In 1846, a group of rabbis convened in Breslau to debate various reforms to Judaism. Among the numerous issues under discussion was the length of Pesach and the other festivals. Why was this an issue? Regarding Pesach, the Book of Exodus states:
“This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to God throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread… You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all should be done on them.”
It seems pretty clear that Pesach was to be observed for seven days.
However, with time, as with all the chagim, Pesach became extended. Our early sages decided that this was necessary as Jews began to spread out through the diaspora. In ancient times each new month of our lunar calendar was determined by observation. Witnesses would testify that they had seen the new moon to judges in Jerusalem. Once the judges verified the correct phase of the moon, a pronouncement about the start of the month was sent out to communities throughout the Land of Israel. However, it would take far too much time for the information to reach communities of Jews outside of Israel. Therefore an extra day was added to the observance of Passover and the other festivals for Jews living outside of Israel in order to prevent people from accidentally beginning or ending too soon.
Today, and throughout history, everyone in Israel observes Pesach for seven days. However, outside of Israel, the eight-day custom of observance has remained, even after the switch was made to a calculated calendar in the fourth century. The Babylonian Talmud (Beitzah 4b) advises Diaspora Jews to maintain the “the custom of your ancestors” and continue the practice of extended festivals, just in case the knowledge of how to calculate the calendar is somehow forgotten.
Which brings us back to our rabbis in 1846. At the Breslau conference the reformers, reflecting on the technological advancements that allowed for a clearly fixed universal calendar, concluded that “The second days of the holidays… have no longer any significance for our time according to our religious sources… Therefore, if any congregations abolish some or all of these second days, they… are thoroughly justified in their act.” With this determination, a return to the biblical seven days of Pesach became standard practice within Progressive and Liberal communities throughout the diaspora, while traditional diaspora communities maintained the rabbinic eight days of the festival.
Ultimately, each of us decides what is right and meaningful for our families and ourselves. But, in this case, we have two options which each maintain the full authenticity of our tradition, both biblical and rabbinic. So, for how long will you be eating matzah?