I know this won’t be popular, especially after a packed month holiday season.
There seems to be some talk in the Modern Orthodox community today about dropping the second day of yom tov. While I personally enjoy having more days to celebrate these meaningful holidays with my family in spiritual celebration, I can understand these tensions in parts of the community: observance can be challenging for work schedules and other important components of daily living. And for many, the observance of the extra days doesn’t make much rational sense anymore. But I feel that these holidays are vitally important and I want to make a modest case as for why Jews should stay strong in our commitment to keeping two days of yom tov.
Yom Tov Sheni has historical origins in a significant problem: there was a lack of certainty as to when yom tov would begin (sfeika d’yoma). Due to this doubt, the rabbis added a second day (yom tov sheni shel galuyot) to be sure we got the day right (Rosh Hashanah 22b; Beitzah 4a-6a; Hagigah 8a-b). Today, we know the correct date, but we as traditional Jews observe two days since it was decreed by the rabbis nonetheless.
My thought experiment: How could this become a holiday with the theme of doubt-celebration? Today, there is such a zealousness for certainty that we blind ourselves to the beauty of what tradition can offer us. Religion’s purpose is to inspire awe, to give a sense wonder, and foster holy doubt; certainty should not be a goal of religion. Inspired by an idea shared by Reb Zalman who says he learned it from Rabbi Meyer Fund, I want to suggest that we can re-embrace yom tov sheni based upon the value of doubt/suffaik (Integral Halachah, 81).
Rav Kook taught that doubt was built into the universe and that it’s crucial for a serious religious life:
When one level seeks to glorify itself in a certainty that oversteps the limits of its own certainty, or desires to draw a certainty fuller and broader than its own writ, than that to which it is internally connected and which it can absorb in itself, then it loses its balance, stumbles and falls, dives into darkness, weaves and strays like a drunk, breaks and explodes. Until from within the darkness light will emerge, and be renewed in a new formation, and its measure of doubt will rise to the fount of certainty, and those who dwell in dust will awake and sing, for your dew is the dew of lights (Shemoneh Kevatzim 5:117).
For another view, consider Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The Place Where We are Right”:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Yom Tov Sheni can be the institution that reminds us of our lack of certainty. It startles us from our intellectual and spiritual hubris. Because the day was built upon doubt, it can be maintained through doubt. “What am I still doing in shul and at the yom tov table?” Perhaps, through this observance, we can return religion to its rightful grandeur as a bastion for humility, intellectual curiosity, and spiritual wonder.