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Thoughts on Chol HaMoed

Moadim l’simcha!  I wish you the joy of this holiday season. This week, as you know, we are celebrating the festival of Pesach, of Passover.  In the Torah, this is a seven-day festival and that is the case in Israel even today.  Outside of Israel, the holiday is observed for eight days. Of these days, in Israel, only the first day and the seventh are considered to be Yom Tov, actual festival days, while outside of Israel we observe the first two days as well as the last two, the seventh and eighth days as major festivals.  As on Shabbat, the days designated as Yom Tov, major festival days, labor, melachah, is forbidden. Most of the same rules about prohibited labor on Shabbat apply to Yom Tov as well.  A major difference however is that on Yom Tov one is permitted to perform labor to prepare food for the holiday.  This is referred to as ochel nefesh, food  for the soul, or food to live on.  As with every other area of Jewish law, there are detailed rules as to precisely which activities are permitted on the holiday and which ones should be done beforehand.


The days in which we find ourselves right now, the intermediate days of the holiday, both for this holiday of Pesach as well as during Sukkot, have the rather contradictory term of chol hamoed.  A moed is a designated time and is often used as I did at the beginning of this piece as a synonym for chag, or holiday.  Chol means secular, non-holiday.  At the end of Shabbat and at the end of Yom Tov we recite the prayers of Havdalah and in doing so we distinguish between Kodesh, those days which are holy and chol, the everyday, secular days.  Following the second day of the holiday it is customary to recite a brief prayer of Havdalah and even though the holiday continues into this period of Chol HaMoed, the prayer praises God who distinguishes bein kodesh l’chol, between holy and secular.


In some ways, it is clear that the holiday has not come to an end. Throughout the week of Pesach, the prohibition of chametz, leavened products, remains in force.  While one is not obligated to eat matzah, leavened products are prohibited.  During Sukkot, one continues to go out into the Sukkah and eat one’s meals there and, if one is able, even to sleep in the Sukkah.  The lulav and etrog are still waved during these intermediate days.  Thus, it clearly is still holiday time.


Liturgically, in the synagogue or in one’s home prayers, there is a combination of elements.  We begin the morning prayers as we would on any other weekday.  The birchot hashachar, the p’sukei d’zimrah, those introductory sections of the service, are the same as on any weekday.  We do not add the extra Psalms that we say on Shabbat and Yom Tov, except on the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, which is unique in its prayers.  Throughout Pesach, we omit Psalm 100, Mizmor l’Todah, since it is linked to the Thanksgiving offering in the ancient Temple which was the only sacrifice requiring chametz.


Continuing into the main portion of the service, we recite the usual blessings that surround the recitation of the Sh’ma.  We offer the same prayers as usual for the weekday Amidah, with a few changes.  Since we recited the prayer for dew, Tal, on the first day of Pesach, we no longer add Mashiv Haruach uMorid haGashem.  Some add Morid HaTal instead, praising God who causes the dew to appear during the dry season in Israel.  Likewise, when we get to the blessing of Mevarech Hashanim, we no longer pray Ten tal umatar livracha al p’nei ha-adamah, grant dew and rain upon the face of the earth for a blessing.  Instead we substitute ten b’racha al p’nei ha-adamah, grant blessing upon the face of the earth. Finally, in the third to the last blessing, the Avodah  prayer where we ask that our prayers be accepted in lieu of the sacrifices, the blessing that begins R’tzei, we insert the Ya’aleh v’yavo, a prayer added on the holidays and the new moon, expressing our desire to return to the Temple on pilgrimage once more. Otherwise, the service is pretty much the same as any other weekday.


The real changes happen after the morning Amidah.  We add the Hallel prayers of praise.  However, during Chol HaMoed Pesach, we shorten two of the Psalms as we do on Rosh Chodesh, to limit our joy a bit as we contemplate the destruction of our eemies..  Every day of the holiday, in synagogues with a daily minyan, we read a selection from the Torah and call four people up.  On Passover, where there are many different passages mentioning the holiday, the readings are different each day. We take out two Torahs, one for reading of the day, to which we call three people and in the second Torah, we read of the additional musaf sacrifice brought on the holiday for the fourth.  On  Sukkot, we take out only one Torah and call the four individuals to the separate offerings for each day of that holiday.  After we return the Torahs to the ark, we recite the holiday musaf, the same as we would have done on Yom Tov.  Thus, we have a hybrid service, both weekday and holiday for these intermediate days, clearly chol hamoed is an appropriate designation.


