One Seder Night or two? Seven days or eight?

This extra day is potentially controversial. After all, the Torah itself enjoins us “You shall not add to the word that I command you, neither shall you diminish from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2, 13:1).

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Seder table
Seder table

Part 1: The additional Festival day

(This first part is based on the unpublished thesis which my mother z”l, Dr Hana Pinner, wrote in 1994 for her M.A.)

The Torah commands us to celebrate חַג הַמַּצּוֹת, the Festival of Matzot, for seven days, from the 15th of Nissan until the 21st (Exodus 23:15, 34:18, Leviticus 23:5-7, Numbers 28:17-19). And indeed, this is how we celebrate the Festival in Israel.

However in exile, this Festival lasts eight days, from the 15th to the 22nd of Nissan.

The additional Festival day is called יוֹם טוֹב שֵׁנִי שֶׁל גָּלֻיּוֹת, the Second Festival Day in Exile.

This extra day is potentially controversial. After all, the Torah itself enjoins us “You shall not add to the word that I command you, neither shall you diminish from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2, 13:1), so adding a day violates this Torah-command.

And the Blessings recited on the second Seder Night are equally problematic:

The Kiddush, the blessings such as “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, Who has sanctified us with His Commandments and commanded us to eat matzah”, “...commanded us to eat bitter herbs”, would appear to be Berachot la-vatalah (Blessings recited in vain). G-d has commanded us to eat matzah and bitter herbs specifically on the Seder Night, not on any other night.

Then there is the additional concern that adding the extra Festival day interrupts and interferes with the statutory daily prayers.

So with all this, how did this extra Festival day come into being?

The first day of the Jewish month, Rosh Chodesh, had to be proclaimed by the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court in Israel). Like any judicial procedure, this followed strict rules, and had to be based upon halakhically-accepted evidence – in this case, the testimony of two valid witnesses who testified before the Sanhedrin that they has seen the New Moon.

Since the moon’s cycle is on average 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds, the New Moon would be sighted either 30 or 31 days after the previous New Moon. If the Sanhedrin accepted the evidence of the witnesses on the 30th day, then the previous month would be “deficient” (i.e. 29 days), and the 30th day would be the 1st of the next month.

If no witnesses came forth, or if witnesses came forth but the Sanhedrin rejected their testimony, then the month would be “full” (i.e. 30 days), and the 31st day would then be the 1st of the next month.

In order to proclaim the new month if it began on the earlier of the possible days, the Sanhedrin established a series of fire-beacons, signalling from hill-top to hill-top, beginning on the Mount of Olives.

Thus even the far-flung Jewish communities in Babylon would receive the Sanhedrin’s proclamation with a few hours.

However, in the late Second Temple period, various sects (primarily the Samaritans and the Boethusians, maybe also the Jewish converts to Christianity), wishing to sabotage Jewish life, began lighting false signals. Once one false signal had been lit, it could be impossible to stop the false declaration spreading.

And so the Sanhedrin changed the method of announcing the start of the month: instead of fire-beacons, they sent out messengers on horse-back.

But this created a new problem: these messengers often could not reach the far-flung communities (Babylon, Egypt, Rome, etc.) in time for the Festival. So as a safeguard against profaning a Holy Day, those distant and isolated Jewish communities would have to keep two days: one on the 15th of month as calibrated if the previous month was “deficient”, and one on the 15th of month as calibrated if the previous month was “full”.

The determining factor (keeping any festival for one day or two), was the availability of information from the Sanhedrin in Israel, which was the sole authority authorised to “sanctify the New Moon” (Beitza 4b).

Thus each community would make an ad hoc decision, one day or two, as the need arose. If the messengers arrived from Israel in time for the Festival, then one day; if not, then two.

However, the early leading Amora’im, Rav in Sura in Babylon (c. 175-247 C.E.), Shmuel in Nehardia in Babylon (c. 165-257 C.E.), and Rabbi Yochanan bar Napchah in Tiberias (c. 200-270 C.E.), stressed the importance of this extra Festival day, and provided several Rabbinic decrees regulating it (vide Pesachim 52a and Rosh Hashanah 21a).

