Category Archives: Pesach

Second Day Yom Tov: Just a case of ‘Buy one get one free’?

One of the most infamous and perplexing aspects of Jewish practice is the notion of a second day of Yom Tov. This article aims to address the history of the practice and its relevance in modern times through classic Jewish texts.

The Gemara explains that before the Jewish calendar was fixed, the beginning of every Jewish month was declared by means of witnesses who would come to the Sanhedrin (Jewish court of law) originally based in Jerusalem and declare that they had seen the New Moon. After examination, if the witnesses were found to be telling the truth, the sages would declare the beginning of the month.[1] This message was spread over the Land of Israel via a system of hilltop fires.[2]

The difficulty arose with the fixing of the festivals. The Gemara[3] records that messengers were sent from Jerusalem to the Diaspora in order to inform distant communities regarding the fixing of the festivals. Even though the Torah only stipulates that our festivals must be observed for one day, it became common practice for Jews in distant communities outside of the Land of Israel to observe two days of the festival. This was because it took more than two weeks for the message to arrive regarding the exact date of Rosh Chodesh making the calculation of the date of the festival very difficult.

If for example, Sukkot must be kept on the 15th of Tishrei[4] there was insufficient time for the messengers from Jerusalem to reach Jewish communities more than two week’s travel away. In those far flung communities, Sukkot was therefore observed on both the 15th and 16th of Tishrei, whereas in the Land of Israel it would have only been observed on the 15th according to the Torah.[5] Similarly, Rosh HaShannah which falls on the first of Tishrei would have to be observed for two days even in Israel. The reason was because in a case where the witnesses for the New Moon did not arrive until late on the 30th of the previous month of Elull, they would keep that day as the first day of Rosh HaShannah in case they arrived. If they did arrive, Elull would be 29 days and the 30th of Elull would become the 1st of Tishrei.[6]

It is worth noting that while we can understand the need for communities to be strict in this case, there are also mitzvot (commandments) that those communities would lose out on by observing an extra day of Yom Tov. Since it is forbidden to wear Tefillin on Shabbat and Yom Tov, it would be impossible to perform that important positive mitzvah. Therefore, the addition of a second day of Yom Tov was not made lightly. Yet this strengthens the most fundamental question about the addition of a Second day of Yom Tov in modern times.

For over 1,600 years our calendar has not relied on witnesses to declare the onset of each new Jewish month. The change is largely attributed to Hillel II (not to be confused with Hillel who was a sage in Mishnaic times. Hillel II was the Nasi (leader) of the Sanhedrin between 320 and 385 CE.

In responsa of Rav Hai Gaon from the academy of Pumbedita during the early 11th century it appears that the calendar was fixed for a 19 year cycle of leap years in the year 358 CE. With it came the fixing of the Jewish months rendering the system of witnesses and messengers obsolete. Yet the practice of Diaspora communities keeping a second day Yom Tov continued even though the apparent reason for the practice no longer applied. The Gemara[7] explains that:

.במנהג אבותיכם בידיכם זמנין דגזרו המלכות גזרה ואתי לאקלקולי

Give heed to the customs of your ancestors which have come down to you; for it might happen that the government might issue a decree and it will cause confusion [in ritual].


The Gemara above implies that we retain the tradition of second day Yom Tov in case governmental decrees prevent us from learning Torah, causing confusion in the calendar. While this is not unreasonable given the historical context of the Gemara, it appears practically inconceivable in the modern world. Maimonides explains that since there is no longer a Sanhedrin to uproot the practice of second day Yom Tov, even though according to the “simple law” it would be appropriate to keep only one day, Jewish law states that two days are kept in line with the Gemara.[8]

Yet could the reasons given in the sources we have cited be only part of the picture, relevant for their time? Could we entertain the possibility that there other, perhaps deeper reasons for keeping a second day of Yom Tov outside the Land of Israel, beyond those already mentioned which appear obsolete?To begin to address this we must point to one glaring anomaly in the practice: the festival of Shavuot.

