We can quickly deal with Yom Kippur. The answer as to why there has never been a doubling of days of observance lies in pekuach nefesh—the saving of a life. Two days of complete fasting is simply much more dangerous than one, which for healthy people is not dangerous. Isn’t it nice to have a simple answer on occasion? But as for the rest, it doesn’t quite seem right, does it? It appears that there is an inconstancy between the Reform decision to only celebrate one festival day for Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot, but yet here we are getting ready to celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah. The answer is somewhat complex and lies within several subtle differences, dates and practicalities between the various holidays.
Most Jews are aware that the establishment of a second day had something to do with communicating the time of the new moon to outlying communities, but the detailed history is much more amusing. Writing for reformjudaism.org, Ben Dreyfus explains:
Back when the months of the Jewish calendar were determined by observations of the new crescent moon, eyewitnesses would bring their testimony to the rabbinical court in Jerusalem, and the court would sanctify the new month based on this testimony. Since a lunar month is about 29 ½ days, a Hebrew month (which has to have a whole number of days) can have either 29 or 30 days. So the court then had to get the word out to the rest of the Jewish world about which day had been declared the first of the month, so that everyone could observe the holidays on the same day. Originally this was done by signal fires (as in The Lord of the Rings), which transmitted the message rapidly. But then the Cutheans, a sect opposed to the rabbis, launched the first phishing scam and made signal fires on the wrong days to throw people off.
Since this method of transmission was no longer secure, the rabbis started sending messengers to outlying Jewish communities to deliver the message in person. This was harder to forge, but much slower. Locations within two weeks' travel of Jerusalem (such as other cities in Israel) had no problem, since the holiday (Pesach or Sukkot) began on the 15thof the month, so they would receive the message in time for the holiday. But faraway communities such as Babylonia (modern Iraq) couldn't get the message in time, and didn't know when the new month had begun, though they could narrow the possibilities to two days. So to play it safe, they started observing each yom tov for two days, so that one of the days would be the correct date of the holiday (as determined in Jerusalem). In the case of Pesach, this meant that yom tov was not only the first and seventh day, but was now the first, second, seventh, and eighth days, so Pesach became an eight-day holiday.
When we look at this today, as interesting as the history is, we recognize that such communication issues are no longer (and have not been for some time) a problem. This was also the case, however, for the sages who understood that by giving the rules to communities in the diaspora, that they could make decisions for themselves, yet chose to keep yom tov sheni shel galuyut, the second festival day in the diaspora, both because of the fear that the study of Jewish Law might be outlawed (not such an unreasonable fear considering Jewish history) so that proper determinations could no longer be made and because the second day of festival had already become minhag or tradition. Within Reform Judaism, the major break from this came in the Third Rabbinical Conference in Breslau, Germany (Wroc³aw, Poland, today) where they wrote: “The observance of the second day lacks all reason in our time, whatever may have been its justification in an earlier day.” This was echoed in Britain in some of the early proto-reform experiments in the West London Synagogue, also in the 1840s. So why is it still an issue today and why the differences between holidays?
One thing to look at is observance of 1 vs 2 days of Chag in Israel. In Israel today in all streams of Judaism, one festival day is observed but two days of Rosh Hashanah. This also has to do with the new moon. The difference is each of the pilgrimage festivals take place later in a month (Sukkot on the 15th day if Tishrei, Pesach on the 15th of Nisan and Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan.) This would have given messengers enough time to communicate the correct date of a new moon to diaspora communities. Rosh Hashanah, however, takes place on the first day of Tishrei, meaning two days of observation were required for all, including in Israel, to ensure that Rosh Hashanah was celebrated on the new moon. This provides the first answer as to why Reform only celebrates one day of pilgrimage festivals but allows the option for two days of Rosh Hashanah—one of the ways to communicate the authenticity of the Reform calendar is to say we use the same calendar as Israeli Jews—this is only a true statement with two days of the New Year.
The next reason will not matter universally in Reform, but as there is a variety of customs and observances, for some communities the issue of “Avinu Malkeinu” and the shofar come into play. It is traditionally not allowed to sing Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat nor to blow the shofar. This means that if Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no observance of second day (and the community observes these Shabbat prohibitions) then neither the shofar will be heard nor one of the defining piyutim of the Days of Awe. Two days of Rosh Hashanah allows communities at all levels of observance to experience these moments.
Another difference that might seem trivial but to me is critical is the reading of the Torah. Although all two-day observances have different Torah readings on the first and second day, the partnership of the two readings of Rosh Hashanah seems much more important. If there is only one day of Rosh Hashanah observed, then the Binding of Isaak is read (the custom in UK Reform, for example). The reading for Day 1, however, is the expulsion of Ishmael followed by the Binding of Isaac on Day 2 (something that we will observe at Sinai this year and which will be the subject of next week’s “Ask the Rabbi.”) To me, these readings do not make sense without each other and form a dynamic partnership of ideas required to fully understand and embrace the overall themes of the New Year festival.
Within Reform it truly does boil down to choice and community minhag. But we are also connected to other Jews of all streams. If it were possible I would wish to use a universal calendar, but as there is no such a thing, choosing the most commonly used Reform calendar which happens to be the Israeli calendar then places the second day of Rosh Hashanah inside our possibility of practice while leaving the pilgrimage festivals at one day. Put differently, I love leading Day 2 and hope to see you there, but if it is not your personal minhag, you will get as hearty of a Shana Tova regardless when I see you. We still get to disagree and enjoy our disagreements -- so -- Shana Tova!