Josh (desh) wrote,

BZ was right

Yes, BZ was right. At least about me. With this post, I am announcing my decision to become a "1-day yom tov (1DYT) Jew", rather than the "2-day yom tov (2DYT) Jew" I've been (with some exceptions) up until now. This is effective immediately and indefinitely. This is a decision I am not taking lightly at all, and I'd like to write a bit about the background of the problem and my thought processes leading up to this decision.


A brief aside -- why am I deciding now? There is in some sense a "halo" of a month preceding many Jewish holidays. (For one example, the entire month of Elul, the last month of the year, is an introspective lead-up to Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year. For another example, many people have the custom to not eat any matzah after Purim, a holiday that falls a month before Passover, so that the matzah one is commanded to eat on the first night of Passover is a new taste that you're not used to.) I was thinking about switching to 1DYT during the holidays this fall, but didn't let myself reach a conclusion on the issue until the 23rd of Cheshvan, a month after the holidays ended. I've been turning the issue over in my head since then, making sure I'm comfortable with it, and I want to "lock in" my decision before Purim, which is this week. I think it's important to make decisions like this without too much input from the exhaustion and emotions one experiences during a holiday and anticipates beforehand. I need to make this decision with a cool and objective eye to my Jewish practice and the principles that underly it, and the only good way to do so is to decide when there are no holidays nearby.


So, if you're new to this topic, what am I talking about? There are 6 (depending on how you count) "major" Jewish holidays, ones mentioned in the torah and on which some forms of work are prohibited for some or all of the holiday (or "yom tov"). Those are Rosh Hashanah (1st of Tishrei, the September/October month), Yom Kippur (10th of Tishrei), the first day of Sukkot (15th-21st of Tishrei), Shemini Atzeret (22nd of Tishrei, right as Sukkot ends), the first and last days of Pesach/Passover (15th-21st of Nisan, the March/April month), and Shavuot (6th of Sivan, the May/June month, but yet not really the 6th of Sivan; see below).

For various reasons, Rosh Hashanah is handled differently than the other holidays on the list, and is observed for 2 days by most of the Jewish world. And Yom Kippur, with its fasting component, is observed by all of the Jewish world as 1 day, because it would be unsafe to fast from food and water for longer. But the other 5 days are observed for one day by parts of the Jewish world (mostly Reform Jews and Israelis), and are extended to a 2nd day by other parts of the Jewish world (mostly non-Reform Jews outside Israel). This means, for example, that even though Passover is a 7-day holiday with 2 "major" days according to the torah, most Passover-observant Jews in the US who make the "major" vs. "minor" (not-working vs. working, or yom tov vs. regular holiday) distinction will observe it for 8 days, with the 1st, 2nd, 7th, and 8th days as major holidays. Even Jews who don't make that distinction will still tend to have seders on the 1st two nights, rather than just the 1st. (But not in Israel!) And similarly, Sukkot plus Shemini Atzeret is either 8/2 days (total/major) or 9/4. And Shavuot is either 2 days of not working, or just 1.

Why add a day? Well, to understand that, you have to go back to the original definition of months, or really the calendar as a whole, in Judaism. Months start on a new moon; the lunar cycle is about 29.5 days. So months are either 29 or 30 days long. Now we have a fixed calendar, with each month either 29 days or 30 according to various predetermined rules. But back in the days of a unified Jewish people, the sanhedrin, the central religious court, would declare a new month after hearing testimony from people who actually witnessed the new moon, which could theoretically happen on either of two days. (The sanhedrin was actually really good at astronomy, and knew the "right" answer, but still relied on the witnesses.) Only after the sanhedrin declared a new month could you know when to observe any holidays in that month! So to facilitate that, after the month was declared, they would send out messengers far and wide to tell people that the month began on so-and-so day.

