Yesterday I was asked by students in the Religious School why we observe an eighth day of Pessah. Sometimes I feel I would love to have one day less of Pessah, yet most years, when I get to the last day, I feel I could definitely go for longer, especially when I spent so much energy in cleaning and setting up for the holiday.
The short answer is: since we live outside the Land of Israel, we observe 2 days of each biblically mandated holiday. The holiday is 7 days long in the Torah; therefore we add an extra day because we live in the diaspora. The question that follows is: why is the length of the holidays different in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora?
In the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Beitzah page 4b we learn the reason for this discrepancy. According to the sage Abaye, before Mishnaic times, the sages would indicate whether the day that just passed was the 30th of the month or the 1st of the coming month, by lighting bonfires atop the mountains of Jerusalem. However, that had to be changed. The Talmud explains: “on account of the mischief of the Samaritans the Rabbis ordained that messengers should go forth.” The Samaritans, who were a group of Jews that did not recognize rabbinic law, would send fire signals at different times to confuse the people, so the rabbis decreed that they would let the people know the correct date of the New Moon (Rosh Hodesh) through messengers. Since the messengers took more time than fire signals, whoever lived outside of the Land of Israel would only be notified later, and would not necessarily be clear on the exact date to start (or finish) a Holiday. For that reason, a second day was added if one lived in the Diaspora. The Talmud says that if the “mischief of the Samaritans ceased, we would all observe only one day. And wherever the messengers arrived in time (depending on the day of the week, since they could not travel on Shabbat), they observed only one day.
Then, why do we have to observe 2 days in the diaspora? After all, we do have established calendars, and we don’t have the “mischief of the Samaritans.” The Talmud continues: “But now that we are well acquainted with the fixing of the new moon, why do we observe two days?” The Talmud asked the same question that we ask in our times! During Talmudic times, the Jewish calendar was well established. All the internal fighting that resulted from the debate between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua were settled, and the calendar followed the wisdom and reasoning of Rabban Gamliel. The Jewish calendar is a work of genius: since we follow the lunar year, which lasts 292 days, if we did not adjust the calendar we would end up celebrating Pessah, the spring holiday, in the middle of winter, or we might end up having to fast for 2 straight days if Yom Kippur would fall on a Friday. Why is the Talmud insisting that we who live outside the Land of Israel must observe 2 days for the holiday, and end up having 8 days of Pessah instead of 7? Here is the response of the Talmudic rabbis: “The rabbis sent word from the Land of Israel: Give heed to the customs of your ancestors which have come down to you; for it might happen that the government might issue a decree and it will cause confusion in ritual.” The rabbis believed we needed to maintain our traditions because in the future, a government might come and destroy all the sacred writings and prevent Jewish study, and all knowledge of fixing the calendar would be lost. Tradition would ensure that we kept the wisdom of our calendar and our holidays.
We observe Pessah for 8 days in the diaspora because it is the custom of our ancestors, and we want to continue to be a part of that tradition. Enjoy the 8 days, and create memories with your family and friends to help you connect with the tradition and the community.
B’virkat shalom uvriyut,
Rabbi Lia Bass