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Parshat Acharon shel Pesach / Last Day of Pesach 5772 – 04/12/2012

Acharon shel Pesach / Last Day of Pesach

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Note: Since Pesach falls on Shabbat this year, the 8th day of Pesach also falls on Shabbat.  Since Pesach is only celebrated for the Biblical 7 days in the Land of Israel, they read Parashat Shemini this week, while we in chutz la’aretz read the special reading for the last day of Pesach (Devarim 14:22-16:17).  Although there are 3 double portions till the end of Sefer Vayikra (Tazria-Metzora, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim and Behar-Bechukotai) it is the third one that is split in Israel to take up the extra week and get the entire Jewish world back in sync.  I don’t know the reason for this – it may simply be that those parshiyot are the longest, or it may be because of the tochachah (passage of rebuke) in Bechukotai, or it may be for some other reason completely.


Seven days you shall eat matzah, and the seventh day shall be a festival to Gd (Shemot 13:6)

Originally they would light torches [on the hilltops to signal to far-off communities that the Sanhedrin had declared the New Moon].  After the Samaritans interfered with this system, [the Rabbis] enacted that messengers should go forth [to indicate personally when the New Moon had been declared]. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:2)

The time is out of joint – O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right! (Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5)


Today is the 8th day of Passover.  As I indicated in the prefatory note both this week and last, the Torah readings in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora will be out of sync for the next several weeks, until we read the last two portions of Vayikra (BeHar and BeChukotai) together, while they read BeHar one week and then BeChukotai with us.  The Mishnah in the tractate Rosh HaShanah gives the technical reason behind the enactment of the extra day that is celebrated for each of the three Pilgrimage Festivals in the diaspora.  Since the enactment of the fixed calendar that we use today in (probably) the mid-4th century CE (see: the reason for the extra day has disappeared, but the custom has not.  Why should that be?


Nowadays, were there to be a Sanhedrin in Jerusalem that would proclaim the New Moon and intercalate leap years based on the testimony of witnesses, it would be easy to inform the Diaspora of the proclamation.  The proclamation could be Webcast live with Bob Costas providing a breathless commentary as each set of witnesses was ushered in to be questioned by the Sanhedrin, text messages could be sent throughout the world, of course there would be an iPod app, and a telemarketing firm could be hired to call the technologically challenged on their land lines.  Since we have the fixed calendar in place (the Sanhedrin cannot meet in the absence of the Temple, and the Temple cannot be rebuilt until there are prophets to direct the effort, and the world’s consciousness is far from the level of being able to support prophecy at the present moment) we know years in advance the exact dates of every New Moon of the year.


In Talmudic times they were not so lucky.  The system of lighting torches was as fast as the speed of light, modified by the time it took for each mountaintop lookout to light his torch (this was before matches of course, or starter logs), but unfortunately there were “hackers” in the mountains of Samaria who would light their own torches at inappropriate times to corrupt the signaling system.  Therefore messengers had to be sent by Pony Express to the far-flung Jewish communities, principally in Babylonia.  In the month of Nisan they had just two weeks to spread the word, for the declaration of the New Moon fixed the first of Nisan, and Pesach is, by Biblical decree, the 15th of the month.  Since there were times when word would not arrive in time, and since there were only two choices for Rosh Chodesh / New Moon (a lunar month is 29½ days long, so practically speaking Adar, the month prior to Nisan, has either 29 or 30 days, and the day after the last day of Adar is 1 Nisan), people would celebrate the Seder on two days, as we still do outside the Land of Israel.  Even when the permanent, fixed calendar was instituted, the Rabbis decreed that the extra day be kept, and so it has been for the past 1700 years or so, in spite of the obvious improvement in communications.  Again, why is this?


I can only offer some speculations.  First, consider the fact that the communication system the Sages originally devised was, in and of itself, perfectly adequate in getting the word out over long distances in plenty of time.  The only problem was that it was an insecure channel, and in fact it was compromised to the extent that it  became unusable.  This is a problem in the Diaspora wherever we are.  The Jewish people has a unique mission – to create an ideal society based on connection of the individuals and the community as a whole to Gd, so that Gd’s infinite holiness permeates the world.  We can really only accomplish this in the Land that supports those goals to the greatest extent – the Land of Israel.  Therefore, if we are in the Diaspora, we will be subject to pressures and influences that deflect us from our mission.  The Samaritans did it out of malice; others may do it out of love, thinking they are improving our lives.  In either case the effect is the same – the purity of our lives and the purity of our tradition is compromised.  Perhaps the extra day we celebrate the Festivals in the Diaspora acts as a counterweight to these tendencies by giving us an extra day of holiness, an extra day when we can focus on the meaning of the Festival in relation to our mission on this earth, an extra day in which we can set ourselves apart from the surrounding culture and refocus on the goal of our existence.


There are some groups living in the Land of Israel who celebrate the “extra day of the Diaspora.”  Their reasoning is that the redemption from exile that our prophets have promised us is not merely a return to the Land of Israel.  Although we may have a “Jewish State” there now, thank Gd, it is certainly not one where Jewish law and tradition determine the activities of most of the people.  And Israel’s forced reliance on international support against the sea of enemies surrounding it compromises its sovereignty – what country would absorb rocket attacks on the scale that Israel has endured without destroying the enemy launching those attacks?  Yet Israel stays its hand because of external forces which we feel we must still rely on.  (I believe those last two points are intimately related by the way.)  So even in the Land of Israel we are not fully redeemed.  We may be out of exile physically, but we are still in a spiritual exile in the material world, still unperfected.  While this opinion is a distinctly minority view, it certainly has some validity.  Even in the Land of Israel, our spiritual bondage is strong enough that we may need the extra spiritual nourishment of extra holy days in the year.


Our Sages tell us that “the air of the Holy Land makes a person wise” (Bava Basra 158b).  As long as we live elsewhere we weaken ourselves and our ability to accomplish our purpose.  As we celebrate this extra day of holiness, let’s take the opportunity to reflect on why we need it, and how we can redress that situation.  Nay, come, let’s go together. (Hamlet, ibid).