Because uncertainty was undesirable and uniformity of Festival practice was deemed necessary, Rabbi Yochanan decreed that all communities beyond the reach of the Tishrei messengers – those who had to add an extra day to Sukkot – must also add the extra day to all Festivals, even if in any given instance they happened to receive the messages before the Festival (Rosh Hashanah 21a).

The Rambam explains:

“There were places which the Nissan messengers would reach [before Pesach] but the Tishrei messengers would not reach [before Sukkot]. It would appear that they should keep the Pesach-Festival for one day, because the messengers had reached them, so they knew which day Rosh Chodesh had been, and they would keep the Sukkot-Festival for two days, because the messengers had not reached them. But in order to keep all the Festivals equal, the Sages decreed that every place which the Tishrei messengers did not reach  would keep two Festival days for all Festivals” (Kiddush ha-Chodesh 3:12).

Since all Festivals are equally important, their observance must be uniform.

In the fourth century, with the Roman Empire in turmoil and decline, and with the Land of Israel under increasingly-harsh anti-Jewish decrees, with upheavals ravaging Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the world, with the triumph of Christianity over Roman paganism (the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion in 313), Jewish life became ever-more threatened and restricted.

The Sanhedrin was prohibited from proclaiming leap years, which of course struck a vital nerve of Jewish life: the observance of all Festivals, for all Jews throughout the world, depended upon this proclamation.

As a response, and sensing approaching doom, Hillel II convened a Sanhedrin in 4109 (349 C.E.) to establish a calculated calendar. A decade later this fixed calendar was promulgated – the calendar which we use until today.

Proclamations of New Moons no longer depended upon eyewitness sightings, testimonies to the Sanhedrin, and proclamations by the Sanhedrin. Jewish communities no longer depended upon receiving messages, month-by-month, from the Sanhedrin to know when the month had begun.

Thus the question arose: With this new calendar in force, there was no longer any doubt as to when the month began. So should the יוֹם טוֹב שֵׁנִי שֶׁל גָּלֻיּוֹת remain in force?

This extra Festival day had been celebrated for generations, the liturgy and Torah-readings had been adjusted accordingly, and many communities were understandably reluctant to break with this hallowed tradition.

On the other hand, there was the equally understandable concern that they were in violation of the Torah’s prohibition “You shall not add to the word that I command you”.

The Talmud addresses this: “Now that we know when the new month is determined, what is the reason for still observing two days? – Because they sent [the ruling from Israel to the Diaspora]: Take care to preserve the custom of your fathers which is in your hands, for some Government might yet enact a decree of persecution which will cause confusion [as to the correct day]” (Beitza 4b).

Rabbi Hai Gaon (939-1038), one of the last great leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community, was also asked about the extra Festival day.

He referred to the Torah’s injunction, “According to the Torah which they [the Judges] shall command you, and according to the judgement that they shall tell you, you shall do – do not depart from it” (Deuteronomy 17:11).

The Torah itself commands us to obey the judges in any given generation. Once the judges of a Sanhedrin have promulgated an edict, only an equal or greater Sanhedrin can ever repeal that edict. Since there is no longer a Sanhedrin, there is therefore no halakhic body great enough to repeal the second Festival day in exile.

So even though the reasons for it no longer exist, the ruling from millennia ago still applies.

Part 2: What about a Jew from exile visiting Israel, or vice versa?

Until a couple of generations ago, the ruling was simple enough: in Israel we celebrate one Seder Night and seven days of the Festival, everywhere else two Seder Nights and eight days of the Festival.

But we live in a time of fluid boundaries and mass travel. Many Jews these days divide their time between Israel and the USA or Britain or France fairly equally. Others live overseas, but spend many, or most, or even all, the Festivals in Israel.

And many more come to Israel occasionally, and spend a Festival here. Or the other way round, Israelis go abroad for the Festival.

The Shulchan Aruch rules simply:

“Denizens of the Land of Israel who leave Israel are forbidden to do any labour on the second Festival Day in an inhabited place, even if his intention is to return [to Israel]. But as long as he has not reached any place of human habitation, even if he has no intention to return [to Israel], he is permitted [to do labour on the second Festival Day], because he is not yet accustomed to be like them. But if he reaches a place of human habitation, and he has no intention of returning [to Israel], then he becomes like them, and is forbidden [to do labour on the second Festival Day], whether he is in the desert or in a place of human habitation” (Orach Chaim 496:3).