The Torah does not fix a date for Shavuot but simply commands us to count forty nine days starting from the second day of Pesach. This means that even before the calendar was fixed, the messengers had over two months from Rosh Chodesh Nissan before arriving in communities outside of Israel to declare the correct date of Rosh Chodesh. Long before the Shavuot, the messengers could have arrived and revealed the real date of Pesach meaning that the issue of doubt was no longer relevant; only one day of Shavuot needed to be kept.

Yet that was never the practice. Communities would keep two days Shavuot and this continues to be the custom today. There must therefore be some other reason, beyond the issue of doubt that led the Jewish people to adopt two days of Shavuot. If so, it may explain why we continue to keep two days Yom Tov for other festivals given that the calendar has been fixed.

To answer this we must examine the events surrounding Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) which Shavuot commemorates and specifically piece together the exact date on which the Torah was given?

We know that in the year 2448, the Jewish people were commanded to take the Paschal offering on the 10th of Nissan.[9] The Gemara records that the Jewish people slaughtered the Paschal offering four days later at the prescribed time (14th of Nissan). They left the next day on the 15th of Nissan which was a Thursday.[10] This means that the 10th of Nissan was Shabbat which complements the notion that Shabbat HaGadol commemorates the taking of the Paschal lamb.[11] We also know that when the Jewish people arrived at Sinai it was the 1st of Sivan.[12]

Yet the big question is what happened next. The Gemara fills in some of the gaps left by the Torah.[13] On Rosh Chodesh itself the people rest from the journey. On the 2nd and 3rd of Sivan God speaks to Moses declaring them a ‘Kingdom of Priests’[14] and setting up the boundaries around the mountain.[15] God has commanded Moses and the people to prepare for two days and on the third day, God will reveal Himself and give the Torah.[16] This process begins on the 4th of Sivan. This would lead us to the conclusion that the Torah was given on the 6th of Sivan, the date which we have fixed for Shavuot.

Yet there is one little Talmudic fly in the ointment; the same Gemara recounts a machlokes (disagreement) between the sages and Rebbi Yosi regarding the number of days that Moses actually directed the Jewish people to prepare. As we mentioned, God had told them to prepare for two days but according to Rebbi Yosi, with God’s agreement Moses added an extra day of preparation thus pushing off the giving of the Torah to the 7th of Sivan. One could try to dismiss Rebbi Yosi as a daas yachid (lone opinion), except that the Magen Avraham points out that we establish the halacha according to him.[17] This means accordingly that the revelation on Mount Sinai actually happened on the 7th of Sivan.

Why then do we celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan? Moreover, we declare on both days that Shavuot is “Zman matan Torateinu” – the time of the giving of our Torah. In light of what we now know, the Magen Avraham asks how can we say this phrase on the first day?[18]

The Bais HaLevi gives a fascinating answer. He begins by citing a famous aggadata which describes how the angels wanted to prevent Moses receiving the Torah. They felt Torah should stay in heaven.[19] Moses argues with them pointing out that the majority of the laws relate to mankind and earthly activities, not to angels. Yet this seems obvious. Surely the angels would have realised that? Were they merely jealous of Moses for receiving these laws?

The Beis HaLevi explains that the angels were in fact less concerned about the written Torah, but instead wanted the oral aspect of Torah –the ability to expound the Torah and apply it in this world. That is why we say the phrase זמן מתן תורתנו –the time of the giving of our Torah. Our Torah refers to the oral Torah –the ability to expound Torah and this is precisely what Moses did when he reasoned that God’s command of preparing for two days was supposed to be for three days in total once you have considered the half day on the first day of preparation.[20]

The two days of Yom Tovtherefore representboth the oral Torah (the 6th of Sivan when Moses made the first act of Oral Torah) and the written Torah (corresponding to the giving of the Written Torah on the 7th of Sivan). It is the Oral Torah that can truly be ours as the Talmudic dictum states, לא בשמים היא – the Torah is not in Heaven.[21]

But if that is the case, why should the second day of Yom Tov only be practiced outside of Israel?

