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The second day of some Jewish holidays is mandated by rabbinic tradition, not Torah law. In today’s world, they’re increasingly hard to observe.

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Margy Horowitz, a 37-year-old mother of two whom I know, is a private piano teacher in Los Angeles. She is an Orthodox Jew, as are about a third of her students. Paid per lesson, she forgoes up to $300 of income on each day she can’t teach. And in the fall, when Rosh Hashanah ushers in a month-long series of multiday holidays, that adds up: seven missed workdays in just over three weeks, if no holidays fall on a weekend. “The income I lose,” Horowitz said, “is an entire month’s rent.”

Observant Jews cannot work for two days on Rosh Hashanah, which this year starts tonight. Then eight days later there’s Yom Kippur, two days of Sukkot five days after that, and two days of Simchat Torah another week after that. What’s most troubling for people like Horowitz is that this financial hardship is twice as bad as it needs to be: Only one day of the two-day holidays—yom tov, in Hebrew—is mandated by the Torah; the other is rabbinic tradition from another era. Horowitz has thought about teaching on the second day of these two-day holidays, but the rabbis won’t allow it. “If I started working on yom tov, I wouldn’t feel as much like part of the Orthodox community anymore,” she told me.


It started as a clerical issue.

Rabbinic Judaism—that is, the Torah as interpreted by the rabbis, and the mainstream form of Judaism for more than a millennium—follows a lunar calendar. After the destruction of the Second Temple, but before the establishment of a formal calendar, Jews who had left Israel for Babylon, Egypt, and Rome needed to be informed of the new month. This happened via smoke signal or messenger dispatched from Jerusalem, depending on where you lived. Once the start of the month had been determined, you’d know when the holidays would take place.

Of course, even if you had really astute and quick-footed messengers, getting out word of the new month took some time, which meant calculations of holidays’ starts could be off. Everyone outside of Israel accordingly began observing two days of holidays, to ensure that at least one of the days was correct. (Jews in Israel still keep one day; Jews visiting Israel, for the most part, are still required to observe two days, even when in Israel, unless they own property there. Israelis visiting places outside Israel over the holidays observe just one day. The exception is Rosh Hashanah, which is observed for two days everywhere.)

In the United States, Orthodox Jews observe rabbinic law closely; Conservative Jews are more lenient. But both continue to observe the two-day tradition, despite advances in timekeeping and communication that allow us to know with precision when holidays should be observed. (Not that they made so much sense in the first place: Shavuot, for example, is always 50 days after Passover, no smoke signals or messenger needed.) So, why do we continue to observe those two days?

The answer, the rabbis will tell you, is this: because the Talmud, which was written after the calendar was serialized, says so. The writers of the Talmud, in turn, answer the question by warning that Jews should be careful with the customs of our fathers, lest someday there be persecution against Jews and we lose our calendar and our calculation. Rabbis will also tell you that this establishes Israel as the central location for Jews, a reminder that no matter where we’ve set up shop, we should always look to Israel as our homeland.

But what do those things matter to people in 2011, when we’re not really being all that persecuted—at least no more than usual—and we’re all very aware that Israel is the Holy Land? I practice Orthodox Judaism, though I’ve tested observance of all stripes, and so the idea of practicing one day is not as outrageous to me as it is to friends of mine who have been Orthodox their entire lives. And yet I can’t seem to let the second day of yom tov go either.


Last year, Alan Brill, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, a Catholic university in New Jersey, blogged about the problems caused by a two-day yom tov. Those problems are exacerbated in years, like this one, in which many of those two-day holidays line up on a Thursday and Friday, leading right into Shabbat and creating what is effectively a three-day no-work, no-technology yom tov. (This pattern will repeat in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017.)

“The past few years there has been a growing tension among those who work in interactive professions about their need to check their blackberries on Yom Tov,” he wrote. “Some fields need daily input.”

Brill’s post was in response to another blog, Jewschool, which predicted that the three-day yom tovs might lead to more people simply abandoning observance of two-day holidays. So far, there’s been no movement by Orthodox or Conservative Judaism to relax observance of that second day. But when I spoke to Brill, he pointed out there’s precedence for relaxing the rules.

