“I Don’t Know Why…But It’s a Tradition!”

I did something yesterday that I’ve never done before in my nearly 30 years as a rabbi and it felt strange doing it.  On the surface of it, what I did won’t sound strange.  I took the Air Train from JFK to Jamaica Station, then got on the LIRR to Penn Station, and finally took the midtown direct train to South Orange Station.  What made it strange was that it was the final day of Passover, a festival day nearly equivalent in sanctity to Shabbat.  I’m an observant Jew, and I don’t drive or take public transportation on the Sabbath or festivals unless it’s an emergency.  But here I was, wearing my kippah, taking the train to get home from the airport.  What’s more, despite the fact that it was Passover, I even had a bagel on my way home.

How could such aberrant behavior be explained?  The crucial detail you need to know is that I spent Pesach in Israel, where the holiday is celebrated for only seven days and only one Seder is held.  I left Israel on what was the day after Passover for Israelis, though that day—the 22nd of Nisan, April 22nd—was being observed all throughout the Diaspora as the holiday’s eighth and final day.  The addition of an extra day to all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals, called “Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot,” is the result of a calendar quirk that’s centuries old.  Before the creation of reliable time keeping technology, the Jewish calendar was set according to the testimony of witnesses who had seen the New Moon, and an announcement that the Biblical holidays should be observed was sent by signal torch and messengers.  Such testimony was considered reliable only within the borders of the land of Israel, so it was decreed that a second day of the festival should be observed in Jewish communities abroad in case word hadn’t arrived to those places in time to begin observing the holiday.  To this day, “Yom Tov Sheni” is observed even though there is no confusion about the correct day of the holiday anywhere in the world (Reform Jews celebrate only one day of the festivals).  But if a person celebrates the entire holiday in Israel, he is exempt from observing “Yom Tov Sheni” even if he lives outside of Israel.

Why do we still add an extra day to the festivals when the original reason for doing so is obsolete?  After all, we know when the holidays fall each year without the aid of testimony given before a rabbinical court about the appearance of the New Moon.  There are good answers to that question, including the pleasure of celebrating holy days and special times with family and friends.  Just as we look forward to celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, so do traditional Jews look forward to celebrating the Jewish holidays.  Some in the Diaspora even consider themselves especially fortunate to have an extra batch of holidays to celebrate that our Israeli brothers and sisters do not have.  Still, most people would agree that there’s a limit to how many holidays we can celebrate.  While the Jewish holidays are special occasions, it can be difficult and costly to prepare and allocate time for them.

An even better reason for celebrating the second day of the festivals can be summarized by a phrase coined by the Talmudic sages:  “minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands.” In essence, each new generation may question the validity of certain Jewish practices, like celebrating the second festival day or including legumes (kitniyot) in the prohibition of eating chametz on Passover, but there is reluctance to abandon such practices out of a desire to safeguard the decisions and views of our ancestors.  This is more than firmly disagreeing with some religious practice from the past but agreeing to continue it out of respect for previous rabbinic leaders.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu suggests that our ancestors may have had insights that we have not yet grasped and we ought to defer to them out of humility.

The idea that we are maintaining practices and values from the past can be summarized in a single word, perhaps the most important word associated with being Jewish: tradition.  Ask people who practice Judaism why they do what they do and you will likely hear reasons that include theological conviction and personal meaning.  But the number one reason that people practice Judaism is probably tradition- the desire to be a link in a chain and continue what was done in the past.  It’s fair to say that the Passover Seder is, for most people, more about continuing family traditions than it is about the theology of the Haggadah.   As Tevye the Dairyman famously said, “Why do we do these things?  I don’t know…but it’s a tradition!”

Those words aren’t so foolish.  We owe a measure of respect and humility to those who came before us.  Rather than conclude that our ancestors had no idea what they were doing when they enacted customs and practices, we should say that there is something valid in being a link in the transmission of a centuries-old tradition.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…rather than simply dismiss out of hand those practices that we find irrelevant or difficult to understand, we instead should say that maybe our ancestors were onto something when they fashioned the religious practices they did.

Each new generation is faced with the challenge of balancing traditions from the past with sensibilities and insights from the present.  As we make choices about what customs and practices should comprise our Jewish experience, we ought to give substantial weight to the ideas of our ancestors.  If we don’t regard them with care and respect, who will?

4 thoughts on ““I Don’t Know Why…But It’s a Tradition!”

  1. I think there is also the concept of minhag ha makom. The custom of the place you are in. So, if only seven days of Pesach are observed in Israel, you fit right in. Here in the US, the custom is eight days. And I have a feeling that if an observant Jew saw you wearing your kippah (hot covered by a cap) while traveling on the train, he would have wondered what is going on? Again, the concept of “marat ayin”. It doesn’t look right.

  2. Thank you, Rabbi. Interestingly I just received this email now (Monday at 7:40am), which explains why I had no idea what you referring to when you mentioned this post on Shabbat. 🙂

  3. Dear Rabbi,
    I just read you comments in full today. It seems as if it is a great introduction to the topics wwe were talking abput at yesterday’s JLE meeting. It would make a great discussion topic. Even calling on persons who have made alyiah after living here ahd hear how they feel would be interesting. In fact, I will try to contact my cousin who made aiyah, married in Israel and has raised three children, all who have served in the army, etc.
    See you soon.

  4. We also left Israel on April 22 after the hag. But we flew to London to spend two nights with Joan’s brother and sister-in-law. The advantage of traveling to and from Israel via London, which we do every year, is twofold. First, there’s little or no jet lag eastbound, as one can fly from New York to London by day. Second, one can fly back to Newark, thereby avoiding the tedious trip from JFK that Rabbi Cooper mentions. Coping with the seven-hour time difference is easier if one breaks it up (5 + 2).

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