I typically host the Seder service on the first and second nights of Passover, but for the last couple of years, I've found that the first night is really enjoyable while the second night suffers from a bit of “been there, done that.” My family asked about doing just one night. Is that an option?
I know that in Israel the Seder is only celebrated on the first night. For the rest of us living outside of Israel, is the second Seder as important as the first, or is it just a custom?
The reason that we repeat the Seder, the festive ritual dinner observed in the first nights of Passover, is actually because both the first and second days of Passover are observed as a full holiday in the Diaspora, equal to the first day of Passover that is observed in Israel. Nevertheless, making the second Seder meaningful and significant for your participants can definitely be challenging, despite the importance of observing both days, which I shall presently explain.
The origins of the second day of holiday observance, and why it applies only in the Diaspora and not in Israel, are discussions addressed at length in the article on our site entitled Why are holidays celebrated an extra day in the Diaspora?
The Jewish Calendar
The short history is that the Jewish holidays follow the lunar calendar. Every Jewish month begins with the earliest visibility of the moon at the start of its 29.5-day cycle. In the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the new month was to be declared by the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court in Israel, based on if and when witnesses testified to having seen the crescent moon. If the new crescent moon was seen (by two witnesses) on the 30th night of a month’s cycle, then upon accepting their testimony the Sanhedrin would declare that day (the 30th) as the 1st of the new month. If there were no sightings of the new moon on the 30th night of a month’s cycle, the 30th day would be treated as the last day of the month, and the 1st of the new month would begin the following night (day 31 of the last cycle).
Jews living far from the land of Israel would not be aware which day had been declared the 1st of the new month in time to know which day would the 15th—when the holidays of Passover and Sukkot begin. In order not to miss the correct day, the distant exiles observed the holiday on the two days that could possibly be the 15th of the month.
In the 4th century CE, the sage Hillel foresaw the disbandment of the Supreme Court and understood that we would no longer be able to follow the sighting-based calendar. So Hillel and his rabbinical court established the perpetual calendar which is followed until today.
The Talmud relates that once the calendar had been set, the Jews of the Diaspora turned to the sages of the time and asked if they should return to observing only one day: “But now that we are well acquainted with the fixing of the new moon, why do we observe two days?” they asked. To which the Supreme Court in Israel responded: “Give heed to the customs of your ancestors which have come down to you; for it might happen that the government might issue a decree and it will cause confusion [in ritual].”
Due to the persecution they foresaw, the Sages were concerned that at some point in history there would be confusion regarding how the calendar works as established by the Sages, and therefore they instructed that we continue this observance.
The Sanctity of the Day
With this background, let’s look at your question. If the second Seder is only a Rabbinic institution, and “heeding to the customs of our ancestors,” how holy is it really?
Here’s an example to illustrate the degree of the 2nd day’s sanctity: According to Jewish law it is forbidden to say G‑d's name unnecessarily, even by saying a prayer when it is not the appropriate time for that prayer. Yet on the second day of the Passover holiday, we use exactly the same text for the blessings and prayers as we did on the first day, including G‑d's name. We repeatedly say, “Blessed are you G‑d... Who sanctified the holiday,” and the like. This would not be permissible if the second day were merely a nice tradition! In fact, that blessing would be false! Which holiday are we talking about? Yesterday's?!
Another example of how we sanctify the 2nd day is the blessing we recite before eating matzah. Now, although we may not eat bread for all eight days of the holiday, only at the Seder is it a mitzvah to actually eat matzah. And yet, before eating matzah at the second Seder we also say, “Blessed are you G‑d …who has sanctified us and commanded us to eat matzah.” Again, if the second day is mere tradition, or as some have called it, “good sermon material,” why would we be allowed to make this blessing over the matzah, saying that we are commanded to eat it?
These are just some examples that signify the holy status of the second day of Passover outside of Israel.
Who Gave the Right?
Of course, the case of the two-day celebration of the holiday raises other issues. Understandably, the sages of the time realized that the distant exiles needed to keep two days of the holiday to ensure that they would be on target on one of the days. But by what power were humans able to create a holiday out of it, to the point of us stating on the second day of the holiday that “G‑d commanded us today to eat the Matzah?”—and then to leave the imposed second day as a “mandatory custom” even after the calendar has been set?
The observance of the second day is testament to the power that G‑d entrusted to the Supreme Court, giving them the ability to actually create a day of sanctity (and to limit it to the places where the decree was necessary). This power of the people is expressed in G‑d’s instruction in Deuteronomy 17 (10-11) that you should inquire of the rabbis, “And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place the L‑rd will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you... you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left.”
I believe, however, that precisely because they are “man-made,” these rabbinic holidays and traditions carry in them a certain significance that the Biblical ones do not.
For example, the holiday of Purim which we celebrated last month was established and celebrated by the Jews of the time and is not a Biblical holiday. Yet possibly for this very reason, Purim and Simchat Torah (the day after Sukkot when we dance with the Torah, which is also merely a “custom”) are the most joyous days on the Jewish calendar.
Why do the rabbis institute extra holidays? Why do we accept extra customs upon ourselves to celebrate beyond the actual Biblically mandated holidays?
In some situations there is a technical basis—like people in distant lands needing to know that they were celebrating the right day. However, the idea that we take upon ourselves extra observances at all, whether to prevent us from accidentally celebrating the wrong day or as an expression of our excitement at being Jewish, highlights a dedication of the Jewish people to the Torah that goes beyond even the observance of the actual laws.
We don't dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah because we were told to do so by G‑d, but because we are excited about being Jewish. Contrary to a common misconception that the future of Judaism lies in disregarding out-dated traditions, it is actually the observance of the “man-made” traditions that instills in us and our children the joy and pride in being a Jew.
So is the second day “just” a custom? On the contrary, “Give heed to the customs of your ancestors,” because it is on the tradition of our commitment to Judaism that the future of the Jewish people depends.
Enjoy the Second Seder!
However, your question is a good one. Just instead of “if” to make the second Seder, we have to figure out “how” to make the second Seder in a way that the participants can still appreciate and enjoy it.
Here are some suggestions:
1) Make sure to have the Haggadah readers for all the participants to read and follow. You might also want to buy a variety of different editions of the Haggadah, or ones with varying commentary, and the participants can trade from one night to the next.
2) Give people turns to read the text, and switch the paragraphs assigned on each night.
3) Print out short insights for the participants to read and share. Prepare some for the first night and others for the second. Please see our selection of Thoughts on the Haggadah, Seder Insights and the Seder Spiritual Guide.
4) This might be taxing on the hosts, but maybe change the menu from one night to the next!
5) Most importantly, find someone who doesn’t yet have plans for a family Seder, like someone new to town or someone whose family lives too far, and invite them to join you guys! A new face will definitely make things more interesting aside for fulfilling a central theme of the Seder, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”
I apologize for the rambling. Please let me know if this helps.
Best wishes for a kosher and happy Passover!
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson
Ask the Rabbi @ the Judaism website Chabad.org