The confusing part of Chol HaMoed comes when we try to decide which activities are permissible on these days and which are not. My experience has been that most people, even those who are particular about keeping the prohibition of labor on Shabbat and Yom Tov, tend to treat Chol HaMoed days as regular weekdays and go about their business as usual on these middle days of the festival.  That, however, is not exactly what our sages had in mind. There is a whole tractate of the Talmud, Moed Katan, that deals with the laws of this period.


There is a difference of opinion among the ancient sages as to whether the prohibition of some labor on Chol Hamoed is derived from the Torah or if it just hinted at in the Torah.  In either case, the categories of permitted and prohibited labor were left to the rabbis to determine.  The rabbis enacted these laws in order to preserve the festive atmosphere of the holiday for the entire week, thereby enabling us to rejoice and to engage in the study of Torah unburdened by mundane affairs. Though, as in every area of Jewish life, there are detailed laws, basically, the sages permit five categories of labor during these days.


The first area is known as davar ha-aved, irretrievable loss.  One is permitted to do certain activities to prevent a major loss to one’s property or one’s income even if one does not perform the usual labor in the field or the market place.  The second area is tzorech hamoed, work necessary for the festival itself.  One is allowed to do things to enhance the celebration of the holiday.  Thirdly, provision is made for a person who has no choice but to work to support himself and his family so they will be able to eat.  Such a person is allowed to go to his regular place of employment.  Fourth, and most interestingly, one is permitted to do work for the communal good even if it involves heavy labor, such as fixing roads and bridges, repairing cisterns and such.  The fifth area is designated as ma’aseh hed’yot, work done in a non-professional manner.  The Mishnah gives as an example an unskilled person sewing in his usual manner, which is permitted.  However, a skilled tailor may only sew in an irregular mannr not the way we would in his tailor shop.


The idea clearly is to limit the performance of our regular labor to the extent possible thus providing greater opportunity to celebrate the holiday and maintain the festival atmosphere throughout the week.  Clearly this is not possible for everyone, but to the extent one can make the holiday a weeklong celebration we are urged to do so.


I recall as a student, arriving in Israel during Chol HaMoed Sukkot in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War.  I noticed the day after my arrival that the stores downtown were open as usual.  While there was a noticeable absence of men on the street, since so many had been called up for reserve duty during the war,  even so, daily life seemed to proceed pretty much as normal.  Booklover that I am, the first place I went was to a favorite bookseller from whom I had bought many books during my junior year in Israel four years earlier.  She and her husband ran a bookstore out of their apartment which was not far from Meah Shearim.  I knocked on the door and was greeted by the wife who generally ran the business.  I rarely saw her husband when I stopped by. She inquired whether there was a particular volume I needed.  I later realized that she was observing the limitations of Chol HaMoed.  Even though she was not officially open, she was willing to sell me a book if I needed it right then under the category of tzorech hamoed, something necessary for the holiday.  I admitted that I had no particular volume in mind but had just come to browse and so she invited me in.  Of course, once in the store, I managed to find a number of volumes I couldn’t live without and she was only too happy to receive my money.


The Torah instructs us to rejoice in our festival days and by that they include the intermediate days of the holiday, the days of chol hamoed.  This year our joy has been diminished by the ongoing war in Israel, the continuing ordeal of the hostages taken last fall, and the appalling expressions of violence and hatred against Jews in this country particularly on college campuses. We offer our prayers in the words of the festival liturgy: “Grant the blessing of Your festivals to us: life and peace, joy and delight, as it pleased You to promise to bless us.”  As we come to the culmination of the holiday on Monday and Tuesday, days which mark the crossing of the sea after the departure from Egypt, may we too depart these difficult times, meitzarim, and cross over into a time of blessing and peace for us and for all people.

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