Tuesday, April 6, 2010

7 or 8?

Last night, I had a calzone and a beer for dinner. Many of my friends were “enjoying” a last night of matza-based “food”. What gives?

For those who don’t know about the 7 vs. 8 controversy, and for those who care, here is a brief primer…

About 2000 years ago, there started to be some confusion about the calendar. It’s a long story (it involved some people who wanted to purposefully disrupt the calendar), but all you need to know for now is that people couldn’t be 100% sure when certain holidays fell. So, being Jews, they came up with a solution that could only make sense to Jews – celebrate the holiday for 2 days, so that we’d be sure to get the proper day in there, somewhere. The 7 day festivals similarly got expanded to 8 days.

That went on for a while, until the calendar got fixed*, and there was no more doubt about dates. Now, there was no need for a 2nd day of any of these holidays. But, in Judaism, past practice has an enormous power – something which people do for a long time (minhag is the Hebrew word) can even become as powerful, and as mandatory, as a written law. So, even when the original need for the 2nd day went away, there was still a tendency in the religion to keep observing it. If it had been good enough for generations, then it’s good enough today!

*the short version here is that we went from a calendar based on observing the moon to determine the start of each month, to one where the calendar was set in advance, and you could predict, as far into the future as may want, when any month would begin. That’s what we still have today.

This was one of the many changes which the first generation of Reform Jews (working in the mid to late 1800’s) made. They said that minhag was well and good, but when the very logical reason for a practice has clearly, and undeniably, vanished, then it becomes illogical to keep observing that practice. It, in essence, makes an idol out of the past – it gives the past the same power as the word of God. So, it is not only illogical, but somewhat sacrilegious, to keep doing something, and keep thinking of it as mandatory, simply because we’ve always done it that way. I suspect that the simple symbolic power of doing things differently was also at play here – it was one of the markers that we were different from the Jews who came before us.

So, for as long as there have been Reform Jews, more or less, the official position of Reform Judaism has been that it is unnecessary, and maybe improper, to observe 8 days of Passover (and Sukkot, and two days of Shavuot, and so on. Rosh Hashana gets a bit trickier, which is why many Reform synagogues still observe a 2nd day of that holiday).

It would be untrue to say that all Reform Jews follow the 1/7 rule for holidays, rather than 2/8. Minhag and habit play an enormous role in Jewish life, and for some people, it just feels wrong to eat bread on the 8th day. That’s fine – Reform Judaism is much more interested in people making thoughtful decisions than it is in dictating practice. But, as a synagogue, we only observe 7 days – hametz (grainy, non-Passover foods) are welcome back in the building today.

Unfortunately, I’ll be eating Passover eggplant parmesan for lunch. Passover may be over for me. But, it’s still a sin to let that much food go to waste.

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