“In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, many Orthodox congregants would go to Saturday services, then open their shops,” he told me. “No one thought about it; you had to make a living. Second-day yom tov was the same. You’d have your service, then go to work. Now it seems Orthodoxy defines itself as a total system, making everything complete and total commitment, rather than doing the best you can in a complex system.”

That tradition may be starting to reassert itself among individual observant Jews.

Janet Fuchs, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mother in Los Angeles, sends most of her four kids to Orthodox schools and attends an Orthodox synagogue. But she quietly stopped observing the second day of yom tov two years ago. “My husband announced it first,” she told me. “He couldn’t miss that much work, he decided, and he doesn’t like to daven.” At first the family continued observing the second day without him, going to synagogue and a celebratory meal. “But it wasn’t fun without him, so we stopped going to shul and were just going to lunches,” Fuchs said. “Then we stopped going to shul or going to lunch, and then I let the kids use electronic entertainment on second day.”

I asked Fuchs, a friend, if she feels guilty about giving up that observance. She sometimes does, she said, but over time the guilt has faded in light of the benefits. “When I realized that not keeping second day was making my appreciation of the first day greater, I felt less guilty,” she said. “Mostly, I feel like I know a fabulous secret that no one else knows.”


Moderation is something you don’t hear a lot about in the Orthodox community. But in the same way the rabbis have taken interpretation of the laws outside of God’s exclusive control, perhaps those of us who love Orthodox ideas and values might need to take the rules of our practice out of our rabbis’ exclusive control. I wonder how much my kids will be eager to follow any form of observance after they witness my ambivalence and resentment. Perhaps if I practiced moderation, they would be more apt to embrace their faith.

But still, it’s difficult to do. My husband and I have talked about giving up the second day of yom tov, but we can’t seem to pull the trigger on it. A few blocks away from me in Los Angeles, while I hedge, Horowitz remains tempted too, but she doesn’t feel like she will make the move anytime soon. “At this point it’s also about setting an example for my kids, who are now old enough to understand.”

Fuchs, for her part, doesn’t think non-observance of the second day is as big of a deal as I’m making it. When we talked, she encouraged me to look around and realize that she’s not exactly revolutionary as an Orthodox woman observing one day of yom tov. “I have discovered that we aren’t the only ones,” she said.

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Lwineman says:

Here s a better solution: move to israel

Asher says:

Growing up in a non-Orthodox family, I don’t remember anybody in my parent’s shul celebrating the first day of such “minor” holiays as Sukkot and Shavuot.

anonymous says:

This piece makes me so sad. Such a shonda, and during the 10 days of repentance no less. It is one thing to take the Reform route and make your own decisions about observance. But to place yourself in an Orthodox community and then crow about your lack of observance is majorly depressing.
But I think the focus of the article is perhaps too narrow. The real issue here is whether one is obligated to follow halacha when it is inconvenient. Okay, to be fair, when it is very stressful.
Also, I am confused by the reference to working on Shabbat, as if somehow that reflects a time of moderation and tolerance. Working on Shabbat in that era (or in any era) is a tragedy, one that our people fought bitterly to prevent at many times throughout history.
I’m sorry I’m coming off a bit obnoxious, but this has made me upset. I pray that your subjects, their families, and your readers can find a way to strengthen not merely their obedience to God, but really the closeness in their relationship to God and His Torah.
Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova.

What, then is the definition of Orthodox Judaism. It is quite difficult to be a “perfect Jew” and follow each law to the letter, but when you start picking and choosing to obey only the Laws that are not too inconvenient for you to follow, isn’t that what Conservative and Reform movements are all about? If you have faith in God, and you obey his laws, He will provide income that you lose as a result of observance. If you do not have faith in God, and you “don’t like davening” than you need to work on yourself, instead of trying to change Judaism to accommodate your laziness.

Yoni Berg says:

The rationale given here for keeping two days is based on the Babylonian Talmud’s understanding. But according to the Jerusalem Talmud, the second day observed in the diaspora is a penalty of sorts for living outside the land of Israel. I suppose I can see why the rabbis in Babylonia would write the easier-to-swallow reason of “we have to do it today because that’s how they did it then” rather than admit “we have to do it here because we don’t live there.”
But it’s a cute article nonetheless. That being said, I agree with Lwineman’s comment above.

