Return of the three-day conundrum

Here is a question no one wants asked: Why is Yom Kippur only one day?

This question that goes back all the way to talmudic times, when the sages of Blessed Memory imposed an additional day to all the festivals except Yom Kippur. (Yes, Yom Kippur is a festival, albeit with a more serious side.)

To be sure, a very small minority of people then and for centuries after did insist on fasting for two days. As the 16th century halachic decisor Rabbi Moses Isserles, known as the Rema, explained in his gloss to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 624:5, “there is justification for [observing two days of Yom Kippur], but we should not observe this stringency because there exists the possibility it could be dangerous [to the faster’s health].”

The justification was the extra day the sages added to all the festivals. It was added because of the uncertainty, 2,000 years ago, about when a month actually began, coupled with the difficulties involved in getting the word out in timely fashion to communities throughout the Jewish world. That is because in those days, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem determined the beginning of months based on witness testimony that the new moon had been “born.”

Somewhere along the line, the Jewish calendar became fixed, however, thanks to a complex series of calculations that tradition ascribes to the fourth-century sage Hillel II. From then on, there was no reason for the extra day. The sages, however, insisted on keeping it for one reason only: It was minhag avot, the tradition of our fathers, and should not be tampered with out of respect for our parents and how they practiced Judaism. The sages made this a law.

For Ashkenazic Jews especially, minhag avot takes precedence even over minhag ha-makom (also known as minhag ha-medinah), the traditions of the place in which you live.

Not all minhag avot survived over the millennia, for various reasons. The Talmud, for example, says that rice should be a staple at the seder table. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 114b.) Ashkenazic Jews abandoned this custom 900 years ago. Interestingly, minhag avot now is used as the reason not to revert to the earlier practice.

Normally, observing the extra day of a festival should impose little hardship on anyone. There is one situation, however, in which that extra day does impose a hardship — when two days turn into three.

That was the case this year, when Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret fell out on Thursdays and Fridays, followed, of course, by a Shabbat.

This three-day conundrum will have an impact on Pesach as well, because the first day of that festival will be a Shabbat. Food for the second seder cannot be heated before the end of Shabbat, and the second seder itself should not begin before then. That means people in our area will have to wait until at least around 8:05 p.m. just to start preparing for the evening’s festivities, much less getting the seder under way.

That it did impose a hardship on the halachically observant, whether they are Orthodox or Conservative, is evident by such comments as “thank goodness that’s over,” which were voiced when the four-week marathon of observances ended last Shabbat. Rather than feeling sad that a festive observance had exited (which is how we should feel), too many people felt relief — a reaction that is wholly antithetical to traditional Jewish belief.

Indeed, it borders on chilul Hashem, defaming God, who had nothing to do with the extra day. It is compounded by the fact that this rabbinically added day provides too many people with further evidence that traditional Judaism is out of touch with the realities of modern life.

That the naysayers see silliness in Judaism is nothing new. Too often, the sages imposed rules and then looked for ways to circumvent them. Take cooking, for example. While it is biblically permitted to cook foods on a festival if it will be eaten on that festival, the sages forbade cooking on those days for the day after the festival, unless the next day is Shabbat.

They feared that people would get the wrong idea. If the second day of Sukkot was a Friday, as was the case this year, and people were allowed to cook on that day for Shabbat, on which cooking is biblically forbidden, then next year they might cook on the second day of Sukkot, a Tuesday, for Wednesday, when cooking is not forbidden. So they banned cooking on the second (or last) day of a festival even if the next day is a Shabbat.

Having forbidden the practice (even though the second day is not a biblical observance), they had to come up with a way to allow cooking nonetheless, in order not to diminish Shabbat enjoyment. So the Sages conjured up a bit of legal legerdemain known as an “eruv tavshilin.” This is done by individuals, and often by rabbis for their communities.

Cooking, of course, is the least of the problems created by “three-day festivals.” So many observant Jews are involved in businesses and professions where the “extra” day imposes serious hardships.

These days, of course, we know to the millisecond when a new month begins. In many synagogues, the time is publicly and precisely proclaimed on the previous Shabbat. (“The new month will be born at 7:27 p.m. and 10 seconds on Tuesday.”) Rather than invent loopholes that lead some to mock Jewish practice, and is burdensome even among some of the observant, why not get rid of the extra day entirely?

Even if there were a more valid reason than “we have been doing it this way for 2,000 years,” halachah allows dropping the day if it brings people closer to the Torah and to God.

Maimonides, the Rambam, states this concept clearly. In Mishneh Torah Mamrim (2:4), he says of the rabbis: “If they should conclude that it is necessary to suspend a positive commandment or nullify a negative one in order to restore the people to the faith, or to save many Jews from otherwise becoming lax in matters [of observance], they may act as the needs of the time require.” Rambam was talking about biblical commandments; even more so would this apply to rabbinically ordained observances.

Elsewhere (MT Sanhedrin 24:4), he pointedly adds this note of caution: “In all matters,” he writes, the rabbis acting as decisors “shall act for the sake of Heaven and not take lightly [the effect an action or ruling may have on] human dignity, for consideration of human dignity may require setting aside rabbinic injunctions.”

We do not impose a second day on Yom Kippur for a practical reason — health. There are also practical reasons to end imposing a second day on the other festivals. The lone exception, to my mind, should be Rosh Hashanah, which is observed as two days even in the State of Israel.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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