Sunsetting the Second Day of Holidays

A Hasidic tzaddik, the Ishbitzer Rebbe (1802-1854), warned us against turning mitzvot (commandments) into idols.  Mitzvot are designed to be vehicles to serve God. Some mitzvot, over time, lose that function, but we preserve them for the sake of tradition. But, what about when those miztvot become obstacles to serving God, and yet we preserve them because they were once effective vehicles to serving God? For the Ishbitzer, that’s an example of making an idol from a mitzvah.

My primary teacher for Rabbinic Judaism (the Judaism of the Talmud and the Midrash) was Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013), zikhrono livrachah. One of his earliest books was entitled A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (1985). He had little patience for his colleagues in the rabbinic world who would respond to his innovative spirit by citing “what is written” as if that alone precluded any change. His argument was that such an attitude turns the living covenant into a dead letter and our tree of life into petrified wood. Preventing rigor mortis, Hartman taught, was one of the primary functions of the rabbi.

Rabbi Hartman’s final book, The God Who Hates Lies, was published posthumously. It’s a tragic book that reveals, with first-hand knowledge and intellectual rigor, where Modern Orthodoxy went wrong. One of the absurdities Rabbi Hartman exposes is the observance of the second day of holidays in the diaspora. Such observance began because of potential confusion as to the start of the lunar month. Yet, already in the Talmudic period, the calendar was mathematically determined to eliminate any possible confusion. Nevertheless, the tradition of a two-day observance in the diaspora was continued because, in the language of the Talmud, it was a custom of our ancestors. Rabbi Hartman laments, “Reality lacks the ability to alter long-standing tradition…. We have no doubt, yet live as those who did.”

It’s past time to sunset the second day, but not only because of the reason my beloved rabbi laid out. The vast majority of us live in a world where taking off five extra days a year constitutes a burden. (Every legal system legislates for the majority.) Our legal tradition forbids us from unnecessarily burdening the community. One example the Talmud gives us of “burdening the community” is adding several extra verses in the morning prayer! This prohibition on burdening the community was then codified in our standard halakhic texts.

In 1969, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued the following statement:

“Our proposed declaration on the Second Day of Festivals will also help restore some semblance of confidence in the machinery of halakhah, in the operation of our Law Committee, and in the realism of our approach to Judaism. Yom Tov Sheni [the Second Day of Festivals], more than anything we can pinpoint, is a severe case of an enactment which the community cannot live with, which the Rabbis of old had the good grace to remove…. A declaration on the Second Day of Festivals should be offered because the second day is halakhically indefensible. It is not crucial if the declaration utterly fails to increase piety or Jewish observance among those of little devotion. We should act for the sake of those who enjoy and observe one day, but regard the second day as repetitious and burdensome, although they observe it because of their loyalty to halakhah.”

There is a small but growing number of Conservative congregations that have sunset the second day. My sermon this past Simchat Torah proposed doing the same. After study and discussion, the Religious Practices Committee is ready to move forward with a congregational discussion to lay out the implications for AJ. Details explaining the rationale and consequences of the proposed shift are in this Powerpoint presentation. If you would like to comment on the proposal, you can do so below.

Like Rabbi Hartman, I believe Judaism is a living covenant. Like Avraham, we sometimes need to shatter our ancestors’ idols that conflict with that covenant. Other times, just as our ancestors initially instituted a second day of holidays because of communal need, we too will need to take on additional burdens and responsibilities to maintain the relevance and vibrancy of our covenant. May God grace us with the wisdom to keep our covenant alive and thriving.

6 comments

  1. Wendy Fein Cooper

    I am on board with this change. Len and I are among the people who are not usually able to attend the second day of services, other than Rosh Hashanah. In fact, I know that you will find a way to continue the baby event that has historically occurred for the Akeda aliyah. You might want to get ahead of potentially negative comments because this is one of the most popular events at AJ. We zoomed this in a very creative way this past RH, but in person needs to return in a fully accessible way. You might want to incorporate some of what would have been done on the second day in the daily services that occur on the second day, so that the tradition is honored in a limited way for those who prefer. Are any of the other local Conservative synagogues doing the same?

    1. shai cherry

      If I’m understanding you correctly, there’s no issue because Rosh Hashana will still be 2 days–as it is in Israel.

  2. David pashman

    Are any other phila area synagogues doing this? If not and we do this we may place ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.

      1. shai cherry

        As far as I can determine, there are no other Philadelphia, Conservative synagogues who have sunset the second day.

  3. Nancy Zucker

    Rav Shai, I for one am on board with the sunsetting. I think that as a congregation we must be fluid in our practices while at the same time be true to our traditions and mitzvot, and also be a part of the 21rst century. I feel that these are compatible and will only make our congregation even stronger. Through compromise most problems or disagreements can be worked out. I’m am grateful you are here at A.J.

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