If there were one mitzvah you observe that you could do away with, which one would you choose?
For those with a yen for lobster, a desire to eat in a three-star Michelin or four-star New York Times restaurant, or an urge to partake in the specific culinary delights of a particular city or country when you’re on vacation, kashrut might be the choice. For others who would like to enjoy, on a long sunny, summer Saturday afternoon (after shul and kiddush, of course), attending a ball game, finding bargains at a mall, or lounging on the beach, some Shabbat stringencies might be high on the list.
But one Jewish law that I’ve actually heard observant Jews say they would gladly do away with if they only could is yom tov sheni shel galuyot — the additional day that Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside of Israel add on to the three Pilgrimage holidays (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot).
In addition to the added yom tov days, yom tov sheni has impacted in other ways on holiday observance outside Israel. The most well-known is the second seder, part of the woof and warp of Diaspora Jewish observance while an oxymoron and often completely non-understandable to many Israeli Jews. (“You do it all again? Everything?!?”)
In my experience, Americans who have made aliyah (as well as those American Modern Orthodox Jews who, when celebrating Pesach in Israel, follow the Israeli holiday schedule) often revel in the fact that they’re already on their Chol Hamo’ed tiyul (outing) or watching a championship basketball game on TV (as happened to one of my daughters during her gap year), while we’re reciting maggid, eating a matzah/marror sandwich, or singing chad gadyah for a second time.
Indeed, one of my brothers-in-law, who made aliyah almost 17 years ago, still makes sure to note, in his annual family Pesach email wishes, where he will be for the (emphasis singular) seder that year. (Yes, Monty, we know.)
But is it really better to have only one seder instead of two? Or celebrate one less day of these holidays? The answers to those questions seem as cloudy as my lenses were before my recent cataract surgery (maybe for a future column).
In an email I received from a friend on Pesach, he segued from overly generous comments on my last column to questions, both halachic and sociological, about Americans who participate in a second seder when they’re in Israel. (No, Steve, you didn’t give me the idea for this column. It was already in the writing-in-my-head-while-walking-to-shul stage.)
One of his sociological points was that women (and it’s still usually women) deserve a break from second seder preparations. Indeed, there’s certainly no gainsaying that the exhausting and exhaustive effort put into Pesach and seder preparations reflects, like marror, the avdut (slavery) and not the ge’ulah (redemption) aspects of the holiday. In our house in past years, this resulted in some of those overworked women participating less actively in the first seder because it was simply too difficult to stay alert after two or three all-nighters in the kitchen.
However, while concern to ease these overly draining efforts is a valid and thoughtful idea, it doesn’t end the discussion, because sometimes the second seder can be somewhat curative. That is, it is often the second seder — after everyone has an opportunity for a refreshing yom tov afternoon schluff — that truly engages and elicits full participation from all. And personally, having two sedarim made it possible for my recently married daughter and her husband to spend one seder with us in Teaneck and one with his parents in Englewood (it’s good to be young and able to walk between the two), thus making our wonderfully easy relationship with our new mechutanim even easier.
These types of tradeoffs can be found in the other holidays as well. In the diaspora, both of the last two days of Sukkot have very distinct tones. The first, Shmini Atzeret, is more somber, as exemplified by the recitation of the memorial Yizkor prayer; the singing of Teffilat Geshem, whose nusach (melody of the liturgy) is similar to that of Yom Kippur Ne’ilah (thanks to R. Yosef Adler for clarifying that); and the chanting of the often cynical and depressing Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) if there is no Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed. The next day, Simchat Torah, has a strikingly different character; a period of joy, as its name connotes, with lively singing, exuberant dancing with the Torah scrolls, and, perhaps, an added lechaim or two.
When these two days are joined into one as they are in Israel, though, with their clashing natures and hakafot running almost straight into Yizkor, there’s a dissonance. It’s difficult for many, I’ve been told, to truly appreciate the individual qualities and nuances of each of these very different holiday periods, as we do here.
Shavuot has a practical problem. Many observe the time-honored custom of celebrating the giving of the Torah by staying up all night studying Torah. I too have warm memories of joining in this magnificent tradition in my younger years. But I also remember that when I did so, the first day of yom tov was pretty much of a blur until I caught up on my sleep.
Not a serious problem in America, with a second day in which to have family meals with everyone together and fully awake, learn some Torah with a clear mind and open eyes, and enjoy a piece (or maybe even two) of cheesecake. But without a backup day, Shavuot can descend into haziness, with some of its flavor — spiritual and culinary — diminished.
Notwithstanding these issues, were I to spend any of these holidays in Israel, I would, as all of my daughters did, follow the Israeli timetable — for many reasons and with the halachic imprimatur of my congregational rabbi. But while in earlier years I was quick to join the bandwagon of those who would easily vote out yom tov sheni on this side of the Atlantic, I’m much less sanguine about that now, more deeply appreciating the benefits while understanding the deficiencies of both manners of celebration.
For me it comes down to that well-known acronym — TNSTAAFL. Never heard of it? Simple: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And there really isn’t. In our case, some pay, for example, for that extra family tiyul with missing their grandkids’ divrei Torah and songs that didn’t make it into their one and only seder, and others pay for those delicious grandkids’ additional participation at a second seder by having the possibility of a dreaded three-day yom tov when Shabbat is sometimes tacked onto the two days of diaspora yom tov.
TNSTAAFL is true, of course, in so many other aspects of our lives, whether career, family, neighborhood, or politics, to mention some of the more obvious ones. But since lunch often is delectable, let’s not forget to enjoy its deliciousness even as we remember that there will be a bill to pay at the end of the meal.
Just be sure not to overpay.