The other day, I saw a book cover parodying the children’s series “The Berenstain Bears”, titled “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Yuntif!” It showed a picture of Sister Bear crying hysterically in the middle of a Yuntif (the Yiddish word used to describe a Jewish holiday) meal, clearly in kugel overload.
Such sentiment is common among Diaspora Jews this time of the year. As the holiday season draws to a close, one frequently hears grumblings about yom tov sheni shel galuyot, the second day added to festivals outside the Land of Israel.
Many feel that yom tov sheni is an institution that has long outlived its purpose and should be abolished. I disagree.
According to the Torah, one may not work or do other weekday activities on shabbat, the sabbath, and yom tov, the holy days of festivals. The Torah lists eight such festival days. Later in history, Diaspora rabbis instituted an additional day of yom tov to each of these days for those living outside of Israel.
This doubled the number of days of work an observant Jew would have to miss. Not only that, but during years in which the first day of yom tov is either a Thursday or a Sunday, one is forced to refrain from labor for three days straight.
For centuries, less-observant Jews have ignored yom tov sheni, with many synagogues nearly empty on the second festive day. It is understandable; there are many compelling social and economic reasons to only keep one day of yom tov.
So why do Diaspora Jews need yom tov sheni?
Most explain the need for a second day with a halachic (Jewish legal) explanation. In ancient Israel, a rabbinic court in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, would declare when each month began, sending messengers to announce the month’s start to Diaspora Jews.
This practice put Jews who lived far from Israel at a disadvantage, often leaving them unsure about when the month began, and thereby putting the exact day of the holiday in question.
Therefore, Diaspora rabbis called for Jews living outside Israel to observe each yom tov for two days, just to be safe. Although there is no longer a question about the accuracy of Diaspora Jews’ calendars, the practice continues because we are expected to uphold our ancestors’ customs (Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 4b).
However, there is another, more compelling explanation for why Diaspora Jews should continue to observe yom tov sheni. My teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, explains that we are prohibited from performing labor and other weekday activities during shabbat and yom tov to remind ourselves of what is possible in our world by temporarily stepping away from it.
Shabbat is m’ein olam ha-ba, a microcosm of an ideal world. Observing Shabbat and yom tov offers us a vision of a perfected world so that, during the other days of our lives, we can go about the work of building it.
In Jewish tradition, nothing is a more salient reminder of the brokenness of our world than galut - exile or Diaspora. Jews have historically viewed galut as the very symbol of the chasm between our world as it is and our world as it ought to be. So if we observe yom tov in order to envision and commit ourselves to building a perfected world, it seems appropriate that those living in the Diaspora add an extra day in which we remind ourselves of the tremendous amount of work we have yet to do.
Some might claim that with the advent of the State of Israel, galut is over. But galut is not simply a physical state of being. The Hasidic tradition sees galut as a spiritual state as well; the historical Jewish exile from home – the state of Jewish national brokenness – is symbolic of a spiritual brokenness we all experience, as individuals and as a people.
We all experience alienation from God, estrangement from our sacred purpose in the world and separation from our task of making ourselves and our world closer to the Divine ideal. Yom tov sheni shel galuyot – a festival day specifically set aside for those of us who remain in galut - reminds us that our work is not yet finished.
In fact, perhaps Jews living in Israel ought to observe yom tov sheni as well, for while the advent of the Jewish State may have ended the physical galut, it has not yet ended our collective spiritual exile.
Although the certainty of our calendar may seem to make yom tov sheni obsolete, its spiritual purpose remains. Yom tov sheni is a glimpse into a world that awaits us, and a reminder of the work we must do to build it.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
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