The messengers, of course, could only travel so far so fast. Two months, Tishrei and Nisan, were particularly key so people knew which day to start observing Sukkot and Pesach. (Still not talking about Shavuot just yet.) So how far could messengers actually get from the 1st of the month to the 15th? It was decided that they could usually only get as far as the edge of Israel. Anyone living further from Jerusalem than that could not count on the messengers arriving in time, and so would have to hedge their bets and observe both possible days of the holidays. So ever since then, Israelis have done 1DYT, and most non-Israelis have done 2DYT. (Here and elsewhere, for simplicity of language only, I'm ignoring those Jews who are totally secular and, for some or all of these holidays, don't observe at all. I'm only talking about Jews who choose to participate in the "conversation of Jewish law", as a teacher of mine might put it.)


Much of what I wrote above, I originally learned when studying Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh, a section of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (a key Jewish law code), with a college friend about 7 years ago. The first half of Kiddush Hachodesh goes into all of the details of how this stuff worked with messengers, testimony, and other sanhedrin stuff. (Additional similar topics like adding an extra month on leap years were also discussed.) In learning about this, I came to the realization that Shavuot is quite different than the other holidays under discussion. Shavuot, rather than having a fixed date, is observed after counting 49 days from the start of Pesach. That means that even though it falls in Sivan, the relevant month for determining the correct day of Shavuot is not Sivan but Nisan! And messengers could easily get everywhere relevant in two months! Maimonidies admits this, stating that 2DYT Jews should observe 2 days of Shavuot only in order to not make a distinction between the holidays (chapter 3 halacha 12). I found that reasoning less than compelling, and decided that year to only keep one day of Shavuot from then on. Since 2005, I have not been a 1DYT or 2DYT Jew, but rather the only 1.8DYT Jew I know. This learning and this decision both set the groundwork for my latest decision.

In retrospect, my Shavuot decision sidestepped an important stage of the reasoning necessary to make a decision like this. So maybe there was never a good reason to observe two days of Shavuot. There was never a good reason to avoid eating pork, either. Not all Jewish law comes from logical reasons, and in fact there are technical terms in Jewish law to distinguish a chok (plural chukim), a law with no logical basis, from a mishpat, a law with a logical basis. I do not regularly throw away chukim as part of my Jewish practice (though I cast no judgment on those who do). So why should I not just treat the 2nd day of Shavuot as a chok, as something I have to observe as much as the 1st?

I think in the end, this reasoning doesn't work for me. I think I need my chukim to have more textual basis than 2DYT. One could consider the observance of Shavuot at all as a chok in non-agricultural societies who don't have a harvest then. But the torah says Shavuot is one day long. There is an unbroken tradition of Jews observing Shavuot for only one day for as long as Shavuot has existed. This is all also true for the other holidays in question. And there is evidence that where one comes down on this issue depends on where your parents come down on this issue. To me, that places this decision in the category of "minhag", a word often translated as "custom" but which has more legal force than a mere custom. Minhagim can absolutely be binding. But they can affect different Jews in different ways depending on what their family tradition is, and there's no universal right answer.

It's worth pointing out here that I don't have a family tradition when it comes to most areas of Jewish law. Neither of my parents relate to Judaism at all the way I do. Though I recognize it's important to incorporate my family history into my Jewish life, I'm still striking out on my own with these decisions.


OK, so that's where I've been for awhile. There are 1DYT people, and they're following a legitimate minhag. I adopted their minhag when it comes to Shavuot, but I still accepted the reasoning, the nod to history and messengers, when it comes to 2DYT for the other non-Shavuot holidays. So what changed?

I think the first thing to actually get me thinking about changing my stance was considering the role Israel plays in the 1DYT/2DYT distinction. Without delving too deeply into politics, I can at least say that it's long been clear to me that I feel fully actualized as an observant Diaspora Jew. While Israel happens to be the source of a lot of great Jewish learning and music and culture that indirectly ends up having many positive effects on my life, it's not home to me. Some people frame 2DYT as a "punishment" for living in the Diaspora, which seems so problematic to me that it throws into question the entire 2DYT enterprise. After all, the whole original point of 2DYT was based on physical distance from the geographic center of Judaism, back when there was such a thing. I strongly feel that my Judaism, that the modern Judaism I practice, doesn't have a geographic center.

