The Customs of Our Fathers
By Ari Litavinofsky
Why do Jews in the Diaspora observe two days of Yom Tov (the holydays), whereas Jews who live in Israel observe only one? Why is it that observant Jews who live outside of Israel and come to visit Israel during the festivals observe two days of the holiday, whereas Israelis who go abroad to visit only observe one day.
This always bothered me and I could never understand the reason. Let me explain my difficulty: During the times of the Holy Temple when the Jews lived in Israel only one day was observed and people who lived in Babylon who would come up to Jerusalem would also observe one day. Jews who left Israel to visit Babylon would observe two days. Simply, visitors would observe the holiday the same as the local people. So I reasoned that it should be the same today. Where did I make a error?
Most people believe that "We must continue the customs of our forefathers." Those who lived in the exile kept two days of the festival and those who lived in Israel kept only one day therefore we do as the custom of our forefathers. We keep the custom of the place in which we live, even if we are vacationing in another area.
It still did not make sense to me. If my forefathers who lived in Babylon came to Jerusalem for the holiday, they only would keep one day, as I stated above. Something did not Jive.
Finally my mistake was explained:
The reason that Jews who lived outside of Israel kept two days during the time of the Temple was because of a doubt as to which was the day of the festival. During this time the months were decreed by visual sighting that was concurred by the highest court of the land, the Sanhedrin. When two witnesses came before the Sanhedrin and testified that they had seen the new moon, the Sanhedrin would examine them to make certain that they truly saw it. The members of the Sanhedrin were knowledgeable in astronomy and knew exactly when and where the sighting should be. When the Sanhedrin accepted their testimony, the new month was declared and messengers were sent out to inform the various Jewish communities and cities.
Sometimes witnesses did not come due to problems such as weather conditions and travel conditions. This would mean that the new moon would not be declared on the day that it should have astronomically been visible, but rather on the next day.
Aside from the special offering in the Temple for the new moon, this day had very important consequences. Since the two main festivals, Passover and Succoth, occur on the fifteen of the month, knowing when the new moon was declared foretold the date of the holiday. Immediately after the Sanhedrin declared the new month, messengers were sent out to spread the word. Obviously there was a limit as to where the messengers could get to before the festival began. Therefore in distant areas, such as Babylonia, where the messengers could not reach, two days were always observed because of the doubt of the fixing of the month was it on the real day or the day after.
However once the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin dispersed, the sages devised a calendar that could be used for two thousand years which fixed the times and dates of all of the festivals. There could no longer be any doubt to anyone as to when the festivals would be; they just had to consult the calendar.
Once the calendar was fixed, the communities outside the land of Israel had the custom of keeping two days of festivals; they continued this custom even though the Sanhedrin was no longer declaring the new months. This decision even affected communities outside of Israel where the messengers arrived and would keep only one day; now, since they were outside of the Land of Israel, they kept two days of the festivals. Conversely, communities in Israel observed only one day of the festival, even in places where the Sanhedrin's messengers did not arrive.
Therefore since today we do not fix the festivals by sighting of the new moon, we keep the customs of our forefathers who lived after the calendar. We are now dependent on where we live at the time of the festival. Therefore visitors to Israel during the festivals, since their abode is outside the land of Israel, observe two days while visiting the land of Israel. Conversely, Israelis who still live in Israel yet visit outside of Israel observe only one day with the condition that they do not belittle or demean the holiday in the eyes of the local residents.
Hence we still continue the customs of our forefathers
from the November 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine