Yom Tov Sheni: The second day of festivals
Outside of Israel, the biblical Jewish holidays have an extra day added to them, known as Yom Tov Sheni shel galuyyot (the second day of the festival in the diaspora), or more commonly as Yom Tov Sheni. Exceptions are on hol ha-mo’ed, the intermediate days of Sukkot and Pesach, and Yom Kipur (Day of Atonement.)
“The practice originated because of the uncertainty in the Diaspora of the day on which the Sanhedrin announced the New Moon. Later, when astronomical calculations were relied upon, the sages declared that the custom should nevertheless be accepted as permanent. Although the Day of Atonement was an exception, as a double fast day was considered too difficult, there were individuals who observed two days. Rosh Ha-Shanah, on the other hand, gradually came to be observed as a two-day festival even in Eretz Israel; beginnings of the custom here, too, are to be found in the Second Temple period, although it became universal only in the Middle Ages. With regard to Passover and Sukkot, the first day of hol ha-mo’ed was observed as a full festival day in the Diaspora while an additional day was added at the end. Thus on Passover a second seder is held on the second night and an eighth day is added. The day following Shemini Azeret at the completion of Sukkot became known as Simhat Torah, the ‘Rejoicing of the Law.’ ”
- Festivals, Second Days of Festivals, Encyclopaedia Judaica
Within Orthodox Judaism, Yom Tov is considered inviolable, thus observance of Yom Tov Sheni is mandated.
Reform Judaism rejects Yom Tov Sheni for all holidays, including Rosh HaShanah; American Reform Judaism holds that the laws for Yom Tov Rishon (the first day of biblical festivals) are no longer binding. These laws have been subsumed under Reform’s principle of personal autonomy.
Some Zionist Modern Orthodox rabbis have proposed that Yom Tov Sheni be dropped. Using the same sources and reasoning taken by one faction of the Conservative movement’s law committee (see below) Rabbi Mendell Lewittes comes to this conclusion:
“Suffice it to say that the Second Day Yom Tov has been observed scrupulously in the Diaspora for centuries without question. However, the situation today is so radically different from what it was even less than a century ago, that the time has come for our religious authorities to examine the matter anew. From the discussion in the Talmud which preceded the directive sent to the Diaspora from Eretz Yisrael it is apparent prior to then changes took place in the observance of the Second Day, depending on the means of communication between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora…When it was possible to signal the diaspora by the relaying of flares, the Diaspora only celebrated one day. When the flares had to be discontinued because of the interference by the Cutheans, they celebrated two days. When once again the flares could be operated, they returned to one day. When messengers were sent to report the fixing of the new month, wherever they arrived before the 15th of the month only one day was celebrated. These facts, as Rashi explains, “indicate that this observance was not instituted for all times.” In other words, it was not a takkanah…; it is – as Meiri says – “in our times nothing more than a minhag of the fathers.”
Rabbi Lewittes then continues the argument further. However, unwilling to make such a p’sak halakha himself, he goes on to plead for the creation of a Chief rabbinical council “whose members are sensitive and responsive to contemporary values and are ready to exercise their prerogative to institute takkanot and render halakhic decisions in the spirit of an evolutionary development of the Halakhah.” – “Jewish Law: An Introduction”, p.253-257, Mendell Lewittes, Jason Aronson Inc., 1987
Yom Tov Sheni in Conservative Judaism
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Yom Tov Sheni was a topic of periodic discussion by the Conservative movement’s law committee. A teshuva by Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal was unanimously accepted by the law committee in 1963. After giving a review of the legal sources and responsa literature, the teshuva affirmed that it is possible to change the law in this regard, yet such a change is not obligatory or recommended. The conclusion reasoned that:
“The suggestion to eliminate Yom Tov Sheni comes from two sources: 1. From observant Jews for whom the new status of the T’futzah and a yearning to invest Israel with greater spiritual influence are sufficient warrant for the change. Their religious life would not suffer. The elimination of unnecessary hardships and superfluous duplication would enhance the observance of festivals in their homes. Yielding to their suggestion would stem from factors of strength in Judaism. 2. From non-observant Jews, or at best from would-he observant Jews, for whom the lesser demands of Judaism might contribute to a wider observance of the holidays…One hesitates to predict the measure of success that would follow from yielding to their suggestions, but it would derive from factors of weakness in contemporary Jewish life. The simple truth of the matter is that Jewish observance in America is not strong enough in depth to justify the assumption that elimination of the second day will enhance our religious life. On the other hand, its elimination will deny us the utilization of the second day for religious inspiration…” In closing, this teshuva concluded that it would be premature to make any official changes in Yom Tov Sheni, and that retaining it would allow for more advantages than disadvantages.
Four years later the Rabbinical Assembly instructed the law committee to re-open the issue. After much debate, three teshuvot were eventually accepted by the law committee.
All of the teshuvot are considered as valid positions within normative halakha. Following the traditional Jewish stance, the Conservative movement holds that a congregation follows the ruling of its rabbi, who as mara d’atra [local halakhic authority] has the sole responsibility and authority in making such a p’sak [ruling/decision].
Overwhelmingly, most American Conservative synagogues, and all Masorti synagogues in England, have retained observance of Yom Tov Shenei. It is, of course, not observed in Masorti synagogues in Israel. The three teshuvot are summarized below.
(1) Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham J. Ehrlich conclude that observance of Yom Tov Sheni is a minhag which can be decided by the local rabbi. “While we reaffirm the inherent value of Yom Tov Sheni, in order to provide relief to those who no longer find in it spiritual enrichment, and to those who for socio-economic reasons find it is not feasible to observe the second day of yom tov, we declare that yom tov sheni is not a hok, a permanent enactment, but a minhag, a custom Congregations need not feel compelled to observe other than the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah. On the other hand, those who still desire to maintain it as an expression of personal piety, as a chumrah, might do so, vetavo aleihem berakhah, may God bless them.
(2) Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat offered a dissenting view in which he ruled that (a) the observance of Yom Tov Sheni must be seen as a takkanah, and not a minhag, (b) it is important in general to build a “fence around the Torah”, (c) In a reference to the Reform movement, he writes that “If, however, the second day of Yom Tov were eliminated, it would not be long before the first day would fall into desuetude. We have living proof of this contention. A large and influential religious movement in Judaism has eliminated the second day of Yom Tov for the past two generations. De facto, if not de jure, the first day no longer exists as a significant factor in that movement” In conclusion, he urges the retention of the observance of Yom Tov Sheni for a host of practical matters.
Rabbi Shuchat concludes by saying that he would agree to the elimination of Yom Tov Sheni if it were to come from a recognized halakhic body in the land of Israel. This echoes the view of some Modern Orthodox rabbis, who are willing in theory to make many of the same changes made by Conservative Jews, but who state that they are unwilling to make such rulings on their own authority; rather, they are waiting for a more recognized body in Israel to someday appear.
(3) Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal writes “that it would be tragic for us to initiate a program which must lead inevitably to the abandonment of the second day of the festivals. Let those who have no alternative… not feel that they are in violation of halakhah if they observe only one day. But we cannot condone the initiation of discussions about the second day in those Congregations which do have regular and meaningful services on it.”
The full text of these responsa are available as a PDF file here:
Conservative teshuvot may also be found in “Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1927-1970”, volume III, pages 1228-1272. This is part of a three volume set that is available from the United Synagogue Book Service. e-mail: Booksvc@uscj.org