But as we already observed, four-and-a-half centuries ago the distinction between denizens of the Land of Israel and denizens of exile was far clearer than it is today.

So does a Jew from the Diaspora who visits Israel for Pesach (or vice versa) celebrate one Seder Night or two? Does he keep the Festival for seven days or eight?

There are three major opinions.

The first is that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l, who decrees that one observes according to wherever one is on that particular day. A Jew from the USA who comes to Israel for Pesach, and only for Pesach, knows which day the Festival falls, and would have known had he been visiting 2,000 years ago. So he celebrates one Seder Night, and the entire Festival for seven days.

An Israeli Jew visiting abroad, by contrast, celebrates two Seder Nights and the entire Festival for eight days.

The second opinion is that of Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook ztz”l, the doyen of religious Zionism, who held very differently. According to him, the bond between a Jew and the Land of Israel is so powerful that a Jew from the Land of Israel visiting abroad is still intimately connected with the Land. He only observes one Seder Night, and the entire Festival for seven days.

And a Jew from overseas who visits Israel, even if only for the one week of the Festival, is nevertheless sufficiently connected with the Land that as long as he is in Israel, he is a בֶּן אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל – a son of the Land of Israel, and therefore keeps one Seder Night, and the entire Festival for seven days.

During the 1970’s, a group of American Jews was studying in Merkaz Ha-Rav (the Yeshivah which Rav Kook ztz”l had established in 1924). His son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook ztz”l, was Rosh Yeshivah at the time. These American students went to the Kotel on the second Festival day for their Festival prayers.

When Rav Tzvi Yehuda heard about this, he was furious with them. “You don’t bring galut [exile] into Israel”, he berated them, “certainly not into Jerusalem! If you are so connected with galut that you absolutely have to keep the second Festival day, then you lock yourselves in a room and do it in private!”

Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook ztz”l took this so far that he ruled that if a Jew from the Diaspora has merely visited Israel once, and has some vague idea of maybe making Aliyah one day, then he is already a בֶּן אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל – a son of the Land of Israel, and therefore sheds the extra Festival day.

The third opinion is that of Rav Soleveitchik ztz”l. According to him, a Jew has to celebrate according to wherever he defines as “home”. A Jew who lives in New York and spends an extended period of time in Israel, nevertheless still thinks of New York as “home”, and therefore celebrates two Seder Nights and the entire Festival for eight days.

A French Jew who lives in Paris and maintains a holiday home in Jerusalem, still thinks of Paris as “home” and Jerusalem as a place to come for a vacation; accordingly, he should still celebrate two Seder Nights, even in his holiday home which he owns in Jerusalem.

I had opportunity to speak with Rav Meir Soleveitchik ztz”l a few decades ago when I was fairly new in Israel. I had made Aliyah (not yet officially, but that was simply for convenience), I had made a firm decision not to return to England to live, so I was celebrating one Festival day.

I met Rav Soleveitchik ztz”l the day after Shavuot (which was יוֹם טוֹב שֵׁנִי שֶׁל גָּלֻיּוֹת, the second Festival Day in exile). Rav Soleveitchik ztz”l told me that had I asked him, he would have told me to still keep two days Yom Tov, on the grounds that I was young, single, and unattached, my life was still uncertain, my parents still lived in London, “home” was still my parents’ house, and if I faced any kind of problem, then I would run back “home”, meaning my parents’ house, meaning London.

However – he continued – if your Rabbi has told you to keep one day, then you keep one day, and you don’t follow my ruling. (The mark of a genuine Gadol ba-Torah!)

I conclude by stressing that all I have written above is intended to do no more than give an ideological background to יוֹם טוֹב שֵׁנִי שֶׁל גָּלֻיּוֹת, the second Festival Day in exile.

For practical halakhic decisions, it is imperative to consult a competent halakhic authority. Tempting though it can often be to make halakhic decisions lightly or capriciously, this is not the Jewish way. A tradition handed down for thousands of years, a ruling by the Sanhedrin in Israel, is not to be discarded lightly, certainly not on the basis of one D’var Torah.

And any competent halakhic authority will take into account not only halakhah, but also the individual’s personal circumstances.

Chag kasher ve-sameach!