Of all the extra festival days that we celebrate in Diaspora (yom tov sheni shel galuyot), perhaps the most irksome is the eighth day of Pesah. The second day of Sukkot adds to the delight of the holiday when the weather cooperates; the second day of Shemini Atzeret brings us the joy of Simhat Torah as a day unto itself. Even the second seder has its pleasures, except perhaps for those who have to prepare the meal and clean up afterward. But the eighth day of Pesah? Enough already! Bring on the pizza and pasta. We might wish that we were in Israel, where we could enjoy the conviviality of Mimouna together with our Moroccan neighbors.1 The mere thought of traditional delicacies like moufleta and zaban makes my mouth water.
From its inception, Reform Judaism did away with the added festival days. The Breslau rabbinical conference of 1846 resolved that "second-day festivals and the eighth day of the Pesah festival, respectively, as well as the ninth day of the Feast of Tabernacles, have no more validity for our time."2 Beginning about 50 years ago, there was serious discussion in the Conservative Movement of the possible elimination of yom tov sheni, culminating with the publication in 1969 of three teshuvot (responsa) approved by the Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.3 The most lenient of the three, written by Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham J. Ehrlich, ruled that the observance of yom tov sheni (except for Rosh Hashanah) should be regarded as a custom (minhag) rather than an obligation, with the particulars to be decided by the rabbi of each congregation. Arguing that the controversies, practical considerations, and supporting explanations underlying the institution no longer obtained, they proposed doing away with the additional festival days "in order to provide relief to those who no longer find in [them] spiritual enrichment, and to those who for socio-economic reasons find it is not feasible to observe the second day of yom tov." Nevertheless, they affirmed the value of continued observance "as an expression of personal piety," a stringency (chumrah) that might be a source of blessing.
Given permission to do away with the observance of the eighth day, why did so few Conservative congregations adopt the Sigal/Ehrlich proposal? I suspect it was a combination of the (small c) conservative tendencies of many rabbis, force of habit, reluctance to forgo a time-honored practice, and unwillingness to seem "too Reform." However, in some cases, perhaps there was (and is) a more positive explanation: people do indeed derive "spiritual enrichment" from yom tov sheni in general, and from the eighth day of Pesah in particular. I do, and it is not merely because I happen to like matzah.
On the eighth day of Pesah, many Hasidim relax some of the dietary restrictions of the first seven days, and they also gather for a special meal called a se'udat mashiach (messianic feast), reminiscent of the seder in its inclusion of matzah and four cups of wine. This meal, allegedly instituted by the Baal Shem Tov himself, is a lovely complement to the haftarah that we recite on the eighth day (Isa. 10:32–12:6), which looks forward to the messianic era as a time of universal peace.
While the first seven days of Pesah unfold in historical "real time"—the flight from Egypt on day one through the drowning of the Egyptian cavalry on day seven—day eight brings us back to the present and reorients us towards the future. As Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet comments, "Just as the first day celebrates the redemption from the first exile, the last day celebrates the future redemption from our final state of exile. The two are intimately connected, the beginning and end of one process, with God in the future redemption showing wonders 'as in the days of your exodus from Egypt' (Micah 7:15)."4
And what a future it is, an era marked by a complete transformation of both society and nature. The ruler, inspired by God's spirit, will govern not by force, but with "wisdom and insight, counsel and valor, devotion and reverence for God" (Isa. 11:2), exercising "justice for the lowly" (11:4). Previously carnivorous beasts will graze peacefully alongside their former prey, and poisonous snakes will threaten no longer (11:6–8). This dramatic transformation represents nothing less than a new Exodus—from a world filled with warfare, oppression, and suffering to one characterized by wise governance, justice, and peace.
The eighth day of Pesah is an occasion to redirect our gaze from the past to the future, and the haftarah (which some Israelis recite on Yom Ha'atzma'ut) encourages us to envision and yearn for a better, safer, and healthier world. However, as Rabbi Schochet admonishes us, "Our awareness must be translated into action." We cannot sit idly by and wait for justice and peace to come about on their own. We must strive for them, "confident, unafraid, for God is [our] strength" (Isa. 12:2).
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.
1On the background of Mimouna and associated customs, see Yigal Bin-Nun, "Lady Luck," http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/lady-luck-1.217597.
2See CCAR Responsa 5759.7, "The Second Festival Day and Reform Judaism," http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=7&year=5759.
3See Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1927–1970, vol. 3 (New York, NY: Rabbinical Assembly), pp. 1228–1272.
4See http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/why-pesach-a-time-toast-messiah. Rabbi Schochet is the rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue in London, England.