Category Archives: Yom Kippur

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

Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah

One of the key prayers of our Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur liturgy is unesaneh tokef. Not only does this prayer have an emotive melody, but the words were written to generate feelings of both remorse and awe: On Rosh HaShannah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die …

At the end, we cry out that teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah will remove the evil of the decree. Many translate the words teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah as repentance, prayer and charity. However, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”tl explained in a discourse that those translations were not accurate. In truth, his discourse was about the difficulty and danger of translation as there is often an assumption that for every word in one language, there is an equivalent in another.

The Rebbe explained that when dealing with fundamental ideas such as teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah, we must be very careful to understand each one correctly. Often, when looking for equivalent words in other languages, we may mistakenly equate a Jewish value with an idea from another culture.

Repentance, says the Rebbe, is not teshuvah but charatah. These terms are not only dissimilar but in many ways opposites. Charatah implies remorse for the past and a pledge to not repeat the offence in the future. Teshuvah from the Hebrew root lashuv means to returning to the old, to a person’s nature prior to the sin. Worldly desires and instant gratification may distract him from who he really is – a good, moral and principled person – but his inherent being remains unchanged. Repentance means recognition of past mistakes and starting over, teshuvah – returning means revealing and rediscovering a person’s true holy nature.

Prayer in Hebrew is bakashah, meaning request or beseech. The Rebbe, basing himself on Genesis 30:8 and the explanation of the medieval commentator Rashi, the word tefillah means a connection with G-d. While prayer indicates a movement from above – from G-d to man, granting our wishes – tefillah is a movement from below, from man to G-d. People who have everything they want, may not need to make requests of G-d, but everyone needs to attach themselves and make a connection with him.

Lastly the word charity in Hebrew is chessed not tzedakah. Chessed implies that the recipient has no particular right to receive help and the giver is under no obligation to provide it. Tzedakah however, means righteousness or justice. The implication is that the donor gives out of a sense of duty.

These three acts help us to merit a year that will be written and sealed for good. Teshuvah allows us to return to our innermost self. Tefilah helps us to form a positive relationship with G-d. Tzedakah teaches us to turn outwards and be righteous and just to others.

May we all merit a year of blessing and success together with the rest of the Jewish people.




If a man or a woman commits any of the sins of mankind … they must confess the sin that they committed. Leviticus 5:6-7

Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar highlights the concept of confession in the beginning of his Laws of Repentance. There he cites the above verse and asserts that the confession of one’s sins is an obligation commanded to us by God in the Torah.

As we recite the confession during the Yom Kippur services, we strike our chests for each category of sin. Ashamnu… we have become guilty. Bagadnu… we have robbed. … Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha… for the sin we have committed before you…

Since each strike of our chest seemingly draws attention to the weaknesses and imperfections of mankind, the confession can become an intense and heavy part of the service.

Whereas an animal only ever does what it is created to do by responding to physical stimuli, a human being is infused with a nishmat chaim – a Godly soul (Genesis 2:7). This unique mix of physical and spiritual gives rise to great conflict and discord between our animalistic nature which tries to satisfy bodily urges and our conscience (soul) which encourages us to refrain from evil and immorality. This unrelenting conflict between body and soul, physical and spiritual, instant worldly pleasure and deferred eternal bliss, means that unlike the animals, mankind has the capacity to rebel against God.

Perhaps the striking of our chests should denote a symbolic punishment or chastisement for our shortcomings. If so, confession on Yom Kippur serves only to deflate us and make us feel defective, inadequate and lower than the animals.

This is not the correct approach. Our confession may force us to acknowledge our faults to provoke regret, but that is only the beginning. Maimonides continues to state that the process of confession does not stop with a mere declaration of guilt. There are three stages: admission, regret and a pledge to never repeat the sinful act.

It is this last stage which must be viewed in a positive light, transforming confession into a life changing process giving us an opportunity to achieve something that no animal could dream of; the inspiration and ambition to improve ourselves.

While it is true that mankind has the capacity to sin, we strike ourselves not out of punishment, but to cry out to God that it was the bodily, physical part of our being which brought us to sin. Our souls still yearn for something greater.

Yom Kippur then becomes a day when the confession of our sins helps us to assert our ability to rise above the animalistic drives which originally ensnared us and engage with our soul as we strive for Godliness.

If we keep that in mind, each strike of our chest represents our longing for personal growth, the most profound and fundamental statement of our own humanity.

Afflicting Our Soles

And on the tenth day of this seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict your souls… (Numbers 29:7)

The Mishnah details five ways in which we must afflict ourselves on Yom Kippurwhich includes refraining from neilat hasandal, wearing shoes (Yoma 73b). The Gemara describes how some sages would wear bamboo shoes instead, implying that the prohibition is to only refrain from wearing leather shoes (ibid. 78a-b).

The majority of later authorities ruled that non-leather shoes are not considered shoes according to Jewish law and it should therefore be permissible to wear them. However, the Torah implies that refraining from non-leather shoes is intended to ‘afflict our souls’. In the spirit of this law, should comfortable non-leather shoes be allowed?

The 3rd century sage Abaye argued that it is not only leather shoes which are prohibited but anything that provides a similar or greater level of comfort. His contemporary Rava argued that the only explicit prohibition is to wear leather shoes (ibid.).

Maimonides (d. 1204) argued that it is permissible to wear non-leather shoes provided that one still feels as if he is walking barefoot (Yom Kippur 3:7). This would presumably prohibit modern day trainers and the like. Yet both Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (known as the ‘Rif’ d. 1103) and Nachmanides (known as the ‘Ramban, d. 1270) did not prescribe this caveat.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law, published in 1565) rules in accordance with the Rif and the Ramban and permits all types of non-leather shoes (Orach Chaim 614:2). The Mishnah Berurah (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, d. 1933) notes that in his time many were strict in accordance with Maimonides and refrained from wearing shoes made from felt as they were too comfortable. Yet he concludes that this was only a stringency and that comfortable non-leather shoes are permitted, especially if one has to walk outdoors (ibid. 614:5).

Jewish thinking does not consider unnecessary physical affliction as an ideal way to serve God. While it is admirable to go beyond the letter of the law, one must focus on the most important aspects of Yom Kippur: teshuvah and one’s own personal growth.