According to Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano since the Torah was given outside of the Land of Israel, God took the opportunity to give us our share in His Torah through the Oral Torah. He chose to celebrate Himself, in all His Glory, the second day of the Diaspora holiday which Moshe added on his own initiative according to Rebbi Yosi.[22]

According to this, since the Torah was given outside the land of Israel, when Moshe added one day with God’s approval, God was also approving the extra day of Yom Tov that Moses had created. This explains why Shavuot has a second day Yom Tov and indeed is the paradigm second day Yom Tov and source for all of the other second day Yom Tovim. This is also the reason why even though the basis given by the Rambam for second day Yom Tov is no longer valid as our calendar is fixed, each second day Yom Tov has its source in this seminal moment of Moses adding one day.

Let us thank God for this wonderful opportunity to celebrate and enjoy two days of Yom Tov and inspire ourselves of its true source: the nature of Torah itself. We have both an Oral and Written Torah. While we often prioritise the Written Torah as God’s Divine Will, in His infinite wisdom He declared that we too should have our own share in Torah, the Oral Torah which continues to this very day.


[1] Babylonian Talmud Rosh HaShannah 23b (see Mishnah there)

[2] Babylonian Talmud Rosh HaShannah 22b (see Mishnah there)

[3] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Rosh HaShannah 18a

[4] Numbers 29:12

[5] Rambam, Mishnah Torah Laws of Sanctification of the Month, Chapter 5 Halacha 4

[6] Even when witnesses were relied on, it is clear that communities understood that each of our months were designed to last for either 29 or 30 days and that they knew which months should be 29 and which should be 30. It is worth noting from this case that the primary day of Rosh HaShannah is in fact the second day and the day added out of doubt is the first day (see Babylonian Talmud Beitzah 4b and Rashi, ibid. ד”ה כל היום.

[7] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Beitzah 4b

[8] Mishnah Torah, Sanctification of the Month, Chapter 5 Halacha 5

[9] Exodus 12:3

[10] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 87b)

[11] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 430:1 and Mishnah Berurah 430:1.

[12] Exodus 19:1 see Rashi ibid.

[13] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 86b – 87a

[14] Exodus 19:6

[15] Exodus 19:12

[16] Exodus 19:10

[17] Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, Magen Avraham on Orach Chayim Siman 494 (Introduction)

[18] ibid.

[19] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 88b – 89a

[20] See the Gemara in Shabbat 88b-89a for a detailed account of the drasha that Moses made from God’s command.

[21] See Deuteronomy 30:12 and Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 59b

[22] Sefer Asarah Ma’amaros, Ma’amar Chikur Hadin 2:15

Insights into the Seder

With Pesach approaching I wanted to help enhance one of the most central parts of our Pesach celebration – the seder. The purpose of the seder is to convey the story of the exodus from Egypt and connect us to one of the most seminal events in the history of the Jewish people. The fact that Jews have held a seder in their homes on Pesach universally across the world and throughout every generation means that the seder itself links us directly both to our own ancestors and to every other Jew.



The Torah calls Pesach “Chag Hamatzos.” But we call it “Pesach.” Why is this so? Rav Chaim Volozhiner (1749 – 1821) explains the difference that the word Matzos (מַצוֹת) and the word Mitzvos (מִצוֹת) are spelled exactly the same in Hebrew. Therefore, “Chag HaMatzos” can also be read “Chag HaMitzvos.” This means that when the Jews left Egypt and received the Torah, they gained the opportunity to connect with G-d through His commandments and earn great reward through keeping them.


Pesach, on the other hand, means Passover: G-d “passed over” the houses of the Jewish people. By calling it Pesach, we emphasize the good that G-d has done for us. Our Sages teach us not to serve G-d with an eye to the reward; rather we should serve Him out of a sense of love and gratitude. By calling it Pesach we de-emphasize the reward that each Mitzva brings, and instead focus on the good that G-d has done for us.


