Smashing the idol of inertia: Sunsetting the second day of holidays

Returning to the States after two years at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, where I first became traditionally observant, was disorienting enough. Never did I seriously entertain keeping the second day of holidays as do most traditional Jews outside of Israel. But that was way back when I was a sovereign self, beholden to nobody but me. Now I’m a rabbi at a mid-sized, suburban Conservative shul.

In Zoom Year 1, after sermonizing at Rosh Hoshana (x2), Shabbat Shuva, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (x2), and Shmini Atzeret, my d’var Torah on Simchat Torah was about sunsetting the second day of holidays (yom tov sheni). I offered the dvar as something to consider; my congregational president took it as something to pursue. And so began an eight-month, colorful sunset.

When Corona was still just a beer, I finished writing a book manuscript in which I identified the observance of yom tov sheni as incoherent. That second day was born under a parental cloud: Were those smoke signals for the new moon from the good Rabbis or the bad Samaritans? In order to prevent those sneaky Samaritans from sabotaging our sacred calendar for those living beyond the borders of the Land of Israel, a rule was promulgated that Jewish communities outside the Land should observe a second day of each holiday to ensure observance on the proper day.

So far, so coherent. Our leaders of old decided that those 5 extra days of holidays, and their attendant opportunity costs, were worthwhile to align our actions with the proper moment for those actions. But here’s where things get wonky. Not everyone believed that there were objectively “proper” moments where the quality of time morphed from mundane to holy. Without getting overly metaphysical, we can ask if the essence of time is constant or variable. If it’s constant, then what changes is our perception of different times—and that’s exactly what the Rabbis decided.

The Mishnah describes Rabban Gamliel demanding Rabbi Joshua show up at the Beit Midrash like it’s a normal workday even though by Rabbi Joshua’s reckoning, it is really Yom Kippur. Rabbi Joshua justifies his compliance by reading the verse from Leviticus with the following emphasis: “These are the times of the Lord, the festivals, which you will invoke” (Lev. 23:4). Regardless of whether they are “proper” according to the cosmos, once you invoke them, they become proper.

Fast forward a few generations when a descendant of Rabban Gamliel mathematically determined the days of all future holidays. Here’s where things get even wonkier. Even though we knew, with mathematical precision, on which day to celebrate the holidays, the Rabbis of the Talmud maintained two days of holidays for diaspora communities out of respect to the “custom of our ancestors.” Wonky is not necessarily incoherent. In general, and specifically on this issue, I tend to defend the decisions of our Sages. Taking diaspora Jews out of circulation for those extra five days a year may well have reinforced our group identity in ways that allowed us to survive nearly two thousand years of statelessness. Every other nation had a common language, a common land, a common currency, and an army. We had the customs of our ancestors.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, European industrialization and Jewish emancipation combined to make the second day of holidays feel onerous to some outside the newly branded “Orthodox” community. Already in the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva had established the precedent of not burdening the congregation with excessive prayers. His precedent had become the halakhah. By 1846, members of a London Temple decided that the second day fell into that category of onerous and jettisoned the burden. By 1969, the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee gave the green light to synagogues that wanted to follow suit. Few have.

Our synagogue’s religious practice committee vetted the issue not long after Simchat Torah. We spent several months reviewing the history and halakhah before deciding to move the issue to the board of directors. After going through a similar educational process with the board, I then wrote a newsletter article proposing the changes and solicited feedback. Simultaneously, we conducted two town hall meetings to insure that everyone understood the issues and consequences as well as to question, discuss, and oppose. Each was spirited.

There was worry that some members might leave. There was concern that such a change would put us at a competitive disadvantage when folks went shopping for a Conservative shul. There was delight that we would be operating on the Israeli liturgical calendar. (Even in Israel, there are two days of Rosh Hashana which will distinguish our practice from that of most American Reform temples which only celebrate one day.) There was relief from folks who were coming on the second day only because that was the expectation, and from folks who were not coming but felt guilty about their absence. There were also many compromise solutions suggested. But my favorite part was the question, “Why would we do this?”

Let me answer with a question: Why would we continue doing something that no longer makes any sense and is either morally problematic or onerous? I check my clothes tags to make sure there’s no prohibited combination of wool and linen. It might not make sense, but there’s no moral conundrum, and there are plenty of permissible alternatives. The Conservative movement eased the restrictions against homosexual intimacy precisely because it was a moral issue. Sunsetting the second day of holidays demonstrates that we are not slaves to tradition. As the Hasidic masters warned us, halakhah can become an idol. If Judaism is to remain relevant, inertia alone cannot determine our future. Why sunset the second day? For the same reason the Sages instituted the second day—it makes sense given our reality.

The process our congregation undertook was both educational and largely respectful. The very few ruffled feathers were quickly smoothed. Last night, before the vote, one family suggested that we dedicate our five liberated days to other mitzvot focused on gmilut chasadim. The idea was applauded.

The board of directors and the board of trustees voted 44 to 2 in favor of sunsetting the second day. Each generation has its idols, and each generation its idol smashers. Iconoclasm is also a custom of our ancestors.

Shai Cherry is the Rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is, Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah.

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