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Jun 20, 1997 - 12:49 -

I have a question:
I've been trying to get a really good answer for this and have come up a little empty. Why do we continue to celebrate two days of Chag? Halachah states that it is a sin to make a unnecessary bracha, but yet we state the bracha for festivals in the amidah on a day that we are fully aware is not the festival. For example, we know June 12th was not _really_ Shavuot. I understand the history for 2-day chaggim, but that reason isn't valid anymore. Shavuot is a one-day festival according to the Torah. We have conciously made it a two day festival.

About me: Andrew Bowen
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Andy, thank you for posting a very interesting question. Your central question is: Why is each Festival observed for one day in Eretz Yisrael (the biblical Land of Israel) and observed for two days outside of Eretz Yisrael?  I hope that my answer will satisfy you.  But first let me discuss two peripheral issues that you raise:

  1. Saying the wrong Amidah is *not* a "blessing in vain". It is a completely effective supplication. This is discussed and established in the Talmud, tractate Berachot, folio 26a & b. First the Talmud discusses the case of one who recites the correct Amidah but at the wrong time of day, concluding: "The reward for the Tefilah is granted him; the reward for 'the Tefilah at its time' is not granted him". Then the sages discuss the case of reciting the correct Amidah on the wrong day (i.e., the Amidot for both occasions feature the same text), concluding that it remains a valid supplication. Finally they discuss the most extreme case of reciting the wrong Amidah on the wrong day (i.e., the two Amidot are different texts). This too is a valid supplication.

    But this has nothing to do with your central question. We shall soon see that the Yom Tov really *is* two days long outside Eretz Yisrael. So we are saying the *correct* Amidah at the *correct* time.

  2. I am guessing that you are being confused by the common story that a calendrical uncertainty is the *sole* reason we observe the second day. This idea can be straightaway disproved by considering the very holiday you cited, Shavuot. There is no uncertainty in Shavuot AND THERE NEVER WAS. The Bible never says that Shavuot is the sixth of Sivan. Therefore the fixing of the new moon of Sivan (which *was* once a source of calendrical uncertainty) is irrelevent to the timing of Shavuot. The Bible declares a Festival on the fiftieth (50th) day after the omer offering of barley in the Temple. By the time for Shavuot, that date was well known everywhere.

    (The Talmud records a debate over whether Mattan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai) happenned on the sixth or seventh of Sivan in that year. Both opinions are logically defensible. In the end it is decided to follow the tradition that it was the sixth. But in either case, Shavuos is *not* commanded nor defined as an anniversary of Mattan Torah (although it is also that). It is commanded and defined as a holiday that occurs 50 days after the omer is waved.)

    So we cannot say that calendrical uncertainty is the reason for the extra day.

Now, let's address your question:

The moon waxes and wanes in a cycle that takes approximately 29 1/2 days. The periodic reappearance of the moon (called the "new moon") is a symbol of renewal, as well as the impetus for the start of each Jewish month. It augers a holiday called Rosh Chodesh ("Head of the Month"). Rosh Chodesh is a holiday celebrated particularly by Jewish women. Chronologically, it is the first divinely established Jewish national holiday -- given while we were still slaves. As it is written:

"HaShem spoke to Moses and Aharon in the Land of Egypt, saying: This ch-d-sh (newness, month) shall be for you to sanctify the head of ch-d-sh-y-m (new things, months) ... utter to the whole Assembly of Israel..." [Exodus 12:1-3]

[Close analysis of this passage is the basis for much of what follows.]

Because the lunar cycle is about 29 1/2 days long, a new moon is sighted every 29 or 30 days. Every fourth or fifth Sabbath, an announcement is made in every synagogue, declaring which day of the coming week will be the start the new month. Not only does this tell everyone when to observe Rosh Chodesh, but by fixing the start of the month, it also enables the other holidays to be determined.

Even the immediate source of the day's sanctity can differ on different occasions. The Sabbath is different from every other Jewish holy day. The Sabbath is the only demarcation between sacred and ordinary time that is not fixed by us. All other holidays depend for their timing on Israel's administration of the calendar.

According to the Rambam [Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; a.k.a. Maimonides] the commandment to sanctify the month and to intercalate the leap-years and to thereby set the holy days is found at Exodus 12:2 (the verse I quoted above). This understanding of the verse is explained more fully in the Talmud at Rosh Hashanah 20a; and in the Mechilta; and is based on the linkage between "chadash" and "chodesh" which is explained in the Rashi on this verse.)

(However, according to Ramban [Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides] the intercalation of leap-years is a separate commandment, derived from Exodus 13:10 and/or Deuteronomy 16:1.)

