Extra Festival Days in the Diaspora

Israelis and liberal Jews observe fewer days for some holidays than traditional Diaspora Jews.

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The Rosh Hashanah Exception

One biblical holiday does not fall in mid-month: Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is set by the Torah "on the first day of the month" of Tishrei (Leviticus 23:24) beginning both the new calendar year and a new month. Delay in receiving word of this new moon would lead distant communities to miss the day and violate Torah law. To address this issue, the ancient Rabbis introduced yom tov sheni shel galuyot, "a second Diaspora festival day." Residents of distant communities were instructed to observe two days of Rosh Hashanah--on the 30th day of the month of Elul, which precedes Tishrei (and which they could establish from the previous month's new moon) and the first day of the new month of Tishrei. This was a safety measure, to ensure that these communities would celebrate at least one day of Rosh Hashanah on the proper day. With the official news from Jerusalem, they could not know if the new moon had been sighted on the first or the second of these days, but observing two days ensured they would not violate the holiday.

As this custom of yom tov sheni spread through the Diaspora, it began to be observed even in the land of Israel and Jerusalem. This also started as a safety measure, because late-day testimony that the new moon had been seen might leave no time for observing the holiday. Therefore the next day would be observed as Rosh Hashanah as well. The second day of Rosh Hashanah became a more integral part of the celebration of the Jewish new year. Despite the fact that the second day of Rosh Hashanah is nearly identical to the first (with the exception of a different Torah reading), the Talmudic rabbis declared the second day of Rosh Hashanah is identical in its sanctity to the first. They called the combined two days of Rosh Hashanah Yoma Arikhta--a long or extended day.

This unique understanding of the two days of Rosh Hashanah is universally accepted, in Israel as well as the Diaspora. Gradually, the custom of yom tov sheni was applied outside of Israel to all of the biblical festivals--Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot--while in Israel, only Rosh Hashanah was extended. Yom Kippur, as a fast day, was not extended to two days due to concerns over physical hardship and health safety.

The Witness System Ended, But the Custom Persisted

Establishing the Jewish calendar by witnesses survived the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, continuing until the middle of the fourth century C.E., when the Byzantine Christian empire, hostile to the remaining community in the land of Israel, forbade the proclamation of the calendar. The last Jewish patriarch in Palestine, Hillel II, therefore published the calculations that the Sanhedrin had always used as back-up. At this point, the Jewish calendar became fixed and perpetually calculable. Although the calendar was now fixed, the Diaspora custom of observing the extra Diaspora days was retained, although technically no longer necessary.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.