On Second Thought
This week, I will sit on my porch, gaze at the pergola and see in its place a bamboo mat. I will remind myself of the biblical commandment, “in a sukkah you shall sit seven days.” And I will then, as I work my way through the interminable “three day yom tov” look up at the Southern California sky, through my bamboo mat, plastic apples and leaves and other kindergarten decorations, and ask, “Why do we do eight days?”
The story goes, as my rabbis taught me in yeshiva, that the Jews in Jerusalem would light a fire on the hilltop when they saw the new moon each month. Fire after fire upon hilltop after hilltop would be lit in succession, eventually making their way to the top of the Mulholland Drive of Babylon. By the time the fire was seen by the people in the valleys of Babylon, Jews scratched their heads in collective confusion as to whether the new moon was today or yesterday. And since time traveled fast in the land of Israel but inevitably slowed once we were no longer blessed by the land (OK, my rabbis did not teach me that, but it was strongly implied), Jews did not know precisely which day was the first of the month, so as a result Jews observed an extra day of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot to avoid the chance they were violating the chag. Which is why in Israel, there is one day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Sukkot and Pesach, and everywhere else they observe two days of yom tov.
But hey, today, we have, can you believe, Hebrew calendars, electricity, airplanes and even this thing called the Internet, and time is simple to tell and the dawn of the new moon is pretty easy to decipher. Even if you live in smoggy Los Angeles. So, then, why the need for the two days?
This question often becomes a bigger subject for discussion in a year like this, when the chag starts on Wednesday night, and the two-day yom tov becomes three when you add in Shabbat. By the time Saturday afternoon rolls around, the feeling is, “I cannot wait for the yom to end and this is no longer tov.”
I first grappled with this question the year I spent in yeshiva in Israel after high school. On the first night of Sukkot, the rabbis explained the different permutations possible for us Americans spending “just” a year in the Holy Land (or as it is commonly referred to this time of the year — the place to do “one day”).They talked about how you can do one day or two days, while emphasizing that one day is for those fortunate ones who are committed to living in Israel. For those observing two days, the opinion from the rabbis was to not observe two days but do what was called famously, “a day and a half,” where you prayed like it was not the chag but you were not to turn on lights or do any other forbidden activity.
I sat there, studiously listening to all of the options. After all, I was studying in a yeshiva and took my religion seriously. A day and a half? Odd, but it seemed like a logical compromise in a yeshiva world where every question had a talmudic answer. But as the sun set on the first day and I returned to my room about to observe the “day and a half,” I opened my door, heard music blaring from a nearby Israeli room, looked at the light switch and turned it on without a moment’s hesitation and knowing full well aliyah was not in my plans at that time.
It was at that moment that I had clarity. Two days? A day and a half? Ridiculous. Every time we hear the rabbis talk about what the Torah says, we listen, but here the Torah says seven days for Sukkot and Pesach and we do eight. Huh?
The truth is, the rabbis don’t have a good answer for continuing to observe a second day. So, why not change it? Ay, there’s the rub. Have you ever met an Orthodox rabbi who would admit change is a good thing?
This is where the Law of Return really can play a role. We get on a plane to Israel, declare ourselves citizens of the Jewish State and then — voila — we can observe one day. A friend of mine is doing just that. And who can argue with him? I have friends, devout Orthodox rabbis, who live in Israel but when they are here, tell me, always in a hushed tone, “yeah, the second day I checked my e-mail.” Another solution, although a little more expensive but becoming more popular, is to buy land in Israel. Rabbis have held that if you own land in Israel you can observe one day. Anyone interested in a one-one hundredth share of an apartment? Or better yet, buy a piece of the desert on the way to Eilat. Land is cheap. We can get in now.
I don’t pretend to hope for change from the rabbinate. Instead, maybe we should just all boycott the second day of shul. Do the “day and a half” thing. Here in Los Angeles. Stay home. Sleep late, enjoy your coffee and leisurely read the paper. If there is no minyan, maybe then they will get the idea. Unless of course, the new moon really isn’t when we thought. Then, well, I guess we would just have to Google it.
Joshua Metzger is at an online video start-up in Los Angeles. He has also written two plays, the first of which was selected for development at the National Playwrights Conference. He attended Jewish day schools in New York City.