One Day of Yom Tov: A Pre-Rabbinic Teshuvah (Answer)

I’ve still got a few years left before I become a rabbi, but I received the following message:

You are my favorite not-quite-a-rabbi-rabbi, and I need an opinion.

Is there any justification for not observing second day chag that can be based in anything substantial, other than, “I don’t want to”?

It is putting me in a very difficult position, school-wise, and my instinct is to suck it up and deal with it, but I wanted to check just in case there is some way to create some wiggle room. (Really, I just need to write/use my computer that day. It wouldn’t involve working at an occupation or doing anything with money…)

So, there are two questions here:

1) May one write and/or use a computer on the second day of Yom Tov?
2) May one observe only one day of Yom Tov?

My short answers are: Yes, and Yes.

Let’s deal with that second question, the more complicated one. You’ll see we don’t need to talk too much about the first one after the second question’s been answered. (But I’m happy to talk about the first one separately!)

Short Answer about One-Day Tov:

There is a lot of justification for observing only one day of chag:

1) The original law in the written Torah calls for only one day;
2) Certain exilic Jewish communities in the Talmudic era observed only one day;
3) Modern technology and mathematics know how to calculate what day is the singular “right” day of chag now;
4) Conservative rabbis approved of there being only one day of Yom Tov observed out of Israel several decades ago; and
5) It is easily arguable that it is counter to Jewish living when our spiritual observances in fact burden our spirits rather than elevate them.

For all of these reasons, it is permissible for a Jew to observe only day of Yom Tov.

Long Answer about One-Day Yom Tov:

So, just to expand on these thoughts:

1) The original law in the written Torah calls for only one day.

From the Torah alone, there is no reason to celebrate two days of Yom Tov.

The primary reason for observing two days of Yom Tov outside the Land of Israel is as follows: the beginning and end of Yom Tov used to be “announced” by messengers. The stories say: people used to light flames at mountain tops to inform the next community over that Yom Tov was coming. Once you leave the Land of Israel, it takes a while for news like this to travel. By the time you’d find out about Yom Tov in Babylonia, perhaps the Land of Israel had already begun Yom Tov the previous day?

This was a relatively slow process for spreading news. So, in the Talmudic era, it became the norm that Yom Tov would be observed for two days rather than waiting for the exact calendrical calculations and announcements from the Land of Israel. If you observed two days, you’re bound to get it right!

(We’ll come back soon to the problem modernity has with this.)

2) Certain exilic Jewish communities in the Talmudic era observed only one day.

Yes! The Talmud records such stories, and, according to Rashi, this whole second-day business only happened when there actually were problems with the messengers (mentioned above). As slow as they were, they were relatively on time. (We’re not going to talk here about Jewish Standard Time, which runs a lot later than all local time zones.) The second day of Yom Tov in the Talmudic era, according to Rashi, was in fact, the exception to the rule.

3) Modern technology and mathematics know how to calculate what day is the singular “right” day of chag now.

Do you know what’s a faster way of spreading news than old Jewish guys starting fires on mountains? Pretty much anything Steve Jobs was ever behind. Or Bill Gates. Or even Al Gore.

In short, modern technology can tell us the exact instant (okay, plus loading time) what time Yom Tov begins in Israel.

And, taking a step back: that’s not how we calculate today, is it? Every Jewish community on Earth today calculates the beginning of Shabbat and the beginning of Yom Tov by what we can see in our local skies. We have no need to rely on the time in Israel when it comes to our own Yom Tov, so let’s just rely on our own calculations and celebrate!

4) Conservative rabbis approved of there being only one day of Yom Tov observed out of Israel several decades ago.

They surely did!

Why don’t Conservative synagogues today observe only one day of Yom Tov then? The answer is: some actually do. To give an example that was local to me when growing up: Temple Beth Sholom of Smithtown, NY does. And they’re not alone.

I can say comfortably that I’ve worked in at least one synagogue that has had conversations about whether or not they would benefit from building stronger community if they shifted their communal practice to only one day of Yom Tov. In communities with few Jews, it is hard to gather Jews for two days’ worth of services! If these communities want the full warmth of their devoted shul-goers, they could easily benefit from observing only day of Yom Tov.

Furthermore, in communities with few Jews, it is especially challenging for Jews to say “I can’t go to work for two days” or “I can’t go to school for two days” because this leaves Jews beyond the minority; this leaves Jews extremely disadvantaged: fewer sick days or personal days, behind in work, and–frequently–with nobody else in that same boat. One day is challenging, too, but two days of a lonesome holiday is far worse than one day of a lonesome holiday.

5) It is easily arguable that it is counter to Jewish living when our spiritual observances in fact burden our spirits rather than elevate them.