The second explanation from the Ariz”l,  Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572) because the word Pesach (פֶסַח) is a compound word which means Peh (פֶה) mouth, and Sach (סַח) speaks, hinting that on this night we retell the history of the Exodus.


The seder

The Maharal, Rabbi Judah Löwe ben Bezalel, (1520 –1609) known as the Maharal of Prague, explains that the Seder has 15 parts, corresponding to the fifteen steps which led up to the Temple. Our Sages say that our table is like an Altar, and this is particularly true on Seder-night, when our family table is a tool to achieve new spiritual heights. Similarly, just as the Temple helped the Jewish People sense the Divine Order in the world, so too, the Seder, the Hebrew word for order, is a reminder that G-d guides world history.



The Talmud explains that by beginning the Seder meal in an unusual way, with a vegetable instead of with bread, the children will be curious and ask, “Why are we beginning the meal with a vegetable instead of bread?” Once their curiosity is aroused, they will be more attentive to the story of the Exodus.


The Four Cups

The cups parallel the four expressions in the Torah which describe our freedom from Egypt. The first cup which we drink at Kiddush, parallels “I will take you out”. This is the essence of Kiddush sanctification – the realization that the Jewish People play a unique role in this world. The Haggada, the story of our physical exodus from Egypt, is recited over the second cup, symbolizing our physical salvation, which is parallel to “I will save you.” Birkas HaMazon, (Blessings after the meal) remind us that G-d provides for our sustenance, is recited over the third cup, paralleling “I will redeem you” – the goal of the Exodus was the formation of a unique relationship with G-d. Hallel is recited over the fourth cup. Hallel is the praise we bestow on G-d, recognizing that He said “I will take you to be My nation.”

The Four Questions

More so than any other festival, the Seder-night is dedicated to children, because the Torah dictates that we must tell the history of the Exodus to our children on this night. The Haggada directs us to do many unusual things to arouse the children’s curiosity so that they will want to know “why this night is different than all other nights.” Immediately following Kiddush the curiosities begin. We wash hands as on each Shabbos or Festival, but on Seder-night we wash without a blessing because we first eat karpas (a vegetable) and not bread. Just as karpas whets our appetites for the matzah, so too, this unusual procedure interests us in the secrets of this night.


Even adults are naturally inquisitive and like children should not be afraid to ask. The custom of providing treats for the children not only helps keep them awake, but also serves as a stimulus for their questions, and as a reward for their participation.


The Four Sons

The late Rabbi Uziel Millevsky, former Chief Rabbi of Mexico and senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem explains that the author of the Haggada hints at the danger of a lack of education by his unique order of the Torah’s four sons. He feared degeneration from monotheism to self worship (a form of idol worship), the opposite path from that traversed by our ancestors. A wise child who asks questions demonstrating a basic knowledge of Judaism and is not answered properly may be so bitter that even if he himself is observant, his child (the second generation son) will move away from the practise of Torah and Mitzvos.


This wayward second generation son will refuse to educate his children properly (the third generation son). This relatively ignorant third generation son will never understand his parents’ rejection of Judaism. He will be curious, but not overly interested in his heritage. He will produce a fourth generation son which feels that the Torah could not possibly be intellectually satisfying. He is therefore so far removed from Torah that he has no interest in participating actively, nor does he know how to begin investigating. If he does not unearth the depth of Torah, the fifth generation will not even attend a Pesach Seder.


The Wicked Son

What does he say? “What does this drudgery mean to you!” The wicked son’s question is a quote from the Torah: “When your children will say to you…what does this drudgery mean to you!” The key to his wickedness lies in the word “say.” He doesn’t ask a question at all; rather, he “says. Therefore…You should knock out his teeth and say, “It’s for this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt.” “For me and not for him.”


