Why 7 instead of 8 days of Pesach?

Here is a lovely blog post from the URJ’s blog.  Enjoy!

Is Pesach 7 or 8 Days?
April 12, 2011
Holidays | Jewish History (16 comments)

by Ben Dreyfus

(Note: The information in this post applies to the holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret, but NOT to Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah has a different set of issues that would require a whole separate article to explain.)

When does Pesach end?  Why do some calendars say it ends April 25 this year and others say April 26?  The answer in most Reform Jewish communities is April 25, but the history is complicated.

The festival calendar in the Torah is clear:  Pesach begins on the 15th of Nisan and lasts for 7 days, and the 1st and 7th days are what we would now call yom tov, a day off from work.  On the first night, there is a seder, with matzah, maror, and the retelling of the Exodus.

Back when the months of the Jewish calendar were determined by observations of the new crescent moon, eyewitnesses would bring their testimony to the rabbinical court in Jerusalem, and the court would sanctify the new month based on this testimony.  Since a lunar month is about 29 ½ days, a Hebrew month (which has to have a whole number of days) can have either 29 or 30 days.  So the court then had to get the word out to the rest of the Jewish world about which day had been declared the first of the month, so that everyone could observe the holidays on the same day. Originally this was done by signal fires (as in The Lord of the Rings), which transmitted the message rapidly.  But then the Cutheans, a sect opposed to the rabbis, launched the first phishing scam and made signal fires on the wrong days to throw people off.

Since this method of transmission was no longer secure, the rabbis started sending messengers to outlying Jewish communities to deliver the message in person.  This was harder to forge, but much slower.  Locations within two weeks’ travel of Jerusalem (such as other cities in Israel) had no problem, since the holiday (Pesach or Sukkot) began on the 15th of the month, so they would receive the message in time for the holiday.  But faraway communities such as Babylonia (modern Iraq) couldn’t get the message in time, and didn’t know when the new month had begun, though they could narrow the possibilities to two days.  So to play it safe, they started observing each yom tov for two days, so that one of the days would be the correct date of the holiday (as determined in Jerusalem).  In the case of Pesach, this meant that yom tov was not only the 1st and 7th day, but was now the 1st, 2nd, 7th, and 8th days, so Pesach became an 8-day holiday.

Up to the present time, all Jewish streams in Israel (liberal, Orthodox, and secular) follow the Torah’s calendar and observe each yom tov for one day (and Pesach for 7 days).  But outside of Israel, the 2-day (8-day) custom stuck.  In the 4th century, we switched over to a calendar that is based on mathematical computations rather than astronomical observations, so that the calendar can be computed anywhere in the world and the original reason for the extra day no longer applied.  But the Babylonian Talmud (Beitzah 4b) advises Diaspora Jews to maintain “minhag avoteichem” (“the custom of your ancestors”) and continue the practice of 2-day yom tov, in case the knowledge of how to calculate the calendar is forgotten some day.

Fast forward to 1846.  A group of European rabbis convened in Breslau to debate various reforms to Judaism.  They concluded that “The second days of the holidays … have no longer any significance for our time according to our religious sources … Therefore, if any congregations abolish some or all of these second days, they … are thoroughly justified in their act.”  These rabbis saw themselves as representing the entire Jewish people, but of course, Reform Judaism eventually became just one of several modern denominations.  And within the Reform movement, 1-day yom tov became the standard practice, whether in Israel or anywhere else.  Enough time has passed that this has become our own minhag avoteinu; as a 7th-generation Reform Jew, I am proud to inherit this tradition from my family.

The other modern Jewish movements (outside Israel) have taken different approaches.  In the 1960s, the Conservative movement ruled that individual rabbis were authorized to choose 1-day or 2-day yom tov for their communities; however, the vast majority of Conservative congregations recognize 2 days.  The Reconstructionist movement also gives congregations the choice, and most Reconstructionist congregations do 1 day.  In the Orthodox world, 2 days are standard, with the exception of some Israeli expats who maintain their 1-day practice even outside Israel.

So the answer is that in Israel and for most Reform Jews around the world, Pesach ends on April 25, but for many other Jews (including the ones who seem to print most calendars), it ends on April 26.

Published in: on April 26, 2011 at 1:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Inge Robbins Reflections

From Madrid to Barcelona, with “stops” in between, we walked, we saw, we

ate, we walked – up the steps, down the steps, we listened, we packed, we

unpacked,  we ate, oh, and occasionally we slept; we laughed, we were up

early, to bed late, we ate, we learned, we searched for a Jewish presence,

we prayed together in synagogue and at the hotel, we walked and walked some

more……to the bus…….from the bus, we got to know each other (what nice folks), we tried to make sense of the signs and  of the maps, and what is that we are eating; we

learned so much, had one unforgettable and quotable guide, others were also good;

we ate gelato and more gelato, we socialized and had a great experience in Spain with

a terrific group of Sinai members, including my beloved daughter Alli, and our

wonderful and thoughtful leader and teacher, Rav Brad, and his lovely wife Rebecca.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rona Balser Reflections

Traveling with a group of congenial friends, eating great ethnic food and  enhancing my Jewish learning are my favorite pastimes.

I have a greater appreciation of what the Jews of Spain had to endure:  after centuries of Church-driven pogroms and persecution, Jews had a choice of

either forced conversion or expulsion from their homeland since the days of the Romans.  The many synagogues throughout Spain were destroyed or converted into churches.  The ancient  Jewish quarters we visited with their narrow winding streets, have only remnants of Jewish life, now housed in museums to represent what  once were vibrant medieval centers of Jewish scholarship and culture.  For 500 years, until recent times, only Jewish memories remained.

