Every holiday season, thousands of observant, Orthodox Jews from the Diaspora visit Israel. Unlike their Israeli peers, most keep the additional day of “Yom Tov” traditionally observed outside of Israel, even while staying in the Holy Land, as per centuries of Jewish custom.
But one of today’s most popular – but controversial – haredi recording artists no longer keeps the second day of Jewish festivals while in Israel, performing in public while other Diaspora residents refrain from performing actions considered labor by Jewish tradition.
On Monday evening, after the end of the first day of Sukkot – but the beginning of the second day of Yom Tov for Diaspora residents – Schmeltzer performed at a concert in Petah Tikva, stunning audience members who were left pondering how a prominent member of the American haredi community was publicly flouting such a widely accepted tradition.
While criticism from some in the haredi world was quick to follow, Schmeltzer says he is unfazed.
“I don’t deal with it [the criticism]; I only accept criticism from God,” he told BeHadrei Haredim.
According to Schmeltzer, the basis of the long-standing custom of observing two days while visiting Israel no longer applies.
“I’m part of the Jewish people,” he said, “and I think that if I don’t appear after Yom Tov it’s a contradiction, since the whole point of having two days of Yom Tov is because back then they did not know with certainty what day the new month began in Israel; but today we not only know, but we have the ability to travel to Israel and spend the holiday in the holy, pure Land of Israel.”
Rabbinic authorities are familiar with that claim, of course, but have nevertheless not stopped the custom of two days for those who do not make their permanent home in Israel, excepting for some rabbinic decisors who say that if one is in Israel for all three major festivals, one day is enough.
There are rabbinic authorities who say that the positive commandments of the holiday should not be kept on the second day when in Israel – referring to such things as reciting blessings for the holiday – but that one must avoid going against negative commandments, such as turning on lights.
Schmeltzer added that in his opinion, “It would be an affront for me to come to Israel and then say that I need to keep two days of Yom Tov because my grandfather didn’t know what the date [of the holiday was] in Israel. It is important for the public to know that I’m doing everything according to Jewish law. And I’ve already been here for a few holidays in Israel.”
For Schmeltzer, a 38-year old New York native raised in the Skver Hasidic sect, the decision not to observe two days of Yom Tov is not the first time he has stirred controversy within the haredi world by challenging religious norms.
His eclectic musical style has in the past drawn criticism from some within the religious world, and led to a ban by some leading haredi rabbinic authorities on “The Big Event” concert scheduled for Madison Square Garden in 2008.
In 2014 Schmeltzer announced his enrollment in Columbia University, defying the traditional aversion within Skver to study in secular institutions of higher education.