The Strangest Jewish Custom

Jews in America celebrate the big holidays for an extra day. Why?

An ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem struggles to carry home the palm branches he bought to cover his sukkah on Oct. 1, 2009. But is that really one of the strangest Jewish customs?

Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

During the longer synagogue services of my youth, my friend Yonit and I used to play a game in which we would try to name the craziest Jewish custom we could think of. We came up with the idea during the annual hoshanot, or the Sukkot ritual during which Jews circle the synagogue chanting Hebrew phrases that amount to something like “save us, we beseech you!” all while holding what look like a little tree and a lemon. Try as we may, we could never come up with anything as ridiculous-looking as the green sticks and citrus fruit circuit. Sukkot, which begins Wednesday night, is also the holiday during which Jews eat (and some sleep) in the titular sukkah, or hut. So there was some competition.

As an adult, however, I realized there’s a custom far crazier than hoshanot. Aside from the high holidays, which ended last weekend, there are three main Jewish holidays, occasions which, during the time of the temple, Jews would come from all over the world in pilgrimage to Jerusalem: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the Bible, Passover and Sukkot are seven days and Shavuot is one day. In America, for Orthodox Jews, the number of days goes up by one for each.

Well, this being Judaism, it’s a little more complicated than that. Technically, the first and last days of Passover and the first day of Sukkot are considered yom tovs, days during which electricity is forbidden and prayer is lengthened; Sukkot has an eighth day, shmini atzeret, tacked on to it that is essentially its own holiday but is often conflated with the Sukkot celebration. The upshot, however, is an extra day of prayer (and no work) for Jews who celebrate the holiday in places like America, Argentina, England, even South Africa. The only place the extra days aren’t observed is Israel.

Why the disparity? It has to do with the moon. When it comes to scheduling the holidays, Jews primarily rely on a lunar calendar. Before Jewish leaders developed a mathematical formula for establishing that calendar (a gradual process that began after the destruction of the second temple), the way new months were announced was, well, another fun Jewish custom.

Around the end of the previous month, the 28th or 29th day, two witnesses who observed the new moon would appear before the court of the Sanhedrin, and based on their testimony, the new month was declared. This all took place in Jerusalem and was quickly relayed throughout the country via smoke signal and messenger. So if you lived in Israel, great! But let’s say you were a member of the Jewish population in Babylon or Rome—how did you find out when the new month started? Still by messenger. But because this took some time (both Sukkot and Passover are on the 15th day of the month; Shavuot is on the sixth), people would estimate when the previous month ended knowing that it would be either 29 or 30 days and, if they still hadn’t heard from the messenger, would observe the holiday as if the month was both a 29-day month and a 30-day month. As a result, everyone who lived outside of Israel started doubling up on their holidays—observing two days instead of one, just in case. This way, at least one of the days was correct.

And, somehow, to this day, even though we know years in advance when a holiday will fall, this custom still applies. Worse, it’s gotten oddly convoluted. For example, if you’re Israeli—that is, you were born in Israel, you currently live in Israel, or you own property in Israel—some rabbis argue that you don’t observe the second day, even if you happen to be in New Jersey for the holiday. But many Jews have the reverse custom—a Canadian in Tel Aviv for the holiday might celebrate for two days, even though the local practice is just one. Don’t try to make any sense out of it, because it doesn’t make sense. (This rule applies for Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah is doubled for all because it’s on the first day of the month, so there was always confusion, and Yom Kippur is doubled for no one because a 50-hour fast is just cruel.)

I still haven’t told you the best part. When the first day of a holiday falls on a Wednesday night—Jewish holidays start at night—that means it ends on Friday night, when the weekly Sabbath begins. This amounts to three continuous days of prayer, food, and family. Three full days of no electricity, no work, and essentially no movement (unless you count shuckling). It’s basically like Thanksgiving weekend—just replace playing and watching football with lots of prayer.

This September, there are three such weekends. One, over Rosh Hashanah, already happened, but this weekend (Sukkot) and the following weekend (shmini atzeret) are what Jews dub a three-day yontif (Yiddish for yom tov, or good day), perhaps the most dreaded Jewish calendar event possible.

Back in 2011, Taffy Brodesser-Akner delved into this strange custom in Tablet. Brodesser-Akner cited a somewhat fringe argument that these enforced long weekends will lead to more people abandoning the two-day tradition, citing a tradition from the middle of the last century where, after services, people would go back to work. But, like me, Brodesser-Akner just “can’t seem to let the second day of yom tov go.” It’s time-consuming, costly (this year I’m using 12 vacation days to celebrate these holidays), but I’ve come to love this quirk of Jewish practice.

Not because I’ve been persuaded by the Talmud’s ultimate conclusion on the matter, which is frustratingly unpersuasive in today’s fast-changing world. “Minhag avotenu beyadenu,” says the Talmud—we follow the customs of our forefathers when it comes to traditions like this. But of all the strange things Jews do, why would I complain about a mandated extended vacation where part of the ritual involves sitting around the table (even if it’s in an outdoor hut) with family and friends eating good food, drinking good wine, and with no cellphones to interrupt us?

I realized just how much I’ve come to enjoy the extra days a few years ago when I was in Israel for Passover and only observed one Seder. Turns out I really missed the second one. All that work, all that preparation, and then it’s over in one night. I had come to depend on the first Seder as a kind of practice run to get me in the spirit. Some people may call the excess holiday punishment for living in the diaspora, but I just think it’s kinda smart. After all, I never suffered from l’esprit de l’escalier—I’d just wait for the next night when we were at exactly the same spot in the Seder and be impressively witty in my commentary on the wicked son. Yes, now we know when the holiday starts down to the second; yes, the extra days eat up all my vacation time, but I don’t know what I’d do without them.