Yes, I’m mystified as to why you don’t mention the fact that the most religious charedim in Israel keep one day of chag, as mandated.

Also, the two days of Rosh Hashana are Torah prescribed,not rabbinic.

It is my understanding that the purpose of the second days of Yom Tov is to remind us that we live in the diaspora not Eretz Yisroel. Honestly which one of us that follow the traditions don’t know that already? Personally we live in a world that does not revolve itself around religion. The world used to be different and society used to be different. I do not think hashem requires you to forgo paying your rent and feeding your children in order to go listen to a rabbi’s sermon nor do I need a rabbis blessing. I do not need a synagogue to pray. My prayers are between hashem and myself too.

Hashem knows what is in your heart and what kind of person you happen to be. There are many who spend every waking moment in shul and yet have no compassion and understanding nor rachmunis for others. They especially have no respect for others who do not practice their form of Judaism.

Being a good person is the point of Judaism, all else is commentary…heard that somewhere before.I do what is best for my family. I let others be self-righteous and self-important that is their nadir and not mine.

Japati says:

Great article. I appreciate your struggle because I have been on the same path and have come to the same conclusion. The sad thing is that our beautiful religion has been hijacked. On the left by those would would seek to needlessly revise our traditions beyond recognition. On the right by those who wish to live removed from the world and remain in an intellectual fog that denies history, theology and science while wrapped in sanctimonious drivel (see comments for examples).

Isn’t it sad that during an era of unprecedented religious freedom and posterity people can’t allow themselves a 72 hour disconnect twice a year. It isn’t as if Yom Tov happens every day. This is just an adult version of the teen plague of “half Shabbos’ observance, the result of a religious education that fails to engage the soul. Thanks for bringing this phenomenon to light. You can only get into the solution once you’ve identified the problem.

Rochel says:

This is for Japati … our religion hasn’t been ‘hijacked’, just abandoned but those who don’t understand it.
A religion cannot be revised to suit your pleasures, it is what is is, the laws declared by either G-d or a panel of the Rabbis past (not present or future!). It’s not ‘made up’ by individuals to tailor to our modern needs.
Our religion is completely based on intellectualism and history, and most definitely encompassed science. (we were just talking about the Gemora and how it discusses quantum physics and theories). I am sorry that you don’t fully understand your own religion enough to give it a proper chance.

Boo hoo. What a whiny article.

Japati says:

Thanks Rochele for providing a nice illustration of how fundamentalists have hijacked Judaism. How could I have been so silly to have not learned quantum physics from our sages!

The answer to the second day for those of us who actually wish to live not only in peace but in harmony with our non-jewish neighbors (impossible for our ancestors) the answer might actually be “no”.

Tzvi writes: “isn’t that what Conservative and Reform movements are all about?”

No, it’s not.

Abbi writes: “Also, the two days of Rosh Hashana are Torah prescribed,not rabbinic.”

Where in the Torah do you find this?

See the Rambam, Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh 5:8:
הנה למדת שאפלו יום טוב שני של ראש השנה בזמן הזה מדברי סופרים

Stephen says:

She most probably answered her own question describing the slippery slope experience of the Fuchs family. Torah observant Jews who regard themselves not as Orthodox vs. Conservative etc, but as Authentic, see Torah as encompassing also the Talmudic and Rabbinic literature, and the last Sanhedrin as the final arbiter of Halachah. When you are as connected to your heritage and neshama as the writer seems to be it runs very deep whether this is life-long or not and is very difficult to make adjustments. Modern living has required all kinds of devices – shabbos lifts, eruvs, automatic electrical jugs etc to accomodate Orthodoxy and I am sure there is a black-hatted techi out there writing an app for yomtov. blackberries.