Until recently, this piece was nothing more than an interesting side note to the discussion for me. But over the past year or so, for reasons that would take an entirely separate long post to fully discuss, I have grown more willing to let my gut take a driving role in my decisions about Jewish law. If something in Judaism feels wrong to me, or lacks meaning, or even if I just can't relate to it, then I'm willing to revisit my understanding of the law to see if I can bring it in line with my other principles. (Though I have virtually no relationship to Reform Judaism, my understanding is that this is the kind of individualistic informed and critical approach to Jewish law is very much a tenet of that movement's philosophy. Whether or not that plays out in Reform synagogues.)

So, I turned to modern sources. BZ has blogged many, many words on the issue of 1DYT, but the most valuable posts might be the three posts analyzing denominational approaches and legal rulings (teshuvot) on the issue. The latter post analyzes the Conservative approach. Though I do not consider myself a Conservative Jew, I was raised as such, and find much of the movement closer to my Jewish practice than any other organized body or philosophy. So I started there.

What I found was a little disappointing. On the one hand, I found that if I was looking for some sort of permission, some acknowledgment that 1DYT is an acceptable Conservative practice, I could find it (albeit directed to a mara d'atra, a legal decisor for a local community, rather than to an individual). Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham J. Ehrlich ruled in 1969 that 1DYT is OK. On the other hand, they did it with the lack of conviction and deference toward other more "authentic-seeming" movements that seems typical of the Conservative movement. They conclude by treating 1DYT as something of a concession, rather than something like an affirmation of a literal and contextual reading of the torah, or of a proud assertion of decentralized authority in Judaism, or anything along those lines. And of course, there are dissenting views too. In the end, nothing here really spoke to me.

Rather, the point that most spoke to me was from a Reform teshuvah. (Perhaps this shouldn't have been surprising.) This 1999 teshuvah declares: "For when we declare a second day of yom tov, we are not simply making a statement of identity, planning a creative worship experience, or arranging an experiment in spirituality. We are declaring a festival. When we say that a day is a yom tov, we mark it as holy; we transform it from ordinary time into sacred time; we make kodesh out of chol. We arrogate to ourselves the power of the ancient Sanhedrin to announce to the Jewish world--indeed, even to God--that such-and-such a date shall be a festival. And when we declare a yom tov sheni, that is, a festival day on a date that according to the Torah is not a festival at all, we create an actual festival day with all its relevant duties and restrictions." The torah declares that on 6 days we must work. Only the days set aside by the torah as special are exceptions to that. Making extra days into holidays is a big deal. It's not an exercise in piety, and it's not just a way to err on the side of being strict and be done with the issue. It's a real question, an important question, a question that deserves the right answer, and it was less clear to me than ever what that answer is.

Unfortunately, after years of thinking and reading about this question, the final tipping point in my decision was a bit anticlimactic. This past tishrei, which like always had 7 days of yom tov in about 3 weeks, was a more difficult and exhausting stretch for me than ever. Coming as it did less than two months after I finished an intensive 8-week yeshiva program this summer, a program that prompts participants to rethink the role Judaism plays in their lives, I found myself uncomfortably angry with Judaism. Simchat Torah, the raucous and upbeat celebration that brings the holiday season to an end, was more of a relief than a joy. I resented Judaism more than ever, and had to change something for my Jewish life to be sustainable. Given my newfound willingness to let my external principles affect my Jewish choices, given the extent to which I was already on the fence on the 1DYT issue from a strictly legal and traditional standpoint, and given my anger and frustration, the answer seemed clear. Not wanting to make a decision out of anger and frustration, I sat on the idea for a month, and now for almost 4 more months. The emotions subsided, but the reasoning and the decision didn't.

In the end, the only aspect of this that I'm uncomfortable with is the lack of primary sources. Aside from Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh, which I first read a number of years ago and have only skimmed since, I looked at very few key pre-modern sources in making my decision. Unfortunately, I don't have the skills or language to do work like that on my own. I do have the skills to do it with help, though, and so I hope that I will continue to research and revisit my decision over time. I still have a lot to learn, and I look forward to the learning. But learning is always at least somewhat disconnected with practice, and at least for now, I know what my practice is. And I'm comfortable with and proud of my practice.

And I'm confident in my status as an authentic, independent, actualized participant in the living conversation of Jewish law, practice, and life.

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