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 original biblical prescriptions for each of the holidays were modified as well, as formerly intermediate days (hol hamo'ed) became yom tov (full holidays). Thus on Passover, the Torah states, "You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day and a sacred occasion on the seventh day" (Exodus 12:16); the "sacred occasions" included prohibitions against working and attendant rituals and celebrations. These days of "sacred occasion" were doubled to include the first two days and the last two days. One significant outcome of these changes is that Diaspora Jews observe two seder nights. The only real development for the extra final day of Passover is found in Hasidic communities, which associate the redemption of the Israelites in Egypt with the future Messianic redemption, referring to the eighth day of Passover as Mashiach Day.

Shavuot, originally a one-day festival, was expanded to two days, both full holidays. Sukkot's "sacred occasion," was extended to become two initial holy days.

Sukkot continued to be a seven-day holiday. Its close was bracketed by a unique one-day holiday called Shemini Atzeret, the "eighth day of assembly," understood to be separate from Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret was expanded to two days with the addition of the yom tov sheni shel galuyot. The completion and new beginning of the yearly cycle of Torah readings became associated with this day and acquired a new name, Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah), and unique customs and rituals. Nonetheless, it is still, technically, the second festival day of Shemini Atzeret.

A Comeback for the Biblical Calendar

As the Jewish community of the land of Israel grew in modern times Jewish authorities decided to mark the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland by returning to the original biblical calendar, restoring the one-day observance of biblical holy days as a testimonial to the biblical sanctity of the land of Israel, while re-establishing a distinction between the Diaspora and Israeli communities consistent with Zionist ideology. 

In Israel, Passover is celebrated for seven days, with a single seder and only the first and last as special holidays. Shavuot is a one-day holiday in Israel, and only the first day of Sukkot is a full holiday. Shemini Atzeret does double duty as a single, packed day of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Rosh Hashanah alone retained its two-day format.

Many Diaspora Jews Follow Israeli Practice

The resurrection of the original custom in Israel strongly influenced the liberal denominations of American Judaism. The Reform Movement has officially abrogated the extra days--again, except for Rosh Hashanah--for all of its congregations in the United States. Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal communities are free to autonomously choose the practice for their congregations, and some Conservative congregations do likewise.

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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.