Stephen says:

Independent Patriot writes “Being a good person is the point of Judaism” Say what?
I thought being a good person was the point of being a human being. It seems singularly arrogant to abrogate this to being Jewish.
Our co-religionists and secularists might have something to say I would imagine. So if everybody is the same what is the point of Judaism? Of course we have provided for the world Sinai, the moral and ethical Code of living, but in my understanding the point of Judaism is being given the ways of connecting to haShem through Torah and mitzvot. Hillel famously said “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the whole of Torah, all else is commentary/explanation” But the end of the quote is ” Now go and learn”

Taffy says:

The idea that this article is a shonda (or that you may not ask questions about your observance during the Asseret Yimai Teshuvah) to anyone is really disappointing. Since when are Jews not allowed to ask questions? Since when are they not obligated to?

But really, the quibble I have is the idea that you can no longer identify as Orthodox if you are questioning or even choosing certain observances. In every Orthodox community I’ve lived in, I’ve met people who don’t go to minyan three times a day, wear their yarmulkes, observe the laws of tzniut, and many many many people have adjusted their ideas of kosher (eating at unheckshered vegan restaurants, for example). Let’s not forget the rampant Lashon Hara that goes around, too. Since when is it any sect’s requirement to be perfect?

I’m not sure why questioning this is worse than those who are NOT questioning those other things — they’re simply not doing them. It is the secrecy and morit eyin approach to Orthodoxy that is doing so many of the Orthodox in. Let’s not live cloaked in secrecy, okay?

Carol, the 72 hours of disconnection is not about being addicted to our Blackberries. It’s about not being able to get ahead in a careers, which is not an innocuous thing. Living in an Orthodox community, buying kosher meat, paying tuition at day schools, is really expensive. This isn’t an article about why we’re not putting fish and meat on the same plate when the rationale for that is outdated. It’s an article about something that is extremely detrimental to certain people.

I appreciate the conversation around this article and thank you for reading it.

anonymous says:

Taffy – You’re right. We all fall short, in many ways. But it’s one thing to stumble, and another to accept the stumble as ok. And quite another to crow about it in a public forum. (That’s the shonda, not the questioning itself.)

And secrecy is not so terrible in some contexts either. I once knew an older man who had an affection for Orthodoxy but was not himself Orthodox. When he drove to services, he parked a couple of blocks away and then walked the extra distance. This could be considered sneaky and deceitful. But in fact it was out of respect for the institution.

Gmar chatima tova.

beckyb says:

Kol ha-kavod to all those who are taking off for yom tov!

I understand what you’re saying, but you’ll have to convince me this is a shonda. That is a missionary evangelical approach to Judaism that I don’t stand behind. I think our observance and laws have to be able to stand up to some scrutiny, what you call crowing in a public forum. I’m sure there are plenty of people who do what they do privately. I’m talking about the implications of the laws. We don’t keep 2 days of Yom Kippur because it would have an impact on our health. I’m wondering if there was had been some insight into how this would affect people financially there might have been some consideration for the second day of all holidays.

You just can’t convince me that this stuff shouldn’t be talked about. For our traditions to survive, we have to be able to talk about them and scrutinize them. I don’t throw around words like shonda, but I will say that it’s disheartening to see that people can’t just disagree with me — they have to object that I brought it up in the first place.

An unwillingness to talk openly about our flaws and our problems (not our observance — I’m not talking about people showing respect) isn’t innocuous: I think if we spoke more openly about our agunah problem, we might be closer to a solution.

Gmar chatima tova to all of you. Again, thanks for reading and discussing.

anonymous says:

Sorry for the misunderstanding. I don’t think that your writing and publishing this article is a shonda. I don’t think that discussing the issue is a shonda. I don’t think that someone voicing her distress over lost income due to observance is a shonda. And I wouldn’t consider someone confessing – hopefully pseudonymously – that they were unable to keep 2nd-day yom tov b/c of financial reasons a shonda. But to say unapologetically that we reject it b/c it’s no longer relevant (I don’t see how her kids would suffer financial loss from refraining from video games for 3 days straight) is the shonda.

You may still disagree with me, but I hope we are disagreeing about this particular action, not about your reporting and publishing. Fair?

Ah, I understand. And I really appreciate the clarification.