And how proud I felt listening to the enthusiastic and dedicated teenagers, parents and teachers in Barcelona’s  fledgling Reform Congregation who are so optimistic about building their Jewish school and synagogue.

I came away with the feeling that there is great promise of a future Jewish community in Spain.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marcy and Marshall Siegel Reflections

We have truly enjoyed this trip.  It has been exhausting, but Spain is so full of art, culture and passion you could keep going forever. Marshall and I have been saddened, though, that there is really no Jewish presence left in Spain. What has been wonderful for us is meeting couples from Sinai that we have always seen but never known. These new friendships haves really enriched our lives and I hope that they will continue to grow.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dolcie Scheinman Reflections

I want all to know that I will be running the 4th of July race [as a result of all the walking and rushing we did on this trip].

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cheryl and Warren Alifeld Reflections

When Brad told us that unlike traveling to other cities where there is a strong Jewish presence (especially Israel) in Spain we will see very little Jewish life today. It was hard to imagine this in such contemporary cities but sadly this is true. Visiting with the small Jewish communities still struggling to keep our religion alive was a highlight. We were so impressed with them- especially with the teens, who are so proud and dedicated. How fortunate we are! The architecture and art was a visual feast. It was wonderful traveling with Brad and Rebecca and our fellow Siani-ites. Our guides where great and we thank Adrian for accompanying us. Many thanks to the Gottliebs for planning such a wonderful trip. Warren was able to catch up on his sleep and I had a fabulous time! Adios!!

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Laurie and Bob Spector Reflections

The sights of southern Spain was a feast for our eyes. The Jews of Spain walked these streets & created great things at one time. You feel wonder at the Golden Age of Spain. Our guide, Adrian, told us the history of our people. We got a glimpse of the life of Jews which was never easy. You realize that the life of a Jew is always like a Fiddler On the Roof. The most meaningful moments for me were the encounters with the local synagogue leaders. They brought tears to my eyes. They have to fight to be Jews and they have so much pride! I envy them.

Of all my memories of this trip, it wasn’t the places or the indigenous populations, but rather I developed respect- and many times envy- for the Jewish-ness they genuinely felt and articulated. I was particularly impressed by the young Rabbi in Cordova, who was trying to establish a Jewish presence, by the secrecy of the Minian in Seville and by the kids and parents in Barcelona who were determined to see their community flourish. Barcelona might be the coolest city I have ever visited.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cindy and Howard Gibbs Reflections

This is an amazing jam-packed trip.  We have seen so many sights and learned much about the history of Spain and specifically Spanish Jewry.  We know the story of a thriving society that begins to face prejudice, and is then required to convert to Christianity, leave the country or be killed.  Walking the streets where there were once Jewish teachers, businessmen, doctors and lawyers (just like our group) who all had to leave under such stress pointed out the real tragedy of it.  We continue to ask – How could this happen?  What would cause the leaders of this beautiful country to take such actions?  That is very sad, but what is equally sad is that there is such a small Jewish presence today.  We have heard multiple times that the current Jewish communities must keep a low profile.  The neighbors of the struggling synagogues are not particularly happy to have the communities meet nearby.  It makes us truly appreciate the freedom that we have to proudly live a full Jewish life.  We can enjoy our beautiful community at Temple Sinai, maintain a building that is a landmark in Sandy Springs and be proud that we are leaders in world Jewry.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ina and Harold Enoch Reflections

While we had read in books and spoken to others that had visited Spain we were still not prepared for the lack of physical evidence of a Jewish past in Spain. While the cathedrals and palaces that we visited in each of the cities were incredible it only made it more of a reality that for the past 500 years this has been a Christian country and how fortunate we are that our ancestors had the foresight to come to America so that we are able to practice religious freedom. Our most memorable experiences from this trip will be the Jewish sites that we visited. Seeing where Maimonides was born and the visit to the Casadela Sefarad will be a memory we will cherish forever. Eating in a Jewish restaurant and listening to the old Jewish melodies in that beautiful space was a highlight. Spending time at ATID and listening to the parents and the teens and how committed they are to the revitalization of a Jewish community in Barcelona we were overwhelmed. Even with the obstacles that they have to overcome they are proud to be Jewish and will carry this on for future generations. After studying Kabbalah this year seeing the birthplace of Nachmonides and the site where it all began brought it all to life. How proud to know that he was the only Jew allowed to publicly debate on the virtues of Judaism and was not afraid of the consequences. Being able to share all of these experiences with other Jews and most important members of Temple Sinai is an experience that will bind us together as a group and how wonderful that we will be able to look back on these memories for years to come.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lynn and Jan Saperstein Reflections

For some of us it was the first physical visit… however, for all of us, it was a return to our roots and ancestries in Spain.  We felt the flourishing of Judaism, though, perhaps more often, we felt the demise.  Our spirituality has deepened as we felt the connection to the Jews who lost their religious freedom and, most of the time, their lives.  But we also were so positively impressed by listening to the convictions and commitment of teens to Judaism, practicing in their little unmarked room down some stairs on a quiet street in Barcelona.

Our group is a community.   Just like the communities that are no longer in Spain, we will leave the streets of Madrid and Barcelona and the other cities we were privileged to visit.  However, we will return to our larger Atlanta community with the knowledge and sensitivity and pride that we can practice our Judaism openly and in our own personal ways, which unfortunately and so sadly is totally opposite the status quo of modern day Spain.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 4:04 pm  Leave a Comment