What is this week’s Torah portion? Well actually, it depends on who you ask. The Torah stipulates that Passover is a festival that lasts seven days. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” (Ex. 12:15) So if that is the case, Passover ends on Friday night, and Saturday morning we should read the next Torah portion. But many communities celebrate Passover for eight days, so if you ask the internet, most sites will tell you that the Torah portion on Saturday is the one for the eighth day of Passover. What gives? Why do so many celebrate eight days, and why do some celebrate seven? And what is the Torah portion this Shabbat?
The Jewish calendar is a lunar one that in ancient times depended on witnesses who would declare sightings of the new moon. Beacon fires would be set on mountaintops to spread the word throughout the Jewish communities that the new moon had been spotted. The fires would relay from hilltop to hilltop until “one could behold the whole of Diaspora before him like a mass of fire.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:4).
This system worked well for a long time to enable the Jewish people throughout their travels to celebrate the set days and times for the seasons and festivals. However, once relations with neighboring sects worsened, things began to unravel. The Samaritans harassed the Jews by lighting beacon fires at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin (the ancient legislative and judicial body for the Jews) substituted messengers. The problem with messengers is that unlike beacon fires, they do not travel at the speed of light. Since only the Sanhedrin was allowed to pronounce the new moon, communities needed to wait until the date had been properly established by the arrival of a messenger. Celebrating festivals for an extra day would ensure that even if there was some confusion, at least one of the days would be the correct one. In the land of Israel, holidays continue to be celebrated as specified in the Torah.
The witness system of defining the calendar ended around the middle of the 4thcentury (the Byzantine Christian Empire forbade it). At that point, the calculations that the Sanhedrin had used as a backup were published, and the Jewish calendar became fixed and calculable for the future. Nevertheless, the custom of observing extra days of holidays outside of Israel persisted. I can almost hear them saying, “but we’ve always done it that way!”
So, outside of Israel, Passover was celebrated as an eight day holiday. Reform Judaism observes festivals (often with the exception of Rosh Hashanah) as the Torah defines them. This is partially because science tells us exactly when the new moon is, but also partially to celebrate the return of the Jewish people to Israel by observing holidays as they would be observed in Israel – seven days for Passover. Orthodox and most Conservative congregations honor the traditions of the past – partially as a constant reminder that we are still in the diaspora.
So this week is a rare thing where the Jewish people will not all be reading the sameparashah at the same time. Some people will be reading the section designated for the eighth day of Passover. At RTR, we will be reading from the first half of Acharei Mot. Next week, we will read from the second half of Acharei Mot and thus be back in sync with the rest of diaspora Jewry.
Whether you celebrate eight days or seven, we hope that you had joyous and meaningful holiday celebrations and we wish you Shabbat Shalom.
Cantor Sally Neff