I have a few opinions about the pseudonym (actually, lack thereof). I should have insisted on one because the use of full names has somehow distracted from the issues at hand.

That said, I think what is far more distressing is the amount of people I interviewed who won’t use their names — this is something that is going on, and I’m a little perplexed as to why we’re fine posting the traif meal we had on Facebook (and still considering each others’ houses kosher), but an open, honest admission is called a shonda. I don’t believe this is an issue of respect, like not parking in front of an Orthodox synagogue. I’m surprised at the amount of people who do not keep kosher full time or do not wear their yarmulkes to work, etc., who are shocked by this.

It is a good point that perhaps I should have interviewed someone for this article who no longer keeps second days because of the financial stakes. That said, I’m not sure I shouldn’t have included who I did. After all, not greeting the holidays with stress and resentment is important, and I believe that Orthodoxy doesn’t stand a chance when we can’t show our children how to live with it joyfully.

All this said — and I do thank you for bringing it up — I also sense this is a little personal for you, and I believe I know why. You can email me offline if you want to talk about it in depth. I believe you know my email. I really do encourage you to be in touch.

Frank M says:

This has botherd me for a long long time. I am waitng for an orthodox rabbi to proclaim this 2nd day business as null and void in light of the 21st century. Believe me life will go on. I might ruffle some frum feathers but who really cares!

This is a fascinating discussion. Sorry I’m participating so late in the game. I just heard about your Tablet magazine.

I, too, find it difficult, actually very difficult, to observe 2 days of YT. And now, reading above that we will have the same situation for the next 3 years, almost depresses me. Let me add, too, that my family and I lived in Israel for almost 6 years, where we obviously only observed one day of YT. And then, for reasons that are too long and complicated to explain, we returned to the USA where we again had to keep 2 days.

Would I ever start keeping only one day of YT in the diaspora? Absolutely not. We, as a Jewish people, have kept 2 days of YT for over 2 thousand years. Our sages knew how to intercalculate the calendar. In truth, they didn’t need beis din to determine the date of rosh chodesh (the new moon). Yet, they abided by the decision of the witnesses’ testimony, even if they knew it was wrong because that was the proscribed procedure for determination of rosh chodesh.

So we have almost always known when the holidays fell out yet the sages decided not to abrogate the second day of YT. There are certainly no rabbis today of that stature that are in a position to change the halacha. It’s too bad but that’s life. I’m an orthodox Jew; I will follow the halacha. I pray that the mashiach comes soon so that we will all be able to observe one day of YT (as we will then all be living in Israel :) ).

A correction for the author: the second day of Yom Tov was mandated after the destruction of the first temple, not the second.

The reason for the second day outside of Israel is that in ancient times it could take up to two weeks for messengers to deliver news to all far flung Jewish communities that the new moon had been declared in Jerusalem, thus fixing the first day of the new month. Since Pesach is in the middle of the month, and Sukkot is in the middle of the month, even if a messenger never showed up at all, the community would observe two days just to cover bases (shavout is not a problem because no date is given for it, rather it falls at the end of the 49 days of counting of the Omer which starts after the first day of Pesach).

The Reason we observe two days of Rosh HaShanah even in Israel is not because it is mandated in Torah, rather because of the same fear that since Rosh HaShanah falls exactly on the first day of The month of Tishrei, the new moon would be declared in Jerusalem and Rosh HaShanah would begin immediately, and it would be impossible for messengers to spread the word throughout Israel in time, therefore it was decided that everyone in Israel would observe 2 days as an insurance policy.

When we moved to Israel 9 years ago, it was extremely difficult for us to adapt to just one day of Yom Tov. In the states, those two days were precious, holy times spent together with family and friends. If your first Seder wasn’t perfect, you got a second chance he next night. If you were exhausted on the first day of shavout from the all nighter of learning, you could rest up and enjoy the second day even more. The separation of shemini atzeret and simhat Torah into two separate days has advantages (in Israel, you are squeezing it all into one short day, including Yiskor!).

We have adjusted, and appreciate that we have more days of chol hamoed to enjoy with the family, more beach time and barbeques.

Taffy: I’m looking forward to an article about the Kitniyot controversy before next Pesach :-) It’s a parallel controversy.

