowa. They were given false documentation-assigned to two 8-hour shifts per day with false social security numbers never to receive their wages. In my opinion they were exploited as cheap labor, and since they have been deported with criminal records. Human trafficking and exploitation of “the other” is a form of slavery. Though I am one to generally defend fellow Jews, I marched in Postville in solidarity with the workers, who I believe were economically abused by Agroprocessors.

The Haggadah teaches “B’kol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim,”-in each and every generation, a person is required to see himself as if he came out of Egypt, also translated as “the narrow place”. Maimonides took a more active role in his Haggadah, saying “hayav adam l’harot et atzmo,” that a person must show himself as if he came out of Egypt-hence those who dress up as Israelites crossing the desert. I propose a third definition: that in each generation we need to remember our exodus from Egypt and act to ensure that others can have their own exodus from Egypt-their personal place of narrows. Micah Kaplan of the Hartman Institute teaches that the lesson of redemption from slavery was to turn us into liberators. For Kaplan, it is not enough to celebrate at one’s Seder table the miraculous nature of the exodus-rather one must actively work to redeem others who are enslaved.

How can we work together to make a difference? From a global perspective, one can contribute to American Jewish World Service, an organization which is focused upon global justice, including equal rights for men and women, an end to human trafficking of all types and the right for everyone to receive an education. From a local perspective, you can help out at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, where there are so many in need of assistance, most of them children. Regardless of your political beliefs on immigration, if we do not work to help these children they could fall into the hands of human traffickers, and that is something that I’m sure we can all agree that we do not want.

As we celebrate the holiday of liberation with another Seder tonight, let us think of all who are enslaved and in need of our help. May this Passover be a bridge for us to move from the liberation of our people to the liberation of others. Hag Sameach.

Lifting All Sanctions? A BIG Mistake

I strongly disagree with the agreement that the P5 +1 has made with Iran. This 10 year deal to reduce Iran’s centrifuges by 2/3, reduce its enriched uranium stockpiles and increase inspections of its nuclear facilities does not dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. Obama spoke about Iran not developing weapons-grade plutonium, the core of its reactor at Arak being dismantled and replaced, the fuel from that facility being shipped out of Iran for the life of the reactor, Iran not building a new heavy water reactor and Iran not reprocessing fuel from its existing reactors. In exchange, the world’s powers will drop their sanctions on Iran. As I have mentioned previously, I do NOT trust Iran to abide by any agreement. President Obama said this is not based off trust but rather off of verifiable information: that Iran can be effectively monitored and stopped from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Why do I believe this? Because Iran is refusing surprise inspections and has ruled its military facilities, such as the enrichment plant at Fordo, off limits to any inspections, period. What makes you think that Iran will not continue to develop enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium at sites like this? What will stop Iran from secretly developing a bomb without our being aware of it? Lifting all sanctions will enable Iran to obtain the supplies it needs to build a bomb all the more quickly.

I hope that Congress will pass the Corker-Menendez Iran Nuclear Review Act, having the opportunity to review and veto such a deal before it is signed. I thanked Senator Schumer for being a co-sponsor of that act and called Senator Gillibrand’s office to urge her to co-sponsor as well. I hope that if President Obama and the P5+1 proceed forward on such an agreement that Congress will veto it-for the alternative in my view will likely be a nuclear-armed Iran.

On a separate note, I wish all Jewish readers a Happy Passover and all Christian readers a Happy Easter.