In any case, this commandment is *not* addressed to the Jewish people, only to Moses and Aharon. According to Sefer haChinnuch (mitzvah #4 of Parashah Bo), the purpose of the first two acts (sanctifying the month & intercalating the years) is to facilitate the third (observance of the festivals).

The details of this commandment specify how the sanctification is to be done, and how the authority given to Moses and Aharon is transferred to succeeding generations of authorities. The "smicha" (rabbinic ordination) that we have today is *named* after the mechanism by which this authority was transmitted for over a thousand years (C.f., Pirkei Avot 1:1) until the dissolution of the Great Assembly, but today's so-called smicha is a completely different mechanism than the real smicha, and in no way confers that authority.

In ancient times, the Sanhedrin (the ancient Jewish "Supreme Court") actively administered the calendar. This authority and duty is mandated by the Torah, therefore their declaration establishes transcendental reality. For example: Their monthly declaration ("The day is hallowed!"), and not the astronomical testimony that led to it, is what makes a particular day be Yom Kippur (i.e., what turns a particular day into the tenth day of the month of Tishrei). Their declaration transformed ordinary time into sacred time. Thus the sanctity of the Festivals is entirely dependent on the covenantal relationship between Jews and the Divine.

(In contrast, the holiness of the Sabbath predates Israel. Furthermore, the three annual Festivals commemorate national historical events, and so would not exist if not for the Exodus from Egypt. All this explains why the Sanctification of the Day [the central, i.e., fourth, benediction of the Musaf Amidah.] for the Festivals and Rosh Chodesh celebrates our chosenness, the election of Israel to a covenant establishing divine partnership. In contrast, the Sanctification of the Day for the Sabbath never mentions chosenness.)

The full significance of this principle becomes apparent when we consider the consequences of eating chametz on Pesach, or of missing the Day of Atonement! In a famous historical episode recorded in the Talmud, a leading sage based his observance of Yom Kippur on his observance of the new moon of Tishrei rather than the Sanhedrin's conflicting declaration of Rosh Chodesh. He was excommunicated (but only for only a short time, since he eventually came to understand this principle). [This principle is explained in Rosh Hashashana 22a, based on analysis of the otherwise extraneous phrase, "for you" in Exodus 12:2; and is also derived in Mechilta, based on the connection to the instruction, "speak to all the Children of Israel" in Exodus 12:3.]

The only reason that we can now calculate the dates of holidays in advance is that there is no longer any Sanhedrin. If there were, we would have to wait for their sanctification to be sure. Their sanctification, rather than astronomical evidence, is what is significant here.

What are the specifications for who can (and must) actively make time sacred (or not) through administration of the calendar?

  1. It must be done by properly ordained sages (i.e., sages with real smicha from Moses)
  2. It must be done by those sages who have authority over all Israel.
  3. It must be done in Eretz Yisrael; or if there is clearly no equal authority left in Israel, they can fulfil this commandment outside Yisrael as long as they acquired their smicha in Eretz Yisrael.
    (c.f., Talmud Berachot 63a).

The various details of how *they* are commanded to do it [administer the calendar] are dispersed among the following sources: Rambam's Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Kiddush haChoesh 2:2-7, 3:15), Mishnah Rosh haShanah 1:4, Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 11b and 12a, Talmud Rosh HaShana 25b, Talmud Megillah 5a & tosafot to Nazir 7a.  Here's a summary:  

In ancient times, the Sanhedrin heard testimony from witnesses concerning the sighting of the new moon's reappearance, and then fixed the day that would be the beginning of the new month, thus determining the length of the preceding month. Those who had seen the sliver of the new moon would go to the Temple to offer their testimony. To avoid shaming or discouraging anyone, the Sanhedrin would go on examining every single witness separately, even after getting the two reliable sightings that were all they needed to establish the astronomical facts. Thus significant delays could occur in the sanctification of Rosh Chodesh.

After they sanctified the day by declaring "This day is hallowed", messengers would be sent as far as Syria. Furthermore, signal fires were sent from hilltop to hilltop, at least as far as Babylon, and perhaps to Persia and beyond. The news took time to propagate, and it was possible for remote communities to get the news many days later. In the two critical months of Nissan and Tishrei (the months of Passover and of Yom Kippur and Sukkot), the positive commandment (mitzvah #122) to travel to Jerusalem and report your sighting to the Sanhedrin takes precedence over the negative commandments of the Sabbath.

The Sanhedrin, in its Torah-mandated administration of the calendar, made one day of Festival in Eretz Yisrael and two days of Festival outside The Land of Israel. Their sanctification is still valid and establishes transcendental reality. Shavuot *is* two days long in America.

