Here we go again.
Three weeks out of the next four, including this week, a two-day observance is actually three days, for all practical purposes. That is because Rosh Hashanah, the first two days of Sukkot, and the two days of Sh’mini Atzeret (erroneously referred to as the last two days of Sukkot) all fall out on Thursday and Friday, with Shabbat following immediately after.
This places an excessive burden on the halachically observant Orthodox or Conservative Jews. It also leads the non-observant to mock Jewish law as silly and irrelevant.
Take cooking, for example. While it is biblically permitted to cook foods on the first two days of Sukkot to be eaten on those two days, it is not biblically permitted to cook on those days for the day after the festival, unless the next day is Shabbat.
The sages of blessed memory, however, feared that people would get the wrong idea. If the second day of Sukkot was a Friday and they were allowed to cook on that day for Shabbat, then next year they might cook on the second day of Sukkot, a Tuesday, for Wednesday. So they banned cooking on the second (or last) day of a festival even if the next day is a Shabbat.
Having forbidden the practice, they had to come up with a way to allow it nonetheless, because Shabbat has three required festive meals. So the sages conjured up a bit of legal legerdemain known as an “eruv tavshilin.” This is done by individuals and, often, by rabbis for their communities. I make one to cover the members of my community, for example.
To the non-observant, this is one huge reason why they are non-observant. Not only are some of the rules burdensome (“What do you mean I cannot carry a handkerchief in my pocket on Shabbat?”), but the ways to get around these rules seem way too silly to them (“You mean I can carry a handkerchief if someone ties a string to all the telephone poles in town?”).
Cooking, of course, is the least of the problems created by “three-day festivals.” So many observant Jews (again, both Orthodox and Conservative) are involved in businesses and professions where the “extra” day imposes serious hardships. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, after havdalah on the Saturday night following the two days of Sh’mini Atzeret, “Thank God that’s over with.” That is the wrong attitude, but an understandable one.
The three-day conundrum, when it occurs at this time of year, also has a corollary on Pesach, because it means the first day of that festival will be a Shabbat. Because the second seder should not begin before the end of Shabbat, that means that in our area, people will have to wait until sometime around 8:10 p.m. to sit down to the seder table.
What makes this even more confusing to many, and off-putting, is that there does not have to be a second seder, and there does not have to be a three-day marathon observance – because there is no “second” day, either at the start or the end of a festival. That second day is rabbinically ordained, not Torah-mandated. It was created in the days before there was a fixed calendar. Since we could not be certain exactly when a month began, the “extra” day was added to assure that festivals were observed at their proper time.
Our calendar is fixed today. We know to the millisecond when a new month begins. In many synagogues, the time is publicly proclaimed on the previous Shabbat. (“The new month will be born at 7:27 p.m. on Tuesday.”) Rather than invent loopholes that both the observant and non-observant mock, why not get rid of the “extra” day entirely?
Even if there was a more valid reason for it than “we have been doing it this way for 2,000 years,” halachah allows dropping the day if it brings people closer to the Torah and to God.
Maimonides states this concept clearly. In Mishneh Torah Mamrim (2:4), he says of the rabbis: “If they should conclude that it is necessary to suspend a positive commandment or nullify a negative one in order to restore the people to the faith, or to save many Jews from otherwise becoming lax in matters [of observance], they may act as the needs of the time require.”
Elsewhere (MT Sanhedrin 24:4), he pointedly adds this note of caution: “In all matters,” he writes, the rabbis acting as decisors “shall act for the sake of Heaven and not take lightly [the effect an action or ruling may have on] human dignity, for consideration of human dignity may require setting aside rabbinic injunctions.”
There even is a principle in halachah that gives the public the ability to annul burdensome laws. It is stated in various ways in various talmudic tractates (see, for example, the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Batra 60b, BT Avodah Zara 36a, and the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Avodah Zara 2:8). Maimonides brings it all together in his Mishneh Torah (MT Mamrim 2:5-7): “[If] the people resist it and a majority in fact refuses to adhere to it, [a positive or negative decree] is invalid and it is not permitted to force the people to follow it.”
A qualification: Rosh Hashanah should remain a two-day observance. The why of that will await a future column.
May we all be inscribed in the book of life, health, and happiness for 5775.