Sermon given May 21, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Every Shabbat, we open the Torah scroll, and we read the same portion shared by Jews throughout the world. Right? Well, not exactly, not this Shabbat.
Even right here in San Antonio, with our noted Jewish unity, our local Jewish congregations are divided in half. At our Conservative and Orthodox sister synagogues, the Torah is opened this week to a special reading for the second day of the festival of Shavuot. Here and at Congregation Beth Am, Shavuot ended this evening, as Shabbat began. We are reading the first half of Parashat Naso, the remainder of which we shall read next week, when our Conservative and Orthodox friends will read that entire portion.
Why do we observe only one day of Shavuot, while some Jews observe two?
Of course, Shavuot is not the only time when this issue presents itself. We sanctify seven days of Passover, while others observe eight. Our sister congregations hallow two days of Rosh Hashanah, while we celebrate but one, and so forth. Among our most sacred occasions, only Yom Kippur is universally marked for one day, since fasting for longer is prohibited.
As we examine our reasons for observing fewer holy days, we could easily fall into the trap of assuming that Reform Judaism is less Judaism. Such an assumption would be incorrect, however. On principle, and not for ease, the founders of Reform Judaism decreed our observance of each holy day exclusively on its appointed day. In the Torah, Shavuot is a one day holiday, so we observe it for one day. The Book of Exodus clearly commands that we keep Passover for seven days, and so we do. Our observances are explicitly in keeping with the words of the Torah.
Since when, though, are Reform Jews biblical literalists? We do not usually define ourselves as the strict constructionists of traditional Jewish practice. On many occasions, we do not observe the specific commands of the Torah. Faithfulness to scriptures can not be the sole reason for our one day festival celebrations. In order to understand the matter better, we must examine the reasons why many of our fellow Jews observe an additional day of each holiday.
During the days of the ancient rabbis, our Jewish people was spread across a vast territory. Of course, the diaspora of those days was not nearly as wide as it is today, but without modern communication, word traveled slowly. The most important message regularly sent out from Jerusalem, to all the scattered Jewish communities of the ancient near east, was the proclamation of the new moon, which is also the beginning of the month. Calendars were not fixed, so the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic court in Jerusalem, would declare the arrival of each new moon. Fires were lit on hilltops, and messages sent from province to province, so that people would know that the month has begun. With holidays falling on specific days of set months, one really does need to know when the month begins!
News took time to arrive, though, so people often wouldn’t know the exact dates until late in the month. Based on the previous month’s information, they did always know the correct date within a one day margin or error. Therefore, a practice was established: Each holiday was observed for one extra day outside the land of Israel. That way, everybody was certain to hit the festivals on the appropriate days.
Within the land of Israel, the practice was somewhat different. There, news could get around to everybody within a reasonable period of time. As a result, the extra day of celebration was not necessary. The only exception was Rosh Hashanah, which is observed on the first day of a month. Even in a relatively small region, word could not get around quickly enough for everybody to know the correctly proclaimed date of the new moon on the very day it arrived. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah was observed for two days, even in Israel.
To this day, except for Rosh Hashanah, all Jews in Israel observe the holy days for the number of days decreed in the Torah, exactly like we Reform Jews of the diaspora. If celebrating one day of Shavuot makes Reform Judaism less Judaism, then the Orthodox Chief Rabbis of Israel are also “less Jewish.” Neither is the case.
The reasons for each of our practices, though, are very different. Jews in Israel never observed the extra day of the holiday. What about outside the land? Why wasn’t the extra holy day canceled when communication got better? In fact, the matter could have been settled centuries ago, when a fixed calendar was accepted by all Jews. More than a thousand years have passed since the last time the Sanhedrin declared the new moon. Now, everybody agrees on the date of the first day of each month. In fact, I have a book that tells me what day in the secular calendar will correspond to each day in the Jewish calendar, all the way to September, 2100!
The truth is that the original reason for the extra day of each holiday was rendered null and void as soon as the calendar was fixed, centuries before the creation of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist Judaism. The rabbis of the Talmud maintained the extra day of each holiday in the diaspora, because they were loathe to depart from the practices of prior generations. Perhaps they also wished to maintain the extra day’s observance as a sharp reminder of the distinction between living in the land of Israel and living in the diaspora, in exile.
For Reform Jews, the simple fact that Jews of a previous age have observed a certain way is not a sufficient reason to maintain a particular ritual practice. Moreover, although we affirm the sanctity of the land of Israel, we also rejoice that we who live in the diaspora, certainly in America, are no longer in exile. Of greater importance, though, are several affirmative reasons for observing the festivals for the number of days originally decreed.
For example, Passover is a seven day holiday. Noted Jewish thinker Dennis Prager has examined the prohibition of eating leavened products during Passover. Leavening, he observes, is a process of decay, of dying, the opposite of life. Freedom permits real living, the purpose for God’s creation of the universe, which took, not coincidentally, seven days. Deep meaning is found when we refrain from leaven, a symbol of death, for seven days, a symbol for life. Observing Passover for eight days may obscure that message.
Now consider Sukkot. Our fall harvest festival lasts eight days, just like Hanukkah, which is also no mere coincidence. In fact, historical evidence suggests that the Maccabees were unable to mark Sukkot when they were fighting the Syrian-Greeks. Therefore, when they won the battle and rededicated the Temple, their first religious act was a delayed observance of that eight-day fall harvest festival. The historical connection of Sukkot and Hanukkah is hidden if Sukkot is celebrated for nine days.
Finally, we come to a day like today, Shabbat, falling on the day after Shavuot. If we were to consider today to be the second day of a festival, it would still be Shabbat. And yet, the Sabbath, which comes every week, would likely be overshadowed by Shavuot, which comes but once a year. We affirm the unique and paramount importance of Shabbat when we do not permit it to be overtaken by the second day of any festival.
Today, very slowly but no less surely, the observance of the second days of festivals is creeping into Reform Jewish practice willy-nilly, here and there around the country. Very likely, the reason is because many Reform Jews grew up in Conservative or Orthodox homes and are accustomed to the extra days’ observance. More laudably, some may believe that we can best maintain the unity of our Jewish people if we all keep the same calendar.
Observing an extra day of each of these festivals, though, would be to deny the wisdom of the Torah and the impeccable judgment of our Reform forebears. Celebrating an additional day of each holiday is perfectly appropriate for Orthodox and Conservative Jews, in keeping with the values and traditions of those movements, which we respect and honor. We cherish the unity of our Jewish people, so we would never hold community functions or suggest that Jewish organizations should be open for business on days that our fellow Jews observe as holy and we do not. We even split one Torah portion in half, rather than re-working the entire cycle of Torah readings, so that we will be back to reading the same Torah portions as our sister synagogues in just one week’s time.
Reform Jews, though, must always look at the tradition with both love and a healthy skepticism, with our hearts and with our minds. We must respect the words of Torah, the teachings of the ancient rabbis, and the judgments of our Reform founders. For us, the answer is clear: Rosh Hashanah and Shavuot are one day holidays; Sukkot lasts eight days, and Passover is celebrated for a week.