The uncertainty in the timing of the new moon, and the delay in informing remote communities of the Sanhedrin's sanctification, have been cited to rationalize the Sanhedrin's sanctification. And that may have played a *part* in their *original* motivation. But consider the following facts:

  1. They included Shavuot, about which there was *never* any calendrical uncertainty, simply to keep all Yom Tovim together as a class. And they excluded Yom Kippur, about which there *was* calendrical uncertainty, simply to avoid an unreasonable fast. Their freedom of action seems pretty clear.

    They did not have to worry about *other people* doing something on the "wrong" day, because their sanctification is what *makes* a day the wrong day or the right day for others. So their Torah-assigned authority to define the calendar was exercised, and those days really are when Jews are commanded to observe Yom Tov. (If not for this fundamental principle about what makes time sacred, I think they would have been worried about the uncertainty that might cause people to *miss* Yom Kippur much *more* than about the celebration of an extra day of Yom Tov!) They did, of course, have tremendous concern for performing their calendaring functions correctly -- it was important for them to get it theoretically "right". *They* were subject to the mitzvah of administering the calendar properly -- they couldn't just make things up willy nilly.

  2. Furthermore, the Sanhedrin continued to make these monthly sanctifications (and to sanctify two-day festivals) long *after* they had the knowledge to calculate new moons in advance. Since they had the freedom to act on this knowledge, this last fact becomes very significant. The transcendental reality they established wasn't solely due to calendrical uncertainty. Since the Sanhedrin of old did not reverse themselves in the absence of uncertainty, we can *not* say that if there were a Sanhedrin today, they would reverse themselves. In any case, this is a moot question, since no present authority posseses the Torah's authority to administer changes in the calendar.

Given the above analysis, some questions present themselves:

How do we know that what we do today is correct, given that we have had no properly ordained sages for about 1,500 years? (i.e., sages with real smicha from Moses). After all, nobody is sanctifying the new moons for us anymore. And if the moons/months were not sanctified, do we actually have *any* holy days anymore? Why is it correct to observe *any* of them???

The Sanhedrin in Israel came to an end in the middle of the fourth Century. Rabbi Hillel haNasi (the son of Judah haNasi) was the outstanding scholar of that generation, and he had been properly ordained in Eretz Yisrael. (He was one of the last.) It was he who prepared the calendrical system we use today, and then *he sanctified the months that were destined to come until Elijah would arrive* [to herald the advent of the Messiah].

And on *that* sanctification we rely today!

Thus our holy days *are* holy (and include two days outside Eretz Yisrael).

To answer your question another way: The second day of Shavuos is holy only for the same reason that the first day is holy; namely because Rabbi Hillel haNasi sanctified it for us, as commanded in the written Torah.

(Today, in synagogues, the Reader takes the Torah and the congregation stands during the "Announcement of the New Month". This emulates the procedure used in the "Sanctification of the New Moon", a ritual which can not be done due to the current absence of a Sanhedrin. The announcement is surrounded by extraneous prayers for a good month, added quite late to the service. These have given rise to the popular name for this part of the service: "Blessing the New Month".)

I hope this information is helpful, but a disclaimer is in order.  Although I spent considerable time researching and thinking in order to come up with this explanation, I am not a rabbi.  Since I may be unaware of many relevant sources, and am not steeped in the traditional interpretations of the sources that I found, my conclusions may be off-base in their particulars or even in total. I offer this analysis not as anything definitive, but as a springboard into the topic.

Here's a relevant story I found in a modern Hagaddah commentary:

Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector of Kovno had just received an express letter from a young Lituanian rabbi. The long letter dealt with a difficult question which had arisen in the gemara. At the end, the rabbi wrote, "I am eagerly waiting for you to answer my question so that I can continue my studies with a peaceful mind."

This is the reply which the young rabbi received from the rabbi of Kovno: "Look up the gemara in Menachos on page so-and-so and the Tosafos there --- and your mind will be at peace."

The rabbi turned quickly to the source indicated. He studied all the remarks of Tosafos, but to his great perplexity, could find no connection between the question he had asked and the matter dealt with there!

Without hesitation, he sent off another letter to R' Yitzchak Elchanan and said, "Can there have been some mistake in the page number which you told me to look up?"

A reply from the rabbi of Kovno was soon forthcoming. "My first letter was correct. If you examine the Tosafos there, you will find a question without an answer. And still, the authors of the Tosafos continued on with their labor in Torah, their minds at peace in spite of the unanswered question…."


Thanks again for a great question.

--- Jordan

 Copyright 1998 by Jordan Lee Wagner.  All rights reserved.