By Israel Drazin

The Real Reason for the Additional Day of Holidays

Part one

This essay is taken from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets. Because of its length, I am dividing it into three parts.


Few people know why Jewish tradition added a day to the biblically assigned number for Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot when the holidays are observed outside of Israel, and why a second day was appended to Rosh Hashanah in both Israel and the diaspora – and those who claim to know the reason behind the addition may be mistaken.

The generally accepted belief is that the tradition started after the Judeans returned to Judea in 538 B.C.E. This return followed some fifty years of exile in Babylonia as a result of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.. A short synopsis of the history of Judaism until 538 B.C.E. will put this date into perspective. I will then offer a new idea explaining the origin of the added day.


The History of Jewry from the Days of Moses until 538 B.C.E.

Scholars date the Israelite Exodus from Egypt under Moses’ leadership to approximately 1250 B.C.E. After forty years of desert wandering, the Israelites entered and conquered parts of Canaan, later called Israel, where they lived under tribal leadership rather than as a single united nation. The first king who remerged the tribes was Saul, who ascended his throne before 1000 B.C.E. David succeeded him, and his son Solomon followed him. Solomon built the first permanent Temple. Until his time, the Israelites worshipped either at the Tabernacle that was built by Moses or at local sanctuaries, called bamot.

When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam attempted to retain the united kingdom, but was unsuccessful. Ten of the twelve tribes disbanded and formed their own nation in the north, which they called Israel. Two tribes remained under Rehoboam’s rule in the south in what was called Judea, since the primary tribe was Judah. The name Judeans was later shortened to Jews.

Following the destruction of the northern country Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., virtually all of the Israelites were led into exile. Neither the Bible nor secular history records what happened to them. They were probably absorbed into other cultures; some may have moved to Judea in the south. Today, they are referred to as the “ten lost tribes.”

The Babylonians demolished Judea and Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E., and most of the Judeans were banished to Babylon. In 538 B.C.E. – generally accepted as the period when adding days to most holidays first began – the Judeans were permitted to return to Judea. Some, but not all, returned.

When the Judeans reentered Judea, they discovered a group of people, called Samaritans, inhabiting the nearby area. The origin of these people is debated by both secular and religious scholars. They may have been placed in the land by the Assyrians after they defeated Israel and exiled most of its populace in 722 B.C.E. It is possible that these non-Israelite people integrated with some of the remaining Israelites. The Samaritans adopted some of the religious practices of the ancient Israelite rites but mixed them with paganism. The returning ex-exiles, the true Judeans, refused to accept them as co-religionists, and this resulted in centuries of strife between the two groups.


The Problem of Informing the Babylonian Judeans of the First Day of the Month

The returnees were faced with a religious quandary. Judaism relies on a lunar calendar for the dates of its holidays and its adherents must know when each month begins so that they may observe the holidays on the proper days. The system that existed at that time for setting the date of the new moon raised a problem; the date was set in Judea, and the Judeans then had to inform the majority of their brothers and sisters who remained in Babylon when a new month had been established.

This system, one that undoubtedly began even before the days of Moses, was to determine the first day of a month by the testimony of witnesses in a judicial-like proceeding. The witnesses would swear that they had seen the first sliver of the moon. The judges or elders would examine the witnesses and decide if their testimony was true. These people would then establish the day that the moon was first seen as the first day of the month.

The early Israelites knew that the lunar month was approximately twenty-nine and a half days long. Thus, the new month would begin on one of two days, either the thirtieth day after the start of the prior month or the thirty-first. As a result, each month was either twenty-nine or thirty days long.

The Israelites knew how to calculate when the first moon sliver would appear. They had lived among the Egyptians for centuries, first in comparative wealth when Joseph was second to Pharaoh and for some years thereafter, and later under abject slavery. The Egyptians knew how to make calendar calculations. Yet, tradition, as usual, won out. Probably because they had relied on witnesses to establish the month’s onset for so many generations, the Israelites did not want to deviate from their ancestral practice and use the scientific non-Israelite Egyptian calculations. It was not until about the fourth century of the Common Era, during a period of intense persecution, that the ancient witness-oriented system was abandoned in favor of the scientific calculations.


Fire Signals and Samaritan Interference

The following is the generally accepted view explaining why an extra day was added to holidays outside of Israel and to Rosh Hashanah in Israel.

In ancient times, before the introduction of the scientific calendar, the Israelites and Judeans had a formal procedure for announcing the new month to the people. As we said, a court or elders proclaimed the first day of the month after witnesses came and swore that they had seen the first sliver of the moon; but, after entry into Canaan, the Israelites felt that this court or deciding body had to be in Canaan/Israel.

Since only a court/deciding body in Israel could announce the first day of the month, how could the Judeans of 538 B.C.E. notify their brethren in Babylon that the court/deciding body had determined the day of the new month? This was an important question because the holidays had to be celebrated on the proper date.

An ingenious solution was suggested and implemented. When a decision was reached in Judea concerning the first date of the month, the news was dispatched to Babylon by fire signals from one mountaintop to another. The entire process was completed in hours.

However, a problem arose. The Samaritans, who felt both insulted and excluded by the Judeans, took revenge by doing everything they could conceive to mortify them. One of their acts was to send fire signals on the wrong day so that the Babylonian Judeans observed the holidays improperly.

The fire signal was no longer a suitable solution, so the Judeans developed a new procedure. They decided that Jews in Judea, in the relatively small area that allowed timely notification of the first day of the month, would continue to observe holidays based on the day established by the appropriate people. However, their co-religionists outside of Judea, who could not be informed of the decision on time, would observe the holidays for an extra day, since the lunar month is twenty-nine and a half days long and the new month began on one of two days. Thus, by celebrating the holidays for an extra day, they would certainly fulfill the biblical obligation correctly on one of the two days.

The Judeans also decided at that time that Rosh Hashanah would be observed even in Judea for two days since it occurred on the first of the month and there was insufficient time to notify even the Judeans in the small area. For example, if the responsible people did not finish interviewing the witnesses and did not proclaim the first day of Tishrei until midday, even the Judeans who lived nearby would have failed to observe half of the holiday and those who lived miles away may have missed the observance entirely. They also resolved that the fast of Yom Kippur should be limited to the biblically mandated single day even outside of Judea, because they knew that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most people to fast for more than a single day.


This is the generally accepted notion as to the origin of the added day of holidays. The next part describes my original idea. It accepts the history sketched above, but places the idea for an added day some five hundred years earlier.