Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Who Needs a Yom Tov Sheni?

I purposefully post this blog entry on a yom tov sheni to prove a point, which is that we no longer need a second day to celebrate Jewish holidays in the Diaspora. Biblically speaking, Pesach and Sukkot were to be celebrated seven days, whereas the others were meant to be celebrated for one day. From a historic standpoint, the reason for the divergence from the Tanach is due to exile. When there was a Sanhedrin, they would declare the arrival of the new moon. That message was then conveyed by via beacon fires on hilltops. Because of the extensiveness of the Diaspora, this system was later replaced by a system of messengers who would travel throughout the Diaspora to deliver the news, as is stated by Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 22b):

בראשונה היו משיאין משואות. משקלקלו הכותים, התקינו שיהו שלוחין יוצאין

In the beginning they would light torches but when the Kutim caused sabotage, the Sages enacted [notification of the new moon] by sending out messengers.

The messenger system, however, was not as effective as one would have liked. As a result, the practice of yom tov sheni (a second holiday day) was instituted to make sure that one would, G-d forbid, accidentally eat chametz on Pesach or hear the shofar on the wrong day. Although imperfect, the practice of messengers continued until the fourth century C.E. The Byzantine Empire made the declaration of the calendar illegal and punishable by law. Fortunately, Hillel Hanasi had calculated all of the times of the Jewish holidays. In spite of this generated back-up, yom tov sheni is still practiced (Beitza 4b):
וחשתא דידעינן בקביעא דירחא, מאי טעמא עבדינן תרי יומי? משום דשלחו מתם,
הזהרו במנהג אבותיכם בידיכם, זמנין דגזרו המלכות גזרה ואתי לאקלקולי

Now that the calendar is fixed what is the reason we have two days of Yom Tov [in Chutz L’Aretz]? Because they sent from there [from Eretz Yisrael to Bavel]: be zealous in maintaining the custom of your forefathers lest a foreign government will pass a law to forbid the calculations of the new moon and you may miscalculate [the time of the festival].

Even though this is declared as a rabbinic law, I will now explain why yom tov sheni is unnecessary:

1a) The purpose of yom tov sheni was to act as a safeguard to ensure that the holiday was properly observed. We know when all of the holidays will occur because they have been calculated. Although the practice of “a government passing a law to forbid the calculations of the new moon and you may miscalculate” is theoretically of concern, we don’t have to worry about that anymore. Especially with the wide dissemination of Jewish information and the advent of the Internet, the probability of all information regarding the Jewish calendar being destroyed is well beyond the improbable. Hence, the Sage’s concerns here are a non-issue.

1b) According to Jewish law, if a takanah [or a gezeirah, for that matter] has an explicit reason to it and that reason no longer applies, a higher court is not needed to overturn the Sanhedrin’s ruling. Even though there is a debate on whether this is a takanah or a minhag, much of what I have seen treats this practice as a takanah. Read the Reform movement’s teshuva on the issue.

[Note: Normally, I would never, ever use a Reform responsum to justify my opinion. The reason behind that is that their response to just about everything else in Judaism is “forget tradition, we’re going to do it our way!” They don’t even attempt to struggle with the complexities of Jewish law, which is nothing more than a form of intellectual laziness. Rather, they find it more convenient to throw out the baby with the bath water via subjective autonomy. However, I find exception with this teshuva because it actually takes halacha into consideration.]

Although the Orthodox community would rather be a stalwart advocate for “halacha doesn’t change,” this practice becomes a textbook case for overturning a takanah because, as mentioned above, the reason, that being that a government can prohibit the Jewish people from being able to accurately calculate the time of the holidays, is explicitly stated in the halacha.

2) This practice can cause economic hardship. It usually is difficult enough to get time off for the primary yom tov. Getting off for yom tov sheni produces even more difficulty. In some instances, it can mean the difference between taking a certain job and having to find a more menial job. Other instances can cause the loss of your job. Even if you are lucky enough where your boss approves the time off, it will, in all likelihood, be unpaid. In all instances, creating further economic strain does not help, especially when “a vow of poverty” is anathematic to Judaism.

3) Yom tov sheni does not enhance one’s observance of the holiday. A one day yom tov does better to preserve one’s kavanah than a two-day yom tov. This is not an attempt to justify the short attention span that American culture has instilled in us. It is a pragmatic argument stating that with most people, religious or not, it is much more likely that one will be able to appreciate the meaning of a holiday if that fervor is concentrated into one day rather than being drawn out to two.

4) In all reality, not even the religious communities take yom tov sheni all that seriously. How do I know that? I just look at two Jewish practices d’oraita, and realize that observant Jews don’t consistently practice yom tov sheni. The first one is fasting on Yom Kippur. I understand that most people do not have the endurance to fast for two days. But if you wanted to be absolutely sure that you observed the mitzvah of fasting on Yom Kippur, wouldn’t you, based on your rationale for yom tov sheni, fast for two days to be absolutely sure that you perform the mitzvah? Rather than fasting for two days, any Orthodox Jew relies on the calendar for a one-day observance. The second proof is the counting of the omer. When one counts the omer, does one say “this is the 28th day of the omer or the 29th day of the omer? No! Traditional Jews rely on the calendar for this practice, as well. Finally, we see that halacha even permits, albeit with a lot of debate, doing acts of melacha on yom tov sheni.

In short, people keep the practice not because it cannot be annulled (quite the contrary!), and not because it adds anything to Jewish observance, but because "it's tradition."  On a personal level, if it's your minhag to practice a yom tov sheni, that's fine. But as for me, I find it to be halachically unnecessary, not to metion an impediment on my celebration of the holidays, which is why I'm going to stick with one-day observance for the time being.