Does anyone still observe the second day of Yom Tov? It’s a little annoying, isn’t it? We do the same Seder all over again. We make kiddush in the Sukkah all over again. Thank G-d, at least we don’t have to stay up another night on Shavuos!
It’s just a custom that the rabbis made up, right? Easy for them to say, they just sit around learning Torah all day. Us regular people work hard to make a living. Seriously, who has time to take an extra day off work to commemorate some old minhag?
In Temple times, the Jewish calendar was not fixed. Each month was determined with the sighting of the new moon. Once that fact was witnessed and established, the rabbis of the Sanhedrin had to get word out to everybody. People in the Jerusalem area heard pretty quickly by word of mouth.
For communities further away, our ancestors set up a system of smoke signals. A fire was lit on one mountain which was spotted by the people on the next mountain, prompting them to light their fire which was subsequently spotted by the next mountaineers. And so on and so forth until all the communities far and wide got the message.
The mischievous Samaritans, however, decided that they too would start lighting fires, distorting the credibility of the process and so we had to abandon that system. Instead, the Sanhedrin began sending out messengers to every community to let them know when the new month had been established, a more reliable, but much less efficient method.
While the cities of the Land of Israel and its immediate surrounds got the message in time, communities further afield would not know until weeks later. Consequently, when Yom Tov rolled around on the 15th of the month, they would not know what the correct day was to celebrate. As a result, Yom Tov in the Diaspora became two days to cover all bases.
“Now that we have a fixed calendar, why do we do two days?” inquired the Babylonian rabbis. The rabbis of Israel sent them a response, “Be careful with the custom of your ancestors that you practice, for there will come a time when your gentile governments will issue anti-Semitic decrees and you will err.”
Of course nowadays, we all know which day is the correct day of Yom Tov. But imagine if we didn’t have our 200-year Jewish calendar book, because the anti-Semitic authorities had burned all our books; and that we couldn’t check the date online, because they were censoring the internet. Rashi adds that if Torah study were forbidden, we would forget how to calculate the new month and end up “eating chametz on Pesach.”
The only way left for us to figure out the new month would be to go outside and look for the new moon. That is far from a fail-proof method and so we end up having to keep two days of Yom Tov to make sure that we weren’t eating chametz on Pesach.
Today is the 3rd Nissan, the day in 1492 that many of our ancestors’ lives fell apart overnight. On that day, the most established Jewish community of the time, Spanish Jewry, was expelled from their homes en masse. Just think of all the scholars, poets, businesspeople, artists, engineers, doctors, teachers and their families who all of a sudden had to drop everything, gather some small belongings and begin the long journey to nowhere.
Do you think the Jews of Spain ever imagined they would be without their 200-year calendars? Some of them wandered to North Africa, others to Ashkenaz – one of our greatest Jewish centres of all time was destroyed in an instant. Some took many years to reestablish themselves; in the meantime, all they could do to figure out when to celebrate Pesach was to go outside and look for the moon.
Not to mention the Jews that stayed in Spain and practiced their Judaism secretly, bereft of Jewish books or scholars, how would they have known when Yom Tov was to begin?
Those who treat 2nd day Yom Tov as a joke do so because “it’s just a custom of our ancestors.” They forget the second part of the Talmud’s teaching: “Be careful with the custom of your ancestors that you practice, for there will come a time when your gentile governments will issue anti-Semitic decrees and you will err.”
The message of the rabbis in Israel to their counterparts in Babylonia was ‘You think that Jewish life is good in Babylonia. Don’t become complacent because your present security is fleeting. As Diaspora Jews, you will be forever vulnerable.’
The 2nd day of Yom Tov is designed to remind us that we must never become complacent with life in the Diaspora. On the 2nd night of Pesach, when you’re sitting at the Pesach seder and your teenagers ask, ‘Must we do this again?’ you need to explain to them that as long as we have not made aliyah, the answer is ‘yes.’ As you make Kiddush on the 2nd night of Sukkos, you must tell your children, ‘Yes, G-d protects us, but life in the Diaspora is one big Sukkah – it will never be guaranteed, it will always be temporary.’
This is the incredibly important message of 2nd day Yom Tov. In some ways, it is even more important than the 1st day, since it serves as a wake-up call that while we might be celebrating Pesach, we’ve chosen to remain slaves; while we might be celebrating Sukkos, we’ve chosen to live lives that are temporary and insecure.
May we all have the strength to commit to celebrating just one day of Yom Tov in our Holy Land of Israel very soon!
Today’s Life Yomi is dedicated l’iluy nishmas Rabbi Dovid Stavsky, rabbi of Columbus OH. He was succeeded by his grandson (yblc”t) Rabbi Tuly Weisz. Today, Rabbi Weisz celebrates 1 day of Yom Tov in Israel and strives to share the beauty of the Holy Land with all the nations of the world at www.israel365.com.