The Second Day of Yom Tov: background and contemporary applications

Rabbi Michael Laitner

This article will set out a brief synopsis of the background to and some contemporary applications of the second day of Yom Tov, observed in the Diaspora on the second and eighth days of Pesach, the second day of Shavuot, the second day of Succot and Simchat Torah.

The background to the second day of Yom Tov

The Torah states that the ‘Yom Tov days’ of Pesach, Shavuot, Succot and Shemini Atzeret (also known as the ‘Chagim’) each last for one day, with the intermediate days of Pesach and Succot (‘Chol Hamoed’) having less sanctiy. See the Torah’s descriptions in Shemot/Exodus chapters 12 and 13 and Vayikra/Levitcus chapter 23 for examples of this.

Jewish life did not begin with the fixed calendar that we have today and which runs on a 19 year cycle. Instead, the beginning of each month was fixed by the supreme (rabbinic) court (Beit Din), which in Temple times sat in Jerusalem, on the basis of eyewitness testimony as to when a new moon had been sighted. Each month was not a set length as we have today. Instead, its length depended on the testimony and thereby establishing when the new moon had been sighted.

Parenthetically, our fixed calendar today originated with the sage Hillel the Younger (3rd century CE), when Jewish society required such after the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Professor Sacha Stern, of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies department at University College London, has produced a pioneering study of the history of the Jewish calendar. 

Once the witness testimony had established the start of the new month, an elaborate, effective messaging system informed Jews throughout theLandofIsraelof this, as well as informing those Jews who lived in the near reaches of the Diaspora.

The Mishna, one of our foundation legal texts, discusses this whole procedure in volume Rosh Hashanah, at the end of chapter 1, as well as in chapters 2 and 3. You can access these texts, with translations at this link

By doing this, the Beit Din would also establish on which day (not date) Yom Tov would fall in an applicable month. For example, the Torah tells us that the festival we today call Pesach starts on the 15th day of the Jewish month that we today call Nissan. Only when the Beit Din had declared that the month of Nissan had started and had activated the messaging system, could the day on which the 15th would fall be determined by all Jewish communities, not just that of the Beit Din.

However, as the Diaspora spread, the messaging system became stretched geographically. It also faced abuse by heretics (see the Mishnaic references above for more details). These factors meant that far flung Diaspora communities sometimes found it difficult to get the right message in time, so that they did not have accurate calendar information. One serious ramification of this was that those communities sometimes did not know which day Yom Tov fell out on, so that they ran the risk of celebrating Yom Tov on the wrong day.

Accordingly, guided by their rabbis, those communities began to observe an extra day of Yom Tov, familiar to us as ‘second day Yom Tov’, to take this communication problem into account and to ensure that at least one of the days they celebrated was the right one.

This decision is discussed by the Talmud in volume ‘Beitzah’, page 4b, principally by the renowned sage Abaye (d. circa 338 CE) who lived in Babylonian Diaspora. You can see the ‘Soncino’ translation of that passage, edited by Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein (d. 1962) who was the principal of Jews College in London, at this link - which has the Soncino translation of the whole Talmud (although please note that it was not loading properly at the time of writing).

This is how second day Yom Tov came about for the Yamim Tovim (plural of ‘Yom Tov’) listed above. You may have noticed that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are missing from that list. This is a deliberate omission as the considerations around them are different and require a separate article.

How though could the rabbis add an extra day onto those Yamim Tovim when the Torah had stated that the ‘Yom Tov’ days of the Chagim last for only one day? The basic answer lies in the Torah itself, in Devarim/Deuteronomy chapter 17, where the Torah mandates the rabbis of each era to apply and promulgate laws to help Jews observe Judaism. On this basis, the Talmudic rabbis at the time of Abaye had the authority to add an extra day of Yom Tov for the Diaspora.

What principles of Jewish law did the Talmudic rabbis use to institute and express the nature of the second day of Yom Tov? How does this affect how many days of Yom Tov that travellers to or fromIsraelshould observe?

At this point, we must consider the halachic principles which the Talmud in Beitzah 4b cites when discussing the second day of Yom Tov and some halachic issues which arise for travellers, as this provide a key to understanding our observance of the second day. The two central principles are minhag (custom or practice) and gezeirah (decree).

We will consider the ramifications of both and how they apply to Jewish law, with particular reference to what somebody visiting Israel from the Diaspora should do and vice versa.[1] We will just look at the broader picture here, without considering the details of such observance.

On the one hand, if the second day of Yom Tov is an application of minhag, custom, then the rules of minhag apply. For example, a visitor must observe the halachic customs of their place of residence which are pertinent to them as an individual, even when visiting elsewhere (see Talmud volume Pesachim page 50a for more discussion of this). The minhag for any Diaspora resident is to keep two days of Yom Tov.

It would therefore seem that a Diaspora Jew visiting Israel should observe the minhag of the Diaspora by keeping the second day of Yom Tov even when in Israel for Yom Tov, and vice versa for an Israeli Jew visiting the Diaspora for Yom Tov.

