What Doubt?

Question: A while back you wrote at length about iybur, the intercalation of the year. The main premise of your discussion was that today we rely totally on calculations, a fixed calendar as opposed to the former testimony of witnesses, on a monthly basis, who would report a new moon.

My question is, and I’m sure I’m not the first to ask, why do we continue to celebrate two days for each festival, when there is no longer any doubt.

Aryeh Roth

(Via E-Mail)

Answer: Indeed, the celebration of two days of Yom Tov was originally due to our dependence upon witnesses reporting that they had seen the new moon. This practice at times resulted in a safek, an uncertainty that no longer exists now that we rely on the permanent calendar established by Hillel II (4th century C.E.). Thus your question begs an answer.

This matter is discussed in Tractate Beza (4b), which serves as the source for our accepted practice of observing two days of Yom Tov in the Diaspora all throughout our long exile. [In fact, this Gemara follows the conflicting statements of the Mishna [2a] regarding an egg that is born (i.e., laid) on Yom Tov: Beit Hillel, whose ruling we follow, state that it may not be eaten – until the day is over. The Gemara gives several reasons for this ruling; the most prominent being that such an egg is considered muktzeh. The Gemara then proceeds to compare Yom Tov to Shabbos in this and all other regards, leading to our discussion at hand.]

The Gemara continues, ‘It was stated [with regard to] the two Festival days in the Diaspora, Rav says, ‘One [An egg] laid on the one [i.e., the first day] is permitted on the other [i.e., the second day]. R. Assi maintains: [The egg] laid on the one is forbidden on the other. Thus we must infer that R. Assi is of the opinion that they [the two days] are part of one continuous sanctity – kedusha. The Gemara then asks: But did not R. Assi make havdala at the conclusion of the first day of Yom Tov [leading to the assumption that he did not consider the two days as one continuum]? The Gemara answers that R. Assi himself was indeed in doubt, and therefore he acted with stringency to satisfy both possibilities [namely, that it was one continuous sanctity, and therefore he did not permit an egg laid on the first day; and that it was not one continuous sanctity, and thus he recited havdala at the end of the first day].

R. Zera says that logic supports R. Assi (Rashi s.v ‘Ve’avdinan trei yomei’ notes that the implication is regarding R. Zera’s agreement with the position that the two days derive from one continuous sanctity), since we observe two days even though we are now well acquainted with the fixing of the months [i.e., the set calendar]…

Abaye maintains that logic supports Rav, for we have learned in a Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 22b) that in early days they used to light bonfires [to proclaim the new moon], but on account of the mischief perpetrated by the Cuthites (namely, the Samaritans who lit bonfires at other times to confuse the Jews – see Rashi s.v. ‘Mishekilkelu hacuthim’), the rabbis instituted that messengers should go forth [to areas that were close enough, whereas in places that were further away they would proclaim two days of Yom Tov].

If the disruptive behavior of the Samaritans would cease to be an issue, continues the Gemara, we would assume that we could revert to the observance of one day, for even during those disturbances they would observe only one day in those places where the messengers arrived. So why do we still observe two days in spite of the calendar that we now have?

The Gemara answers that ‘they sent word from there’ [meaning that word was sent from Eretz Yisrael – the Gemara (Sanhedrin 17b) attributes the statement to R. Eliezer based on the style of the message], ‘Hizaharu b’minhag avoteichem bi’yedeichem – Take heed of the customs of your ancestors that have come down to you; for it might happen that the government will issue a decree [forbidding Torah study, and thus the knowledge of fixing the calendar will be lost], and this might lead to confusion in ritual [and they might eat chametz when it is already Pesach — see Rashi ad loc.].

We thus see that a custom – a minhag has great import, and we adhere to it even though, by doing so, we may fly in the face of a certainty [that is, when there is really no doubt].

The rule of observing two days of Yom Tov applies of course only in the Diaspora, where a doubt had existed to begin with. In Eretz Yisrael, however, where the custom was always to observe one day only, we are able to follow the Biblical requirement of one day of Yom Tov. Of course as to Yom Kippur we find the notable exception, being that it is a fast day, we, in the Diaspora, observe it for only one day.

The Gemara (4b infra) notes as well the difference as regards Rosh Hashanah, which is celebrated for two days both in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora.

Yet there are other customs, unquestionably accepted by the widest segments of Klal Yisrael, for which no allusion exists in the Torah. Such, for example, is the minhag to wait six hours between meat and dairy meals.

The Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 89), states this custom as a Halachic ruling, while Rema requires only one hour’s wait. The Shach (ad loc.) disputes Rema and rules like the Mechaber.

This ruling is based on an assumption found in Tractate Chullin 105a, derived from the statement of Mar Ukva, ‘We only wait until the next meal.’ The assumption is that we eat three meals a day, and thus there is a natural break of at least six hours between meals. Tosafot (ad loc. s.v. ‘Li’se’udata acharina’) dispute this assumption and require only the ‘removal of the table,’ referring to the ancient custom that the small individual tables set before each person would be removed at the conclusion of the meal and the recitation of Birkat Hamazon. This explanation of Tosafot is the source of Rema’s ruling.

Rashi, on the other hand (s.v. ‘Asur le’echol gevina’), states, that meat gives off a fat that remains in the mouth, leaving a lingering taste [and he obviously does not agree with Tosafot].

This dispute leaves with one of those unique situations whereby Rema, the posek for Ashkenazim, issues a ruling that is followed by Sefaradim, who follow a shorter wait time between the consumption of meat and dairy and the Mechaber, the posek for the Sefaradim, issuing an opposing ruling [based on Rashi] calling for a longer – six hour – wait, between meat and dairy.

We thus see that customs at times supersede Halacha. See in this connection Talmud Yerushalmi (Yevamot 12:1), and the discussion regarding the practice of performing chalitza with a sandal for another example of the primacy of customs – minhagim.

There are many cases of customs followed by Klal Yisrael, as noted in Shas and poskim. We will now cite a final example as found in Tractate Ta’anit (28b), where the Gemara notes that on ‘eighteen days of the year we recite the whole Hallel, and they are: the eight days of Sukkot, the eight days of Chanukah, the first day of Pesach and the Festival of Shavuot — and in the Diaspora there are 21 days [adding a day to Pesach, a day to Shavuot, and an extra day to Sukkot].

The Talmud then relates that Rav once traveled to Babylonia and noticed that they were saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh as well, and he had made up his mind to interrupt them [since Rosh Chodesh is not one of the days enumerated above when we recite Hallel], but when he saw that they were only reciting half-Hallel, he understood that it must be a custom of their forefathers that they were keeping.

Tosafot (s.v. ‘Amar shema mineih’) discusses whether we are to say the blessing over Hallel on rosh chodesh as well, and concludes – leHalacha – that we do say the blessing even though the recital of Hallel on that day is only a minhag.

This can serve as a real support for the case of observing a second day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora – and that all the laws pertaining to Festivals, such as the prohibition to work (see Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 4:1), the prayers of Yom Tov and the Kiddush for Yom Tov, etc. would be in effect as well.

May we merit the return to setting Rosh Chodesh as before with the arrival of Moshiach.


Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; he also serves as, Chairman of the Presidium of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com and additionally at Rabbi@igud.us