Why do some people celebrate Passover a day longer than others?
In the book of Leviticus, we read about a Feast of Unleavened Bread where Jews are commanded to eat unleavened bread (a.k.a. matzah) for seven days. The first and seventh days are described as sacred occasions when one is not to work at their occupations. If the Torah specifies that Passover is supposed to last for seven days, why then do many Jews celebrate it for eight?
The answer lies in both how the Hebrew calendar is determined as well as in tradition. The Hebrew calendar is based on the moon. In ancient times, the beginning of a new month was determined by direct observance of the new moon and only declared when the Sanhedrin made this observation official. While getting the word out was not difficult in much of the land of Israel, it would take much longer for distant communities to know officially when to begin counting the month and therefore when holidays within that month should fall. Due to this uncertainty, it became the practice for those outside the land of Israel to observe two days of each holiday to cover themselves in case they were wrong. (Yom Kippur is the major exception due to the hardship that two days of fasting would produce.) This two-day holiday observance remained in place for the sake of tradition even after the calendar became mathematically fixed.
Today, those in the Orthodox and most Conservative Jewish communities outside of the land of Israel observe Passover with an extra day (making eight days of Passover rather than the biblical seven) while those in Israel observe Passover for seven days. Reform Jews follow the practices of those in Israel and adhere to the fixed mathematical Hebrew calendar and therefore observe Passover for seven days. Despite this one-day observance of the first festival day of Passover, many Jews regardless of denominational affiliation still hold two nights of seder – tradition is tradition after all.
Find out more about “Jewish Time”—including the dates of Passover for the next 10 years—on InterfaithFamily.com.
Matzah photo used by Creative Commons license from Flickr user Avital Pinnick.