Here in Israel, it’s a tough sell to my kids who are sitting around watching Sephardi friends feasting on Bamba and other goodies that are off limits to us Ashkenazim.

On one hand, respecting traditions is important, on the other hand it seems that in our “modern day and age” a lot of the reasons for avoiding Kitniyot are moot.

The crazy thing about living in Israel is that different communities have different Halachot that are sometimes contradictory. Sephardim can do things on Shabbat that Ashkenazim can’t do and vice versa. How do you explain that logically to a kid? In the states, Jewish communities are largely homogeneous so you don’t run into conflicts, but here we have Jews from every corner of the earth living on top of one another, so theses differences in halachic observance become stark.

At the end of the day, the best solution is to strengthen a child’s knowledge that God created the Universe and all that is in it including all of us, that God is infinite and therefore has the ability to care about what each and every one of us is doing, and that God gets great pleasure when we put his will before our own will.

That is the starting point, and once you internalize these basics, it is easier to appreciate the roles of both tradition and Halacha in the greater plan that God has for the world.

There we go again with that ridiculous expression “observant Jews.” I am an observant Jew. A Reform Jew. I celebrate one day, not two.

i’m appalled that Tablet is recycling an article written 3 years ago. surely the magazine could have done a follow-up article so see whether the behaviors and attitudes of the players mentioned have changed, and found some new voices to add to the conversation.
this strict adherence to the rules turns many off, and always has, surely predating the relatively recent branching of the conservative/reform from the orthodox arbiters of the permissible. on the other hand, said Tevye, if the rabbis declared 3 days of yom tov, the sheeple would bleat approval. so many fret and fuss about others’ perceived straying (we can’t eat at your house because you don’t observe 2nd day yom tov, my son saw yours exiting a non-kosher restaurant, etc. etc. so we can’t trust your kashrut standards) instead of looking within. I knew I wasn’t long for the orthodox world when my rabbi told me I couldn’t eat at a vegan restaurant because they might have insects in the lettuce used in the salads. so many rules established millennia ago that people trip themselves over trying to follow. those sages were wise men, but their wisdom was recorded before the discovery of electricity, bacteria, modern medicine, really modern anything. our society moves in leaps and bounds, theirs didn’t change century after century.

Adam Levado says:

The institution of a second day by the rabbis makes no historical sense. Communities of Jews existed in Egypt, Babylon, and beyond from the destruction of the first temple to the destruction of the second, a period of about six hundred years. If a second day wasn’t necessary then, why thereafter?

The Talmud was written in Babylon which was east of Israel. Thus you started the first day before Israel and the second while Israel was celebrating and finished after Israel so it overlapped. But west of Israel you start the first day after Israel does and start the second day after Israel has finished, smoke or no smoke.
Rosh Hashanah is also a Rosh Hoddesh and some Rosh Hodeshim are celebrated for two days because the New Moon could occur any time of day.

I know for some it is a difficult decision. personally, i have not worked on my birthday, as Hashem gave me life and so did my parents, so I take the day, On Jewish holidays, I do not work, i take the day off or days off, I trust in Hashem to find a way to make things okay, in all ways which includes financials. I was a single mother, no college degree, no child support, took care of it myself, and i had five children. i planned the whole year, holidlays and birthdays, took work schedules, and school and activity schedules and planned around them, worked hard and saved money to make sure we had what we needed. went with out fancy furniture, cars and other types of ammenities. no i am not better than anyone, just believed there was a way, and planned for it. Hashem proved. thankyou.

Need to clarify the difference between 2 day Rosh hashana and the other hagim. ie explain why the former is 2 days in Israel as opposed to the others.

William Berkson says:

This article on the origin of the second day, which seems very well informed, says that it originated when Samaritans deliberately interfered with fire signals that were used to communicate decisions from the Land of Israel to the diaspora. The problem no longer existed once the calendar was set in advance, and didn’t require central decision. Thus there is no reason at all in Jewish law for it:


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The second day of some Jewish holidays is mandated by rabbinic tradition, not Torah law. In today’s world, they’re increasingly hard to observe.

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