On the other hand, if the second day of Yom Tov is an application of gezeirah, decree, then the rules of gezeirah apply. The gezeirah for second day Yom Tov is dependent on location as the second day of Yom Tov is only observed as such in the Diaspora, not in Israel. Therefore, a Diaspora Jew would only keep one day of Yom Tov even in Israel whilst an Israeli Jew would, on this basis, keep two days of Yom Tov when in the Diaspora (the exact details of how to do this are beyond our current scope).

Let us summarise from the perspective of a Jew living in the UK. If the applicable law for the second day of Yom Tov is minhag, Diaspora visitors to Israel keep two days of Yom Tov there. If the applicable law is gezeirah, Diaspora visitors toIsraelkeep one day of Yom Tov in Israel.

If though a Diaspora visitor was to decide during their visit to Israel to relocate there permanently and immediately – it has happened! – the gezeirah applying to Diaspora Jews would not apply to this new oleh (immigrant) who would then have the status of an Israeli resident from the perspective of Jewish law and would not keep the second day of Yom Tov.

Despite this analysis, the question still remains as to why the introduction of a fixed calendar did not mean that the rabbis could abolish the second day of Yom Tov, be it a minhag, a gezeirah or both. This question is beyond the scope of our current article but I hope we will be able to discuss it on a future occasion.

If you have ever wondered why different opinions exist between contemporary rabbis as to, for example, how many days of Yom Tov a Diaspora Jew observes in Israel, I hope you can now appreciate what underpins these differing opinions.

Frameworks in Jewish law

Practically speaking, such differences are a common feature of Jewish law and for good reasons. In broad terms, the framework of halacha (Jewish law) is similar to that of English law. In English law, Parliament passes Acts of law. How are those Acts applied? Often, this application is carried out either by the judiciary or by governmental bodies which apply the law to the facts. A familiar example might be a Supreme Court case where nine judges sit. They all consider the same facts and legal principles. Yet when applying the legal principles to the facts, they may come to different conclusions. Then, the law that governs what to do in legal disputes is applied. A well known example of this is the principle of majority, so that in our example, five judges whose opinions agree would prevail over the dissenting opinions of the other judges.

In Jewish law, the Torah legislates initially through the symbiotic Written and Oral Laws which originated at God’s revelation to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Subsequently, the Talmudic rabbis also legislated as we have discussed above. Throughout Jewish history, halachic points have been debated when the law is applied to the facts. Halacha has a system for how to proceed when there is debate as to the law. This system is a vast topic in its own right and is a subject for separate articles.

Two especially noteworthy Halachic decisions about the second day of YomTov

To illustrate this framework with respect to the second day of Yom Tov, two examples follow to show how two posekim (senior arbiters of Jewish law), ruled on the question of whether a Diaspora Jew visiting Israel for Yom Tov should keep the second day or not. Their rulings are based on extensive discussion in chronologically earlier sources which I will omit here for the sake of brevity.

Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, known as the “Chacham Tzvi”, (d. 1718), who served communities in Sarajevo, Germany and Amsterdam (he turned down the chance to be Chief Rabbi in London!) ruled in his responsa (halachic judgment) number 167 that a Diaspora Jew should only keep one day of Yom Tov in Israel as the second day of Yom Tov is a practice which only applies to the Diaspora, not to the Land of Israel. This would appear to be based on gezeirah, as discussed above.

The Mishna Berura, a major and widely accepted code of Jewish law written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (better known as the “Chafetz Chaim”, d. 1933), ruled in section Orach Chayim 496:13, that a Diaspora Jew must keep the second day of Yom Tov whilst in Israel and vice versa. This would appear to be based on minhag, as discussed above.

The opinions of the Chacham Tzvi and the Mishan Berura provide just two examples of how posekim differ as to the practice for the second day of Yom Tov regarding a Diaspora resident visitingIsrael.

What should you do if you are a Diaspora resident visiting Israel for Yom Tov?!

The $64,000 question! Ask your rabbi. Halacha is no different to those other areas of life where one needs impartial, competent professional advice. Your rabbi can provide this in the realm of halacha, by applying the law to the facts, considering what is the applicable law in your situation. Your rabbi will ascertain the pertinent facts as to the nature of your stay inIsraeland will advise accordingly. Sometimes that advice might be to keep one day Yom Tov when visitingIsrael. On other occasions it might to keep two.


This article only provides a brief sketch of this fascinating question and the many ramifications which spin off from whether the second day of Yom Tov is a minhag or a gezeirah. There are other approaches as to how many days Yom Tov a Diaspora visitor to Israel should keep, such as a ‘day and a half’, which any interested reader can ask his or her rabbi about.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding about what happens in the Diaspora itself, I emphasise here that a Diaspora Jew who is the Diaspora for Yom Tov must keep two days of Yom Tov.

I hope that you can enjoy the additional Yom Tov spirit and relaxation time provided by the second day, which allows us a greater opportunity to focus on and internalise the messages of each Yom Tov.

I also hope that this article has provided some useful background about the underlying principles of the second day of Yom Tov and will help you to discuss this matter with your rabbi, should you be visitingIsraelfor Yom Tov.

Whichever country you are in for Pesach, I wish you a Chag Sameach and hope that our declarations at the Pesach Seder of ‘leshana haba’ah birushalyim’, next year in Jerusalem, are speedily fulfilled.

[1] For more detailed analysis of the application of these principles, please see Rabbi Josh Flug's excellent article by clicking here.

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