The word “him” is in the third person. Since the wicked son’s question is rhetorical, it gets no direct response. To whom, then, is the father speaking? To the son who “doesn’t know how to ask a question.” He, like the wicked son, asks no questions. Therefore, he is in danger of developing into a “wicked son” himself. The father looks at this son and warns him, “for me and not for him…Don’t let his sarcastic smirk fool you … Had he been in Egypt, he would have assimilated into Egyptian society, and would not have been redeemed.”


According to Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abrabanel, (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508), the wicked son is also pointing out a contradiction: On the one hand, we recline like free people and dip our food like aristocrats. But, on the other hand, we eat “bread of affliction” and bitter herbs. Are we celebrating freedom here, or are we commemorating the slavery?

The answer is both. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G-d, our G-d, took us out from there with a ‘strong hand’…” Tonight we experience the transition from slavery to freedom.


And it is This

“…which has stood for our fathers and for us; for in each and every generation they stand against us to destroy us, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu rescues us from their hand.”

Exactly what “This” refers to is not immediately clear. Is it the promise made to Abraham, mentioned previously? Or that “G-d will ultimately redeem us from our oppressors?” There is another possibility which gives us a unique insight into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism: This, that “in each and every generation they stand against us to exterminate us”This refers to the fact that as hard as we may try to forget our Jewish identity and assimilate the ways of our host nation, sooner or later they rise against us, remind us of our uniqueness, and awaken our commitment to Judaism. It is worth remembering that historically, one of the most established, culturally integrated and assimilated Jewish communities in recent generations was in Germany in the early part of the 20th Century.


Pesach, Matzah and Maror

Today, without the Temple we cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of the Korban Pesach (the Paschal offering), but we symbolically remind ourselves of it by roasting a bone for the Seder-plate. Also, without the Temple, we cannot perform the Mitzvah of maror (bitter herbs) and eating the maror today is of Rabbinical status. Of these three Mitzvos, only one is a Torah commandment today: The eating of the Matzah itself.


The Festive Meal

One of the unique aspects of the Seder is that we interrupt the saying of the Hallel with a meal. Why is that? The Netziv, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Mir, Russia, 1816 – Warsaw, Poland, 1893) explains as follows: The purpose of going out of Egypt was to receive the Torah. With the Torah we gain the ability to serve G-d not only through “spiritual” means, such as Torah study and prayer, but through “physical” commandments as well, such as marriage, enjoying Shabbos, eating matzamarror, and the Pesach offering. We eat in the middle of Hallel in order to praise G-d for sanctifying and elevating our physical existence. Even “mundane” things like eating are elevated when we do them in the service of G-d.



In our lowliness, he remembered us…and redeemed us from our oppressors. He gives food to all flesh…Praise G-d of the heavens! These last four phrases of Hallel can be seen as paralleling the four cups we drink tonight. Over the first cup we make kiddush and declare, “You chose us from all the nations.” Why did G-d choose us? The Sages explain that G-d chose the Jewish people because of their humility. “In our lowliness” –  in our humility, “He remembered us” and chose us. The second cup goes together with the Haggadah, where we tell how G-d “redeemed us from our oppressors.” During Bircas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal we recognize that “He gives food to all flesh.” This is said over the third cup. And with the fourth cup we sing Hallel…”Praise G-d of the heavens!

Hungry? Needy? Just you wait…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of this time of year. I remember the excitement of taking the special Pesach crockery and cutlery out from their dusty boxes and helping to clean them. I remember sitting on the sofa the afternoon before the seder started, nestling into my father’s side as he listened to me practising ma nishtanah. I remember the smell of the special Pesach cooking permeating the house.

I also remember having a lot of questions, especially about the seder. Our Shabbat and Yom Tov mealtimes were always full of questions about religion and philosophy and so the seder was an especially exciting time.

One of the questions that always came up was about the line at the beginning of the seder to invite the poor and needy to come and eat and celebrate with us.

כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוֹל. כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are needy comeand celebrate Pesach!

