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The second day of some Jewish holidays is mandated by rabbinic tradition, not Torah law. In today’s world, they’re increasingly hard to observe.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner
September 28, 2011
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol

Margy Horowitz, a 37-year-old mother of two whom I know, is a private piano teacher in Los Angeles. She is an Orthodox Jew, as are about a third of her students. Paid per lesson, she forgoes up to $300 of income on each day she can’t teach. And in the fall, when Rosh Hashanah ushers in a month-long series of multiday holidays, that adds up: seven missed workdays in just over three weeks, if no holidays fall on a weekend. “The income I lose,” Horowitz said, “is an entire month’s rent.”

Observant Jews cannot work for two days on Rosh Hashanah, which this year starts tonight. Then eight days later there’s Yom Kippur, two days of Sukkot five days after that, and two days of Simchat Torah another week after that. What’s most troubling for people like Horowitz is that this financial hardship is twice as bad as it needs to be: Only one day of the two-day holidays—yom tov, in Hebrew—is mandated by the Torah; the other is rabbinic tradition from another era. Horowitz has thought about teaching on the second day of these two-day holidays, but the rabbis won’t allow it. “If I started working on yom tov, I wouldn’t feel as much like part of the Orthodox community anymore,” she told me.

It started as a clerical issue.

Rabbinic Judaism—that is, the Torah as interpreted by the rabbis, and the mainstream form of Judaism for more than a millennium—follows a lunar calendar. After the destruction of the Second Temple, but before the establishment of a formal calendar, Jews who had left Israel for Babylon, Egypt, and Rome needed to be informed of the new month. This happened via smoke signal or messenger dispatched from Jerusalem, depending on where you lived. Once the start of the month had been determined, you’d know when the holidays would take place.

Of course, even if you had really astute and quick-footed messengers, getting out word of the new month took some time, which meant calculations of holidays’ starts could be off. Everyone outside of Israel accordingly began observing two days of holidays, to ensure that at least one of the days was correct. (Jews in Israel still keep one day; Jews visiting Israel, for the most part, are still required to observe two days, even when in Israel, unless they own property there. Israelis visiting places outside Israel over the holidays observe just one day. The exception is Rosh Hashanah, which is observed for two days everywhere.)

In the United States, Orthodox Jews observe rabbinic law closely; Conservative Jews are more lenient. But both continue to observe the two-day tradition, despite advances in timekeeping and communication that allow us to know with precision when holidays should be observed. (Not that they made so much sense in the first place: Shavuot, for example, is always 50 days after Passover, no smoke signals or messenger needed.) So, why do we continue to observe those two days?

The answer, the rabbis will tell you, is this: because the Talmud, which was written after the calendar was serialized, says so. The writers of the Talmud, in turn, answer the question by warning that Jews should be careful with the customs of our fathers, lest someday there be persecution against Jews and we lose our calendar and our calculation. Rabbis will also tell you that this establishes Israel as the central location for Jews, a reminder that no matter where we’ve set up shop, we should always look to Israel as our homeland.

But what do those things matter to people in 2011, when we’re not really being all that persecuted—at least no more than usual—and we’re all very aware that Israel is the Holy Land? I practice Orthodox Judaism, though I’ve tested observance of all stripes, and so the idea of practicing one day is not as outrageous to me as it is to friends of mine who have been Orthodox their entire lives. And yet I can’t seem to let the second day of yom tov go either.

Last year, Alan Brill, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, a Catholic university in New Jersey, blogged about the problems caused by a two-day yom tov. Those problems are exacerbated in years, like this one, in which many of those two-day holidays line up on a Thursday and Friday, leading right into Shabbat and creating what is effectively a three-day no-work, no-technology yom tov. (This pattern will repeat in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017.)

“The past few years there has been a growing tension among those who work in interactive professions about their need to check their blackberries on Yom Tov,” he wrote. “Some fields need daily input.”

Brill’s post was in response to another blog, Jewschool, which predicted that the three-day yom tovs might lead to more people simply abandoning observance of two-day holidays. So far, there’s been no movement by Orthodox or Conservative Judaism to relax observance of that second day. But when I spoke to Brill, he pointed out there’s precedence for relaxing the rules.

“In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, many Orthodox congregants would go to Saturday services, then open their shops,” he told me. “No one thought about it; you had to make a living. Second-day yom tov was the same. You’d have your service, then go to work. Now it seems Orthodoxy defines itself as a total system, making everything complete and total commitment, rather than doing the best you can in a complex system.”

That tradition may be starting to reassert itself among individual observant Jews.

Janet Fuchs, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mother in Los Angeles, sends most of her four kids to Orthodox schools and attends an Orthodox synagogue. But she quietly stopped observing the second day of yom tov two years ago. “My husband announced it first,” she told me. “He couldn’t miss that much work, he decided, and he doesn’t like to daven.” At first the family continued observing the second day without him, going to synagogue and a celebratory meal. “But it wasn’t fun without him, so we stopped going to shul and were just going to lunches,” Fuchs said. “Then we stopped going to shul or going to lunch, and then I let the kids use electronic entertainment on second day.”

I asked Fuchs, a friend, if she feels guilty about giving up that observance. She sometimes does, she said, but over time the guilt has faded in light of the benefits. “When I realized that not keeping second day was making my appreciation of the first day greater, I felt less guilty,” she said. “Mostly, I feel like I know a fabulous secret that no one else knows.”

Moderation is something you don’t hear a lot about in the Orthodox community. But in the same way the rabbis have taken interpretation of the laws outside of God’s exclusive control, perhaps those of us who love Orthodox ideas and values might need to take the rules of our practice out of our rabbis’ exclusive control. I wonder how much my kids will be eager to follow any form of observance after they witness my ambivalence and resentment. Perhaps if I practiced moderation, they would be more apt to embrace their faith.

But still, it’s difficult to do. My husband and I have talked about giving up the second day of yom tov, but we can’t seem to pull the trigger on it. A few blocks away from me in Los Angeles, while I hedge, Horowitz remains tempted too, but she doesn’t feel like she will make the move anytime soon. “At this point it’s also about setting an example for my kids, who are now old enough to understand.”

Fuchs, for her part, doesn’t think non-observance of the second day is as big of a deal as I’m making it. When we talked, she encouraged me to look around and realize that she’s not exactly revolutionary as an Orthodox woman observing one day of yom tov. “I have discovered that we aren’t the only ones,” she said.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.