The word chag is synonymous with the Arabic word haj, which means “pilgrimage.” A chag is not merely a festival or a holiday, it’s a day when–if we are not moving–we are moved. We are elevated. We are removed from our usual state of being and elevated.

Even if we are not singing Shir Hamma’alot, a Song of Going Up to a physical Jerusalem, we, in our hearts, are singing a Shir Hamma’alot of going up to a spiritual Jerusalem on chag.

As far as I can tell, Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, is a contraction of two words: Yerushah, and Shalem. Yerushah, heritage, and Shalem, wholeness. On every chag, we have to be able to elevate ourselves to recognize the wholeness of our Yerushah, or at least to have shalom and to be at peace with our heritage.

So, on a chag, can we allow a churban beit hammikdash–a destruction of the holy Temple? Can we allow a destruction of the physical embodiment of the sacred? That physical Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and we can’t do anything about that, but, today, we still celebrate chag! Do we go up to physical Jerusalem? No. We also don’t go to a physical Temple.

But, we do go to a spiritual Yerushalayim and we enter a spiritual Beit Hammikdash–a spiritual embodiment of the sacred–when our ritual practices resonate with our spiritual needs.

So, for the lone observant Jew four towns away from Albequerque, New Mexico, two days of chag might be, not only professional suicide, but spiritual suicide. When religion hurts your life, then the religion’s not working. We learn from the story of the Binding of Isaac that our religious fervor should never hurt us.

One day of from work? Sure, it’s not very easy. But it’s a day to take off because you can truly celebrate. You can truly have a Yom Tov. A good day. It’s a day of Chag.

You can take that pilgrimage up to your spiritual Yerushalayim where you are at one with what you have inherited from hundreds of generations of Jews. In that Yerushalayim, in that pure, peaceful, whole heritage, you can meditate in that Beit Mikdash you have built out of the construct of your Jewish life.

THAT’S a Yom Tov. After such a Good Day, who needs to repeat it the next day? The Torah would never have asked us to try to attain such a high level of spiritual consciousness!

For all of these reasons, it is permissible for a Jew to observe only day of Yom Tov.

Perhaps one of the greatest faults of contemporary Jewish lawmaking on this question has been that we have only permitted one day of Yom Tov. But I would like to advise one day of truly intentional Yom Tov. And, if that means only one day of Yom Tov, then I say go for it!

3 final notes:
1) I am not a rabbi (currently), so I am not a posek–an authoritative Jewish lawmaker. All I am is a rabbinic student and, at best, a rabbinic spiritual adviser.
2) This is not the most comprehensive look at the Halakhic/legal sources regarding the question of two days of Yom Tov. For a more comprehensive (but still not entirely comprehensive) look at the legal sources, feel free to look at http://mahrabu.blogspot.com/2008/12/one-day-only-part-2-conservative.html. He refers to many sources that are worthwhile to look at.
3) Who knows if I will agree to this advice years from now? Or even weeks from now? Or days from now? Nonetheless, these words seem fairly compelling to me for the meantime. And I am convinced that Judaism frequently gives us answers that work for the meantime–not always answers that work forever. Otherwise there’d be no reason to re-interpret a text.
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About jonahrank


3 responses to “One Day of Yom Tov: A Pre-Rabbinic Teshuvah (Answer)

  • BZ

    Thanks for the link to Mah Rabu! I predict that the next few years will see a lot of people becoming more open to this perspective.

    One small correction:
    The stories say: people used to light flames at mountain tops to inform the next community over that Yom Tov was coming. Once you leave the Land of Israel, it takes a while for news like this to travel.

    Actually, lighting flames on mountain tops was fast enough in spreading the news. Communication only slowed down after this process was replaced by sending out couriers (to protect the message from hackers). See this post for more details.

  • BZ

    The original questioner asks:
    (Really, I just need to write/use my computer that day. It wouldn’t involve working at an occupation or doing anything with money…)

    If you’re a full-time student, then IMO writing or using a computer (or even just reading) for the purposes of schoolwork is working at your occupation.

    I agree with the thrust of this post that it’s better to say that 16 Tishrei, 23 Tishrei, etc., are not yom tov (and to continue observing whatever yom tov restrictions you observe on the one day of yom tov) than to say that they are yom tov but to engage in work activities on a day that you think of as yom tov.

    That said, even if you stick with 2 days, there certainly is precedent for treating the 2nd day of yom tov as less stringent than the first (e.g. permitting burials on that day, which is a less urgent issue now that we have funeral homes and refrigeration), which has been mostly forgotten today by those who keep 2 days and treat them equally, and has in some cases been effectively inverted (e.g., in many 2-day communities, more people take off work on 23 Tishrei than on 22 Tishrei).

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