Some Remarks on the Halachah of Yom Tov Sheni


It is sometimes asked whether Messianics should observe the rabbinic institution of the second day of the festival, Yom Tov Sheni. The following considerations are an attempt to answer this question. It should be noticed that these considerations, as well as their author, have no halachic authority and that each person should follow the established custom of his community. My remarks are only meant as a contribution to scholarly discussion.


From the biblical sources we know that the annual feasts — with the notable exception of Shavuoth — are on fixed days of certain months. Chag HaMatzoth begins on the 15th day of Nisan, Rosh HaShanah on the 1st day of Tishri, and the festival of Sukkoth on the 15th day of Tishri. The biblical records, however, do not mention or prescribe a particular method for determining the New Moon. It is assumed that traditionally this was done by a combination of visual observation and calculation. Since the lunar cycle is about 29½ days, a lunar month can be no longer than 30 days. This has led to the general thumb rule that, if on the 29th day of the month the Moon did not visibly appear, the month had 30 days (and thus was a “full month”), and the new month started on the 31st day. If the Moon was seen on the 29th day, then this day was the closing day of the month (which was thus a “defective month”), and the new month started rightaway on the 30th day.


The partial dependence on visual perception in determining the New Moon created difficulties for distant diaspora communities. Since the New Moon was formally declared by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, on the testimony of witnesses, the far-away communities had to receive a signal or message from this national institution, indicating that the new month had begun or else was about to begin the next day. It was not always easy, especially in perilious times, to maintain this system of signals and messengers. This was the more so in the particular case of Rosh HaShanah, a feast day that falls on Rosh Chodesh itself. Delay in receiving the signal or message would cause diaspora communities to miss the correct day for celebrating this important festival.


To counter this problem the Sages instituted the celebration of two days. If the diaspora communities celebrated both the 30th and the 31st day it would be ensured that no transgression of the Torah laws occurred and that Rosh HaShanah was properly kept. Gradually, for the sake of accuracy and uniformity, the custom of Yom Tov Sheni was accepted for all the major festivals, with only one exception: Yom Kippur. To observe two days in this instance would obviously cause too much hardship. A significant feature resulting from this decision is that diaspora Jews keep two Seder nights.


Nowadays the New Moon is no longer established by visual perception. With the abrogation of the Sanhedrin — during the times of the Roman Emperor Constantius — its last Patriarch, Hillel II (330-365), published the calculation system and authorized a purely mathematical calendar for all time to come. Thus the system of witnessing and signalling ceased to be, and the Jewish calendar became fixed. Yet the halachah of Yom Tov Sheni, although no longer necessary from a technical calendrical viewpoint, was retained, because of the adage or principle that “the tradition of the forefathers is in our hands” and should therefore be faithfully guarded, not changed.


It remains to be seen, however, whether this particular tradition should be retained only for the sake of this adage or principle. A fundamental question here is why adding new customs is not viewed as a violation of this principle, in contradistinction to abrogating or changing an existent custom. More to the point: Should we not try to keep the calendrical system tightly connected to the original demands of the Written Torah, without adding or taking away from it? And should we not view a deviation from the ancient laws and customs a more serious matter than a deviation from a later system that was developed to protect and fence in these ancient rules? These and other questions may legitimately be asked, and a number of arguments can be given to indicate that this protective and fencing system has its own disadvantages. The very idea of doubling the Yamim Tovim is evidently unwonted and peculiar, and this fact should not be ignored too easily. Some objective reasons for not adopting the halachah of Yom Tov Sheni are the following.


First, the second Yom Tov was only instuted for the calendrical reason of the insecurity for diaspora communities in determining the New Moon. This insecurity, that is intrinsic to the biblical calendar, can be ignored, I think, in our present mathematical calendar. And I find it difficult to imagine that it was HaShem’s intent to have two days celebrated if only one was expressly commanded in the Torah.


Second, the keeping of an additional day causes all Yom Tov observances to be of a hypothetical or conditional nature. If you celebrate two days in a row, then in fact you celebrate the first day under the silently assumed condition that this day, and not the next, is the correct festival day, and you celebrate the second day under the equally silently assumed condition that the first day was the incorrect day, without ever knowing which day was in fact the correct one. It seems to me that there are many halachic difficulties here because of blessings that may have been spoken in vain. If only one of the two days can be the correct one, then the celebration of two days always causes all the festival blessing of the other day to have been spoken in vain. So the consequence should be that the proper festival blessings of the day may only be said conditionally on both days, in the same manner as is done for example — it is the only example I know of such a practice — in a Catholic baptism, when there is doubt whether the person was perhaps formerly baptized. In that case the formula is used: “If you are not baptized, I baptize you…”. To avoid speaking blessings in vain a similar formula has to be adopted for the Yamim Tovim prayers and blessings. However, this was and is never done. Yet in other matters the Rabbis are very attentive to the danger of blessings spoken in vain, because it implies using the Divine Name in vain.


Third, a consistent approach to this practice would require a second Yom Kippur as well, which is, of course, as already said above, a nearly impossible hardship. Yet, by the very act of doubling the other Yamim Tovim one unavoidably throws doubts on the correctness of the date of Yom Kippur. If in fact the second Yom Tov of Rosh HaShanah was the correct one, then Yom Kippur was celebrated on the wrong day. I must say that I find this an almost unacceptable conclusion.


Fourth, the determination of the New Moon was given into the hands of the authorities of the nation of Israel, and I don’t see a real reason for being overly scrupulous here, since there are many details of the calendar that can make Rosh Chodesh to be a little bit out of touch with Molad. Rosh HaShanah for  example cannot occur on Sundays, Wednesdays or Fridays, because Yom Kippur may never immediately precede or follow a weekly Shabbos, and because Hoshannah Rabbah must not fall on a weekly Shabbos. These details cause tiny frictions with the demand to start the month strictly on the first visible appearance of the New Moon, and the Rabbis have allowed for postponements for these reasons. But if these tiny frictions are permissible, I see no necessity for demanding strict exactness in the determination of the Yamim Tovim. All the above mentioned details belong to the system of the calendar itself and are, in my opinion, part of the whole procedure of determining the New Moon.


Fifth, in my perception the introduction of a second Yom Tov destroys much of the deeper symbolism implied in the number of days that are commanded in the Torah to be kept. Matzoth has seven days in the Torah (symbolising our present life of separation from sin), not eight (as the number eight is related to Shavuoth, which is the 50th day, after 7 times 7 days), and this number of days has significance. Likewise, Sukkoth has seven days (equally symbolising our present life) plus an added eight day (that symbolizes the Olam Habah). The numerical symbolism of the days is heavily obscured by the introduction of a second Yom Tov.


It may thus well be that the observance of a second Yom Tov day was expedient or even necessary in particular historical times and circumstances, as a means to ensure that the proper festival days were kept and that no major transgression occurred. And it may be that in difficult times still to come — e.g. the times of the future Great Tribulation and the days immediately preceding it — this necessity will occur again. But is it not better, for the time being, to emphasize the importance of what was protected and guarded by the institution of Yom Tov Sheni instead of laying stress on guarding and protecting this institution that is no end in itself?


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