As a Reform Jew, my personal Pesach (Passover in Hebrew) posek, or Jewish law decider, is of course me. I may worship at a Reform synagogue, but I tend toward the more traditional end of the observance pool. So my third Passover holiday as a Jew (actually, Passover number one was during my conversion studies) ended earlier than both Ryan and I had expected.
Ryan hasn’t converted yet but it remains his intention, and he identifies and lives Jewishly. Up to now, we have observed an eight-day Passover holiday. Readers may recall during my first Passover, Ryan kept the chametz fast completely–and more observantly than I managed to do. (So really, by reason of total meltdown, Pesach number one was shorter than eight days, too–if only for me.)
Last year I managed to make it through all eight days without touching directly or derivatives of chametz, Passover’s five forbidden grains–since the ancient Israelites fled Egypt without time for their bread to rise, modern Jews avoid not only all bread products, but everything with wheat, oats, barley, spelt, and rye. I was also more at ease leading a Seder for the second time with a table full of Jewish and non-Jewish friends. (Non-Jewish readers: imagine all the heavy kitchen lifting of Thanksgiving paired with all the required readings and rituals of your two-hour religious service of choice, and you’ll start to comprehend the vertical convert learning curve that is cooking for and leading a Passover seder.)
This year, we were happy to again host Rachel Y’all Quit, her hubby Brian Beanstalk, and Mr. and Mrs. Welles Park Bulldog, as well as new occasional holiday guest Oklahoma Rose. I’m great in the kitchen to begin with (no modesty necessary) and more at ease than ever leading the Seder, so the community and commandment (i.e. eat matzah, re-tell the Exodus story, etc.) aspects of the holiday were a real breeze this year.
So was cooking for Chol-Hamoed, or the weekdays of the holiday. During Pesach, some Jews avoid kitnyot, or foods that may resemble for onlookers the five forbidden grains, including corn, rice, and legumes. (Thank God for Rum–let’s not mention potato vodka–or no one would be able to mix a drink during the–as the Hebrew Bible puts it–Festival of Matzah.) We are not such Jews, so our usual Mediterranean-ish diet, minus bread, plus our beloved annual Matzagna (LMGTFY) kept us happy during the days after day one.
And then, as Jews are so often wont to do, I started thinking.
The Hebrew Bible only mandates a seven-day Passover holiday, and this is how long the holiday is celebrated in Israel, today. Outside Israel (in what we call the Jewish Diaspora), Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism also observe a seven-day holiday. But Conservative and Orthodox Jews observe Pesach for eight days–as, frankly, do many adult Reform children of Conservative Jewish parents. I often explore adopting additional layers of observance that make me feel more connected to Jewish heritage, so up to now I’ve observed eight days of Passover, as has Ryan.
Except for the past year, my third studying to be or actually being Jewish, I found myself carving out a lot of space between myself and both Reform Judaism and, to a certain extent, my congregation, in order to re-examine the ways that I live Jewishly. At this point, I’m way past takeoff, the climb is over, and I’ve settled in at my Jewish cruising altitude. As a result, I’ve placed a (highly Reform, actually) emphasis on figuring out what things I do, think, say, support, and believe Jewishly because I have thoughtfully arrived there, and which things I haven’t really arrived at in any way but simply do by rote.
It turned out to my surprise that an eight-day Pesach was in the latter category for me. But how did Diaspora Jews end up with eight days of Passover in the first place? As My Jewish Learning and Ask Moses tell it (as will many other Jewish websites should you be so inclined to Google around–try Aish.com and Chabad.org, especially), because of Jewish in-fighting.
Warning: history ahead. In ancient Israel, each month was calculated according to sightings of the new moon in Jerusalem, as verified by and only by Judaism’s now long-extinct law assembly, the Sanhedrin. Once verified in Jerusaelm, a vast network of hilltop bonfires told Jews beyond Jerusalem–and beyond Israel–that a new month had begun and Rosh Chodesh (the holiday of the new month) as well as all other Jewish holidays could now be calculated. That worked until members of the Sadducceean sect started lighting bonfires on different days to push their own ideas about how the calendar should be calculated. To halt their interference, we switched from a network of bonfires to a network of runners to pass word about the new moon across the ancient Jewish world. Except runners take a lot longer to reach far-off places than light does. So the Sanhedrin decreed that Jews outside Israel should double the first day of most Jewish holidays to make sure they had enough time to observe them. History over, hurray!
Except that the Hebrew year has been calculated mathematically since 358. As in the year 358, 1,655 years ago. So why bother to still double our holidays–and end up with eight days of Passover–outside Israel? It’s a great punch line actually (not to mention probably the main Orthodox Jewish criticism of non-Orthodox approaches to Jewish worship). Because only the Sanhedrin can change Jewish law…and the Sanhedrin’s final act before it was dissolved (barring occasional failed attempts to revive it) was adopting the mathematical calculation of the Hebrew Calendar. In 358. 1,655 years ago.
Yes, really. Oy vey. Now I’m all for wrapping myself in the warm warp and woof of customary ritual. But an extra millennium and a half of going eight days without oatmeal, pizza, or gin simply because we’ve decided (well, really, Orthodox Jewish leaders have decided) that there is no one to save us from our own religious laws? And the last group of Jews who could have done so, pretty much stopped just–before–finishing–the–thought?
In the words of Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that.
So on Monday night at sundown as the seventh day of Pesach ended, after a thoughtful discussion covering the ancient transition from bonfire- to messenger-based Rosh Chodesh announcements due to Sadducean calendrical interference, the equally ancient transition to mathematical computation of the Hebrew year, the ongoing lack of a Sanhedrin to legally remove the obligation to observe an eight-day Passover holiday in the Diaspora, the standard seven-day Israeli holiday, and our ever-changing relationship with Reform Jewish practice which follows the Israeli lead…
Ryan and I took a secret ballot and decided to order a pizza.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.