Tomorrow night is a very weird night on the Jewish calendar. When the sun goes down tomorrow in Israel, Passover is over. As commanded in the Torah, for seven days, we observe the rules and laws of Passover. For seven days we eat matzah.
Why seven days?
Seven days commemorates the 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 seven days later on the 21st of Nisan. Passover started last Friday night – on the 15th of Nisan. Tomorrow is the 21st of Nisan. So tomorrow night, as the sun sets and the 22nd of Nisan begins, pizza is fair game in Israel.
Spiritually speaking, Passover 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. Passover – the actual 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 (seven days of creation) to be inspired and changed by this holiday. Therefore, we celebrate Passover for an entire week. Seven days.
Now, for Orthodox and Conservative Jews (and many others) living outside of Israel, tomorrow night, however, is still Passover. In these communities, Passover is observed for eight days. This is not mentioned in the Torah at all.
Why do some 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 Passover would be celebrated.
During Temple times (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.
Two thousand 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 Passover on the wrong day. So the extra day of Passover – the eighth day – was a precaution designed to insure that people didn’t eat chametz too early. The second seder, is also a precaution. In Israel, there is no second seder. It too was created to insure that you had your seder on the correct night.
Now, in communities like Ramat Shalom – communities outside of Israel that adhere to modern Jewish theology – the eigth day of Passover is not observed.
Why? Because we believe that modern technology has eliminated the need to worry that we will not be observing Passover 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 Passover is. There is never any question. And so, some of us will end Passover tomorrow night.
This being said, there are members of our community who adhere to the eight days of Passover. Why? Because this is how they were raised. In the same way, many of us who end Passover a day earlier – on the biblically ordained seventh day – still celebrate a second seder because the second seder is part of our custom – it is what we do.
So, tomorrow night, for many Jews, Passover is over. At the same time, for many Jews, tomorrow night is still Passover. We are in a period of limbo – leavened or unleavened? Passover or just a regular Shabbat? For some, they have not yet crossed the Red Sea and entered freedom. For others, they 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. We are accused of being lazy – of just wanting to toss the matzah a day earlier! But, Israeli Jews are not lazy! For me, ending Passover tomorrow night 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 ends Passover 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 end Passover tomorrow night, 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 eight 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.