This past Pesach, like all others (including Succot and Shavuot) prompted in me the question that all of us ask ourselves, especially when facing a three day yom tov. Why? Why is it that if in Israel yom tov is one day, but in the Diaspora they are two day binges (assuming you are orthodox or traditionally inclined)? The classical answer just doesn’t cut it anymore and for those of you not familiar with the standard explanation I will do a quick recap.
Prior to the calendar being mathematically fixed it was difficult to ascertain the precise beginning of the new moon. So according to the decision of the Sanhedrin the new month would be declared after eye witnesses had testified of its first appearance. Based upon the testimony the Sanhedrin would declare the first day of the new month. This information, however could not travel quickly enough to communities outside of Israel, thus those communities maintained two days of yom tov, since biblical festivals always had a fixed date. This of course was in consideration of the fact that some months had 29 days and others had 30.
Since the 4th century CE there has been a fixed calendar. Thus there was no real need to depend on witnesses and perpetuating the archaic process. In fact, because of the fixed calendar, even those in the Diaspora were aware of the new moon. So why didn’t the sages annul this anachronistic custom? The sages insisted that since it has become a minhag deeply entrenched within the community it ought not be tampered with. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin 1817-1893) puts an interesting spin on the whole thing. He interprets (Leviticus 22:31) the redundant language “you shall keep my commandments and you shall do them” to mean one should make the proverbial fence around these festivals in order strengthen them outside of Israel.
This position is quite troubling. By following this logic one ought to conclude that Yom Kippur should be two days in the Diaspora as well. And why do we only count 49 days of the omer outside of Israel there should be the additional day added. If pesach started one day late there should have been the need to start the count of the omer one day late! Couple this with the musings of the Netziv who believed that had it not been for the verse referenced above (Leviticus 22:31) he believed that one day ought to be observed in the Diaspora as well since in Jewish Law we follow the majority. Accordingly, the calendar has more months consisting of 29 days and less of 30. We therefore go with the majority which is 29 days thus there ought to be no reason to compensate for the 30th day by adding a second day.
It would thus appear that in classical Judaism prior to the enlightenment and emancipation there was some discomfort with the second day of yom tov (otherwise why the discussion by our sages) but an accommodation was made for it based upon tradition. Since 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel there is a need to revisit this entire issue especially in view of the fact that there has been a total blurring of the lines between who should observe two days and who isn’t obligated to. In fact there is an opinion that only one and a half days ought to be observed under some circumstances.
Does someone living in the Diaspora but visiting Israel celebrate one or two days? The majority opinion believes that a Diaspora Jew visiting Israel ought to observe the holiday for two days and there is a minority opinion the Chochem Tzvi (18th century) who believes a one day observance is appropriate. There is another, compromise position suggested by Rabbi Soloveitchik who is of the opinion that one and a half days ought to cover it. His opinion is based on the Chochem Tzvi but with the proviso that on the second day one should put on tefillin but not work (melacha).
What all of this tells me is that the second day of yom tov is tolerated at best. What I hear from most people in anticipation of a three day yom tov (when Shabbat comes in on the tail of the two days as was this year) is dread. Yom Tov is supposed to be not only inspirational but also spiritual. The 14th century kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Recanati believed that it was impossible to reach the same heights of spirituality on the festival in the Diaspora as in Israel. Thus, outside of Israel he believed that two day holidays ought to be enforced and supported if for no other reason than to give people the opportunity to reach the same levels of spirituality as those living in Israel. According to Recanati, it takes twice as much time to reach the spiritual heights of someone in Israel! Naturally a 14th century kabbalist had a much more romanticized ideation of Israel than what reality demonstrates in the 21st century; thus indicating that Recanati’s approach to yom tov sheni ought to be revisited as well.
It would appear from my observations that the opposite is the case. It seems that many observant Jews flock to Israel from the Diaspora to escape the two day observance, do some touring, and get to the chametz a day earlier than there relatives and friends in America. Spirituality is optional. Recently a shaila was put to a local modern orthodox rabbi. A group from his shul was going on an organized trip to Israel for Pesach. Most of the group indicated that they would be observing only one day of the chag. A smaller minority was conflicted and wished to consult with their rabbi whether it was incumbent upon them to observe two days since they would be coming back to the states shortly after Pesach. The rabbi’s proclivity was to instruct the minority that they ought to be observing two days. However because the majority had already decided to observe one day the rabbi reasoned that the minority should follow the majority. Others flock to a Pesach program where they can be entertained at the pool or the tea room and discover a new form of spirituality never envisioned by Recanati.
And for those who chose to stay put in their local shteiblich they are probably too obsessed with the mechanics of getting the k’zayis exactly measured to be able to reach the height of spirituality that Rabbi Recanati referred to.