The Case for Yom Tov Sheini

By: Larry Tobin

Yom Tov Sheini (not to be confused with Pesach Sheini) observes the second day of Pesach, Succos and Shavuos as a Yom Tov. It is a long-standing tradition dating back at least 2000 years and perhaps as early as the time of Joshua. There was originally grave concern regarding the actual timing of holidays and other events, e.g. Rosh Chodesh. The modern Jewish lunar calendar had not yet been fully established. Moreover, difficulties were encountered in notifying outlying communities when holidays/events began. A second day of Yom Tov was, therefore, declared as a safeguard. When the modern Jewish calendar developed the need for a Yom Tov Sheini arguably disappeared. Or did it? Today orthodox and many conservative Jews continue to observe a Yom Tov Sheini. Reform Jews abolished the need for this observance in 1844. Also, Jews living in Israel do not observe it. So is it really necessary? Is there any rational reason to continue this practice outside of Israel?

Many justifications are offered for not having a Yom Tov Sheini. Some people simply do not see its need in light of the accurate modern Jewish calendar. Others want to follow in the footsteps of the Israelis and even consider it a matter of solidarity. What is clear is that more and more Jews are abandoning the practice.

My great grandfather had an interesting way of looking at religion. He was a great scholar and very religious; a true Tzadik. When asked to comment on the trend toward atheism among Zionistic Jews he responded that if there is no G-d and one spends his entire life believing in G-d, what does he really lose? On the other hand, if one continually denies the existence of G-d and G-d actually exists … Perhaps  this approach is of equal relevance to the issue at hand.

Having been an attorney I am particularly interested in the legal justification for a Yom Tov Sheini. In the U.S. jurisprudence system there is a principle called stare decisis. This concept recognizes that when a final court determination is rendered, it remains the law unless and until a court of equal or superior authority overturns it. Stare decisis, by the way, is nothing more than a restatement of a similar rule under Talmudic law. The Sanhedrin during the time of the Second Temple and the Babylonian exile dealt with the issue of Yom Tov Sheini. By then the Jewish calendar had fully been developed. Nevertheless, it ruled that a Yom Tov Sheini must be observed. No subsequent Sanhedrin reversed the decision. One might argue that a Sanhedrin does not exist today to reconsider the issue. Until such a court is established, or some equivalent Jewish ‘Supreme Court’, the existing Sanhedrin ruling under stare decisis (or the equivalent Jewish rule) still stands.

You might wonder what motivated the Sanhedrin to render its decision. Although this may be subject to some speculation, what is clear is that there were at least two overriding considerations. First, the Sanhedrin recognized the need to perpetuate tradition. Second, there was a concern that if Jewish observance is relaxed a tyrannical government may use this as a justification to totally abolish Jewish observance.

It is such an important part of Jewish practice. Although customs vary among Jews, especially between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews,  some customs are long-standing and widespread. Among these customs is Yom Tov Sheini, assuming it is only a custom and not a court rendered law. So, what about the Israelis? Are they wrong in not observing Yom Tov Sheini three times a year? No! The Israelis, as part of the overall scheme of Judaism, are allowed certain proviledges merely because they live in Israel. More significantly, the ruling of the Sanhedrin was not directed at them. It was only directed at diaspora Jews.

An attempt was made this Pesach to convene a Yom Tov Sheini service at Kehillat on the second day of Pesach. The attempt to get a definitive commitment from ten post Bar/Bat Mitzvah congregants failed. Perhaps after reviewing this article, future efforts will be more fruitful. This article however, only represents one man’s opinion. I would be interested in your thoughts.


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