Challenges of Observing Second Day Holidays

MjAxMy0xYzY5MTEyNTAyZTRhYTQz“Observing the second day of Yontiv (Jewish holiday) adds a tremendous amount of pressure and stress. At Shul (Syngagogue) instead of thinking about the holiday, I am sitting and thinking about the tax returns.” William Finestone— a Sabbath-observing Orthodox Jew and Managing Partner of Lipschultz, Levin and Gray Accounting Firm— attests to the challenge of maintaining his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle requiring him to miss six days of work during the month of September this year with his professional commitments.

According to the Torah, Jews are required to only abstain from work for one day at the beginning and end of the seven-day holiday. However, years later the Rabbis added a second day of observance as there was uncertainty in the calendar between Jews living in Israel and those residing in the diaspora in Babylonia. By the years of the Talmud, the Rabbis had established a fixed calendar where there was no longer any uncertainty about when the holidays fell. However, the Rabbis insisted that the second day holiday still be observed because according to the Talmud “it is a custom of our forefathers that is still in our hands.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin— the newly appointed President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School who describe themselves as adhering to “Open Orthodoxy”— supports the continual observance of the second day holidays. Lopatin contends that since American Jews live in the diaspora without a “strong Jewish atmosphere like in Israel,” they need the second day of the holiday to maintain the same level of holiness.

At the same time, Lopatin acknowledged that some of his previous congregants in Chicago have serious skepticism towards observing this extra day of holiday. “It is very difficult to take off a second day of work as it requires so much sacrifice falling behind in work,” he said. Furthermore, Lopatin admitted that “the justifications for the observance are not there as the normal mechanisms of the Torah are not there” as this law is derived many years after the Torah.

While Lopatin argues that the solution to this problem is finding a way to make the holidays more enjoyable and meaningful, he clarifies “that everyday we need to question how we fulfill Halachah and reexamine everything including this issue.” Additionally, Lopatin explained that traditional Judaism ascribes great importance to the value of parnasah or observing a sufficient livelihood. Lopatin quoted the famous sentence in Pirkei Avot chapter 3 Mishnah 21 which states that without a livelihood there is no Torah.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, the Executive Vice President, of the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), a more mainstream Orthodox authority, strongly backed the need to continue observing the second day and said, “the Rabbis today do not have the authority to overturn this rabbinic law.”  He stated that if a congregant has financial troubles because of this law, then “he should call me.” Debating the merits of rescinding this day is a non-starter in the RCA’s worldview.

Within the Conservative Movement, a body that also claims to observe Jewish law, this issue is of secondary importance. Rabbi David Wolpe, the most influential Rabbi in America according to Newsweek Magazine and Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles concede that the issue of observing the second day of the holiday by not working is relevant to only a small segment of the population in his community. Therefore he argues, “why take the second day away as it will be a loss for those who care.”

Rabbi Morris Allen pointed out that there has already been a response by the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards on the issue in the 1960’s allowing for synagogues to choose whether to adhere to the second day of each holiday, yet few synagogues have adopted this ruling. Regardless, Allen explained that as the Pew study signifies most Jews are not looking to their rabbis when making Jewish religious decisions, instead operating independently.

In addition to being a Managing Partner at his accounting firm, Finestone is also the President of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue in Illinois and a committed Jew. Yet, he feels frustrated with the current dynamics within the Orthodox leadership on this issue claiming, “I have never felt that there was a good reason for this law, just because it is a matter of tradition? So what? That is not a good enough reason.” The question is whether those more open to change within Orthodoxy like Rabbi Lopatin and Yeshivat Chovevi Torah will respond to such important sentiment.