Change in Judaism doesn’t seem to be a new phenomenon. Here’s a discussion about a series of adjustments to way we plan our Yom Tov living that stretched over centuries and probably began more than a thousand years ago.
Yom Tov schedules
As I’ve written elsewhere, unexpected changes to our minhagim over the centuries are not necessarily the result of evil manipulation by nefarious secret cabals. Sometimes change just happens. And some changes might even make a lot of sense. More than anything else, the goal of this book is to show how frequently traditional Judaism has undergone serious change through history and how we’ve responded to it.
With that in mind, comparing the ways modern Torah communities experience Yom Tov with the way historical experiences are understood in halachic sources should give us some interesting food for thought. Here’s how the gemara (Megila 23a) describes the ideal Yom Tov schedule:
ביו”ט מאחרין לבוא וממהרין לצאת ביום הכפורים ממהרין לבוא ומאחרין לצאת ובשבת ממהרין לבוא וממהרין לצאת לימא ר”ע דאית ליה גברא יתירא אפילו תימא רבי ישמעאל דנפיש סידורא דיומא
On Yom Tov we come late (to synagogue) and hurry home (afterwards), on Yom Kippur we hurry to arrive (early) and leave late, and on Shabbos we hurry to arrive and to leave. Should we say that Rabbi Akiva (is the only author of this statement)? No. It could even be Rabbi Yishmoel (if you consider that Yom Tov) includes a busier schedule.
Rashi to that gemara explains that the “busier schedule” is partly the result of our ability to cook on Yom Tov (something forbidden on Shabbos, and unnecessary on Yom Kippur), requiring that we spend time before prayers preparing the meals for later. But it’s also because Yom Tov comes with a special mitzva of simchas Yom Tov, which forces us to leave earlier to get back home.
Rashi also points us to his source in Mesechte Sofrim 18:4.
אמרו המברך צריך שיגביה קולו משום בניו הקטנים ואשתו ובנותיו ומן הדין הוא לתרגם לעם לנשים ותינוקות כל סדר ונביא של שבת לאחר קריאת התורה וזו היא שאמרו בשבת מקדימין לבוא ומאחרין לצאת מקדימין לבא כדי לקרות קריאת שמע כוותיקין עם הנץ החמה ומאחרין לצאת כדי שישמעו פירוש של הסדר אבל ביום טוב מאחרין לבא שהן צריכין לתקן מאכל’ של יום וממהרין לצאת שאינו מן הדין לפרש להן דאמרי’ רב לא מוקי אמורא מיומא טבא לחבריה
One who makes the bracha (on the reading of the Torah) should raise his voice for his young sons and wife and daughters. It would make sense to translate for this congregation and women and children the entire Torah reading along with the (reading from the) prophet for each Shabbos after the reading of the Torah. And this is what is meant by “on Shabbos, they come early and leave late.” They come early so as to recite the Shema appropriately at dawn. And they leave late so that all should hear the commentary to the Torah reading. But on Yom Tov they come late because they need to prepare food for the day, and they hurry to leave since there’s no need to provide commentary, as Rav said “Don’t appoint a sage from one day of Yom Tov to another.
Now there’s a lot to think about here. For one thing, it would seem that either the men – and not the women – were expected to do all the meal preparation on Yom Tov (otherwise why should they need extra time at home before prayers?), or that men and women attended synagogue together (so that, whichever one prepared, it would have to happen before prayers). Either option is at least mildly surprising.
But the bigger issue is how different this is from the Rambam’s account (Laws of Yom Tov 6:19):
אלא כך היא הדת, בבקר משכימין כל העם לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות ומתפללין וקורין בתורה בענין היום וחוזרין לבתיהם ואוכלין, והולכין לבתי מדרשות קורין ושונין עד חצי היום, ואחר חצות היום מתפללין תפלת המנחה וחוזרין לבתיהן לאכול ולשתות שאר היום עד הלילה
This is what’s appropriate: in the morning everyone should arrive early to synagogues and study houses (where they) pray and read the Torah according to the day. They (then) return to their homes and eat, and then go to the study houses and study until midday. After midday, they pray Mincha and return to their homes to eat and drink for the rest of the day until night.
Two thoughts: Note how praying, eating the meal, and returning to the study house for a learning session would all be complete before midday! But, closer to our primary point, why are we supposed to arrive in synagogue early on Yom Tov mornings? Weren’t we first supposed to prepare the Yom Tov meal?
The Rema (שו”ע או”ח תקכ”ט) sides with the original (late arrival) approach. But the Magen Avraham (#6) offers an explanation that could answer our question:
מאחרין לבוא. חוץ מר״ה שמשכימין לבה״כ וב״ח סי׳ תקפ״ד ובסימן תרמ״ד כ׳ דהאידנא שמאריכין בפיוטים משכימין בכל י״ט עכ״ל כלו’ דרש״י פי׳ הטעם דמאחרין כדי לטרוח בסעודת י״ט קודס שילכו לבה״כ והאידנ׳ יכולי׳ להכן בעוד שמאריכין בניגונים ופיוטיס
We arrive late: Besides for Rosh Hashana where we come early to synagogues. And the Bach (סי׳ תקפ״ד ובסימן תרמ״ד) writes that ‘these days, since we extend (the prayers with) poems (פיוטים), we come early on all Yom Tov days.’ That is to say, according to Rashi’s second reason – that (we would originally arrive late) in order to prepare the Yom Tov meal before going to pray. But these days, we can prepare while they’re extending the songs and poems (in synagogue).
I’m just not sure what to make of this. Exactly when is the preparation now supposed to occur? I have the image in my mind of all the men (or women), one after the other slipping out of synagogue, running home, and throwing the chicken in the oven while those left behind would pretend nothing unusual was happening.
But what comes out is that, originally, Yom Tov prayers were supposed to be brief enough that we could arrive late and leave early, with enough time left over to finish a full meal and a learning session before midday. Some time later (likely before the Rambam’s time), piyutim became popular, requiring longer services.
Who instituted these significant changes and how widely and quickly they were adopted isn’t known. Since, however, the songs were optional, individuals were free to slip out of synagogue to prepare the meal, allowing earlier start times.
I will add that the Bach (ס’ תקפ”ד) explains that the Tur rules that the late start of Yom Tov doesn’t apply to Rosh Hashana. One reason the Bach offers is that an early start on Rosh Hashana will make it possible for people to return home and begin their meals before midday (it being inappropriate to fast half a day on Rosh Hashana). That’s one more thing that’s mostly disappeared from our own Rosh Hashana experiences.
However, why would the Tur in the laws of Sukkos (ס’ תרמ”ד) write “In the morning, we arrive early…”? After all, “Yom Tov” in the gemara in Megila should certainly include Sukkos. The Bach explans that, because of the hectic pre-Sukkos period (see Tosafos to Chulin 83a), people will usually enjoy a simpler meal on the first day of Sukkos that requires less preparation. There would, therefore, be no reason not to come early to synagogue.
But if that’s the case, asks the Bach, why should the Tur also teach us (in סי’ תרס”ח) to arrive early on the morning of Shemini Atzeres? This, concludes the Bach, is because we now include both the קרוב”ץ for rain and Yizkor on that day. It would seem that both the קרוב”ץ for rain and Yizkor were innovations originally unknown to Jewish liturgy, and their introduction forced a refactoring of Yom Tov protocols that had been followed since at least the time of the Talmud.