My words on 13 April 2012 as sunset on the 7th day of Pesah
Tonight is a very weird night on the Jewish calendar.
In Israel, Pesah is over. As commanded in the Torah, for 7 days, we shall observe the rules and laws of Pesah. For seven days we shall eat matzah.
Why 7 days?
Seven days commemorates that time between the 10th plague and the resulting Exodus from Egypt which occurred on the 15th day of Nisan and the splitting of the Red Sea – which happened 7 days later on the 21st of Nisan. Pesah started last Friday night – on the 15th of Nisan. Today was the 21st of Nisan. So tonight, as the sunsets and the 22nd of Nisan begins, pizza is fair game in Israel.
Spiritually speaking, Pesah is the holiday during which we celebrate our very birth – or rebirth as a people, as a nation. In Genesis, we read about individuals, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. In Exodus, while Moses is prominent, we are reading about a nation – a massive group of people leaving Egypt and beginning a civilization. Pesah (the Exodus from Egypt) marks a complete change and turn-around – from a group of individuals to a group of slaves to a nation. Given this, it only makes sense to take an entire week, a full cycle (7 days of creation) to be inspired and changed by this holiday. Thus, we celebrate Passover for an entire week. Seven days.
Now, for Orthodox and Conservative Jews (and many others) living outside of Israel, tonight, however, is still Pesah. In these communities, Pesah is observed for 8 days. This is not mentioned in the Torah at all.
Why do they observe for an extra day!?
Jewish holidays are based on the cycle of the moon. Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan. A Jewish month begins with a new moon. Once a new moon was declared, folks counted 15 days and Pesah would be celebrated.
During Temple times (at least 2,000 years ago), witnesses would come to the Temple in Jerusalem and testify that they had seen the new moon (a sliver) the previous night. After careful interrogation of the witnesses, the new month (Rosh Chodesh) would be declared. Once this happened, torches would be lit (in cities like Tzefat) and messengers would be sent to the surrounding areas informing the general populace that the new month had begun.
2,000 years ago, these messengers traveled several days to make this announcement. Jews living outside the messengers’ reach would keep an extra day due to the doubt as to which day was actually a holiday. If you calculated the new moon on the wrong day, you would celebrate Pesah on the wrong day. So the extra day of Pesah – the 8th day – was a precaution designed to insure that people didn’t eat matzah too early.
The second seder, also, is a precaution. In Israel, there is not second seder. It too was created to insure that you had your seder on the correct night. What if the messengers were late!?
Now, in communities like Ramat Shalom – communities outside of Israel which adhere to modern Jewish theology, theology embraced by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the 8th day of Pesah is not adhered to.
Why? Because we believe that modern technology has eliminated the need to worry that we will not be observing Pesah at the correct time. We don’t have to wait for messengers to tell us when the new month begins. Not only can we see the new moon in the sky, but we are in direct contact with Israel and the religious officials who establish the Jewish calendar. We know when Pesah is. There is never any question. And so, some of us broke Pesah tonight, with a Ramat Shalom pizza dinner.
This being said, there are members of our community who adhere to the 8 days of Pesah. Why? Because this is how they were raised. In the same way, many of us who break Pesah a day earlier – on the biblically ordained 7th day – still celebrate a 2nd seder because the 2nd seder is part of our custom – it is what we do.
So, tonight, for many Jews, Pesah is over. At the same time, for many Jews, it is still Pesah…..We are in a period of limbo – leaven or unleavened? Passover or just Shabbat? For some, they have not yet crossed the Red Sea and entered freedom…for some, we have made it to the other side…..
So what do we do with this?
Some condemn Jews like us, who make the choice to follow the Israeli calendar –which to me makes so much sense. We are accused of being lazy – of just wanting to toss the matzah a day earlier! And, there is a point to this – but, following this argument, Israeli Jews are no lazier than we are. For me, it is not about being lazy – but rather, connecting myself to Israel and the practice of our ancestors – the people who created Passover and in whose memory I adhere to the rituals and traditions.
But, ultimately, I don’t see when one breaks Pesah as something to argue about….There were a multitude of people who had to cross the Red Sea when it split. Certainly, they all didn’t make it to the other side at the same time. Those who made it over earlier – they waited for the last ones to cross. Those of us who ended Pesah tonight, we have made a choice to cross early, yet in a manner that is embraced by our tradition. Those who choose to eat matzah this Shabbat, they are waiting to cross. And we, just like our ancestors who made it over first, will wait for those who practice 8 days. Because whether we are in Israel or in Plantation, the Jewish people are not truly free until everyone has put their matzah away and crossed to the other side.