As we are sitting at the table with our family and friends with the seder plate in front of us and the food cooking away in the kitchen, isn’t it a bit late to be inviting other people to join us? We don’t tend to invite someone to a party after the party has already started (unless we are being disingenuous to say the least). So what is going on?

One way to look at this is that the invitation is not really for outsiders, it’s for those already sitting at the table. Why do we need to invite those sitting round the table? Surely they are already sitting there!

The fact is that it is possible to be physically present at the seder without really being there – without focussing on what is happening. We might be sitting at the table, but our minds might be somewhere else – our work, the football match that we’re missing, or even the state of the food simmering away in the kitchen. If we fail to be ‘in the room’ we may miss out on what should be a transformative journey back in time to ancient Egypt. We could go through the whole seder experience and perform all of the rituals – eating our matza and marror, sitting through the retelling of the plagues, dipping our fingers in wine and schmearing copious amounts of charoses over our lettuce (and commenting on how good it is) – and completely miss the point of it all.

Not only that, but so much of the seder is designed to create wonder and generate questions we mistakenly think that it is entirely designed for the children. In reality the seder it there for all of us: we are all supposed to view ourselves as having left Egypt, we are all obligated to eat matzah and marror and hear the story of our Exodus and redemption being retold and we are all supposed to be invested in the meaning of the seder.

It is less about the seder being an experience for children, and more about adults becoming uninhibited and child-like in their thirst for knowledge by asking good questions. We can only do that if we are hungry to learn.

May we all prepare ourselves for the seder with an appetite for plumbing the depths of Jewish learning and use the experience to relive and understand the redemption of our people, arguably the seminal moment in our shared history.

Shir HaShirim – The Greatest Love of All

Since time immemorial, man has turned to poetry and song to express the most powerful of human emotions. From Shakespeare’s sonnets to modern day ballads, love dominates the human experience.

Yet perhaps the word love has been cheapened in today’s parlance. How many times are those three little words ‘I love you’ uttered in vain, so carelessly by all and sundry whose true intentions belie the purity of that sacred phrase? When a person says “I love chicken” he doesn’t love the chicken, he loves himself. If he really loved the chicken he wouldn’t slaughter it and eat it. When we love another person for the way they make us feel or for the way they satisfy our needs, we are not thinking about them but about ourselves. We have confused love with dependency.

One of the first encounters of love in the Torah subtly expresses this point. Only after Isaac marries Rebecca does the verse say that he loved her (Genesis 24:67). Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (d. 1809) explains that there are two types of love. One is based on a natural yearning and physical desire, the other based on the spiritual greatness a couple can achieve together through growth and refinement (Kedushat Levi on Chayei Sarah). The former drives a couple together before marriage; the latter sustains them when confronted by the harsh, post-honeymoon realities of life.

In his book ‘The Art of Loving’ the social psychologist Erich Fromm encapsulates the idea as follows: Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.’

The Song of Songs is King Solomon’s description of the love between God and the Jewish people. Written emotively in the form of a stirring romance between lovers, its poetically elegant metaphor couches a much deeper concept. The love we experience in our lives, especially between husband and wife is a paradigm for our relationship with God.

The Mishnah explains that conditional love lasts only as long as the conditions are met. Unconditional love endures regardless (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:19, Green Siddur page 561). God’s love for His people is unconditional: “Even though I am black with sin, I am comely with virtue” (Song of Songs 1:5). The Midrash comments that even though I am black with sin in my own eyes, I am still comely before my Creator (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:5). Despite our infidelity, God will neither reject nor forsake us (Psalms 94:14).

We cannot hope to develop genuine love with someone from whom we use only as a means to satisfy our needs and pleasures. So too, we cannot hope to develop a relationship with God unless we are prepared to be faithful to Him with a depth of love, independent of validation or proof through our faulty perception of how the world should look. Only then will we truly be a rose among the thorns with eyes like doves behind our veil as beautiful as we once were in Jerusalem of old (Song of Songs 2:2, 4:1 and 6:4).