This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Tradition or Compassion: A Shavu'ot Controversy*

Rabbi Goldson's informative article in the May 4 issue of the Jewish Free Press contained a concise account of how, owing to delays in notifying distant Jewish communities about the date when the new month had been declared in Jerusalem, extra days were added to what were originally supposed to be single-day festivals. Traditional Jews outside of Israel continue to observe the second days of the holidays even though their original reason became anachronistic with the adoption of a permanent calculated calendar.

There are in fact several exceptions and anomalies to the practice. For example, Rosh Hashana is observed even in Israel for two days (as noted by Rabbi Goldson), whereas a two-day Yom Kippur fast was (thankfully) not considered a feasible option.

There is also an intriguing inconsistency in the observance of a second day of Shavu'ot, since the date for this holiday is not determined according to the day of the month, but by the counting of the Omer for fifty days after the first day of Passover. Thus, even in ancient times, there would never have arisen any doubts about the correct date of Shavu'ot.

Nonetheless, the halakhic tradition decided to add a second day in order to maintain consistency among the various holidays.

Under normal circumstances, the questionable status of the second day of Shavu'ot would not entail any practical consequences.

I recall, for example, the time when I was serving with the Israeli army in Lebanon and we were alowed to go home for Shavu'o. I tried to persuade my commanding officer that, since we were outside of Israel, we were entitled to two days' leave. It is to the credit of Tzahal that they were not taken in for a moment by my specious argument.

On a much more serious level, the status of the second day of Shavu'ot was the focus of a nineteenth-century controversy, which became a cause célèbre throughout the Jewish world.

The story involved a man in the Galician town of Brody who had taken ill and was deemed to have only hours left to live. The man had no children, and therefore his widow would become subject to the Biblical law of levirate marriage. This meant that she would be unable to remarry unless she obtained a formal release from her late husband's brother, through the ceremony of "h\alitzah." Since her brother-in-law lived in Italy, this would be difficult to accomplish, rendering the unfortunate widow an agunah, an "anchored woman." Out of consideration for his wife's fate, the husband proposed to divorce her in the last remaining hours of his life.

Unfortunately the timing of the events was problematic. It was Shavu'ot, when it would normally be forbidden to write a get. When the case was brought before the local halakhic authority, the eminent Rabbi Eleazar Landau, he cited the far-reaching leniencies that the halakhah had often adopted in order to ease the burden of the agunah, and ruled that in the present circumstances concern for the potential suffering of a widow should override the flimsy basis of the second day of Shavu'ot. He ordered that a scribe be brought on the second day and that the divorce be duly issued.

Not everyone was pleased with Rabbi Landau's decision. A distinguished local sage, Rabbi Solomon Kluger, objected to his colleague's tampering with an accepted Jewish ritual, and appealed to Rabbi Moses Schreiber of Presssburg (today's Bratislava), the renowned "Chasam Sofer" who was considered that generation's most distinguished spokesman for traditionalist Judaism.

The Chasam Sofer had often marshalled his phenomenal scholarship in an unrelenting war against the Enlightenment and Reform movements, opposing any innovations that might challenge or weaken the authority of traditional Judaism and the Rabbis who upheld it.

The Chasam Sofer argued that the very fact that the second day of Shavu'ot could not be justified on normal grounds showed that it was an independent Rabbinic law, and not just a consequence of calendrical doubts. Basing himself on a Talmudic principle that Rabbinic ordinances must be defended more firmly than those of the Torah itself, he argued that any diminishing of the status of the second day of Shavu'ot would invite further challenges to the authority of the Rabbinic tradition, and eventually lead to a complete erosion of Judaism.

In the animated and often vitriolic controversy that ensued, it was the position of the Chasam Sofer that eventually gained the upper hand, and is most frequently cited by Orthodox authorities.

I admit that I find it easier to sympathize with the situation of the unfortunate widow, and with Rabbi Landau's humane subordination of ritual to ethical considerations. However we must also appreciate the position of Rabbi Schreiber in its historical context. The Chasam Sofer was waging a desperate campaign against forces that, in his view, threatened the very survival of Judaism. The experience of the German Enlightenment, which over two short generations had brought about a massive defection from the Jewish ranks, certainly provided legitimate grounds for alarm; and the feared liberal ideologies had already made significant inroads in Brody, the scene of our controversy, which was strategically situated on the border between central and eastern Europe.

The issues that underlay the dispute are still too fresh for us to dispassionately apply the insights of historical hindsight. In the long run, we cannot yet judge whether the interests of Jewish continuity were best served by the intransigence of the Chasam Sofer or by the flexibility of Rabbi Landau in their differing attitudes towards the second day of Shavu'ot.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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[1]First Publication: Jewish Free Press, June 1 1995, pp. 6-7.


  • S. Y. Zevin, The Festivals in Halachah, New York and Jerusalem, 1982.