In day school they tell you that the Hebrew month after the jam-packed fall holidays is called Mar-Heshvan; the pre-fix “mar” here means “sad.” We are sad that we have run out of holidays and have a blank month ahead. I feel terrible admitting this, but I feel a bit relieved and, of course — because being Jewish — I feel a bit guilty for feeling relieved.
We all love holidays, but the condensed way that the season barrels into the first weeks of school and work schedules, knocks us over every time. Out-of-office e-mails, the huge outlay of money and the tedium that can accompany meal after meal, service after service, cleanup after cleanup can be daunting. People at the office think Shmini Atzeret must be made up. How many holidays can one religion possibly have in a month?
In response, every year, I think of new ways to intensify the joy of the holidays in fulfillment of the mitzvah to be wholly happy on these days. We buy new books and new clothes, try new recipes and invite new guests. Still the days often collapse into each other and lose much of their distinctiveness. In the days of the Temple, it must have been a sight to see people traveling from every direction to Jerusalem, creating community and sanctity.
We no longer have this central address and must instead be committed to creating strategies to keep these days meaningful and fresh. But we also know that there is a major strategy that the Orthodox rabbinic world could implement to alleviate the holiday doldrums: a uniform legal approach to the second day of yom tov. Currently, Jews in Israel will be riding on buses while Jews elsewhere will be sitting in shul. Worse still, diaspora Jews in Israel for Passover will still be eating matzah while the most Orthodox Jews there are eating pizza and toast, maybe even together with the diaspora Jews.
Observant Israeli Jews visiting America, Australia or Argentina, on the other hand, keep one day of the pilgrimage festivals.
While their diaspora friends are in synagogue, they might turn on their TVs or computers or ovens. Some have even been known to sneak out on the sly in their cars to take a family trip. This does not dignify Jewish law. It mocks Jewish law.
This discrepancy between Orthodox Jews in Israel and those in the diaspora is not a problem for Reconstructionist, Reform or Conservative Jews who observe seven days of Sukkot and Pesach. It is a challenge for the Orthodox community and must be addressed by the Orthodox community in a manner consistent with our history and our values.
Scholars in the ancient world outside of Israel were not sure their holiday calendars conformed to Temple practices, so they added an extra day to be sure. Others believe this calendar oddity evolved because of other legal debates or possibly to fool enemies unsure of when Jewish holidays would fall. But our Jewish calendar has been set for centuries now. There is no guesswork today.
In the 10th century, a great rabbinic debate ended in the debacle of a divided Jewish community that began Passover on different days. This is regarded today as an historical aberration. And yet, every year for decades now, we are divided about the last day of Passover, and hardly anyone blinks an eye at the strangeness of it.
Instead, we tolerate criticism and complaints about the holiday season, even though the sages of the Talmud castigate those who are “disrespectful” of the holidays in the harshest of terms. They either lose their share in the world to come (Ethics of the Fathers 3:11) or are acting in a way that resembles idol worship (BT Pesakhim 118). Statements like these should motivate and inform a rabbinic reassessment of today’s state of affairs.
Taking part in such a reassessment would not define anyone as more observant or more of a Zionist or more rabbinic or more committed to holiday happiness or less. We are a global community now, and this reality itself has Jewish legal ramifications that demand a response. Ultimately, rabbinic indecision hurts holiday observance and the biblical command to sanctify time and make it holy.
So before the memory fades, let’s use Mar-Heshvan and the months that follow to provoke a critical conversation on the second day of yom tov in the diaspora. This conversation has to take place on two levels; those of us in the pews have to strengthen our personal observance so that we experience the joy of holiday observance. And those who are on the bima in rabbinic positions must convene, address and influence the larger picture. Because when it comes to holiday sprawl, we sadly know that “once more with feeling” turns too often into once more without.
Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.