During Chol HoMo'ed many activities are prohibited. We have previously studied the source and scope of the prohibition (see Volume 2 Issue 46). The Mishnah lists many individual cases where particular activities are permitted, from which we build a picture of what is permitted and the activities that are not. As an exception, one general permit is given, and that is tzorchei rabim – public needs. There is a danger when trying to draw halachic conclusions directly from Mishnayot as quotes can be used to justify practices far beyond their intended meaning. Tzorchei rabbim is potentially one such example, about which we find the scope is quite restricted.
The Gemara (5a) explains that the term tzorchei rabbim comes to include digging wells. The Gemara includes a number of cases where Chachamim permitted the dredging of rivers used for drinking water based on this same principle. The limited, yet similar cases, suggest that the justification of tzorchei rabbim is not as broad as one might think.
The Rosh (1:6) cites the Raavad who, when explaining one of the cases, explained that the channelling of the water provided the city with an abundance of water and is therefore considered tzorchei rabbim. Despite the fact the project required a lot of effort and was performed in public view, it was permitted since the project required everyone to chip in. Consequently a time when everyone was off from work, and could come together, was the only time that the channel would be dug. The Rosh cites the Yerushalmi that similarly brings this justification to explain why such work can be scheduled for Chol HaMoed. The Magen Avraham however notes, that if an individual is entrusted to completed the projected, then there is no longer a justification to perform the work in Chol HaMoed.
Given that public projects that require everyone's input are permitted as this is the only time that they can be completed, the Raavad asks why, when it comes to the digging of wells and cisterns, must it also be needed for Chol HaMoed? The Raavad explains that in that case, since their construction are maaseh uman – professional work – it is only permitted during Chol HaMoed if it is need then. In summary, we find that when the Mishnah permits tzorchei rabbim, it is referring to a public project that require everyone's input. If however work required is professional work, then it must also be for the needs of Chol HaMoed.
We find a further restriction in the Beit Yosef (544) who cites the Rashba that was asked whether it was permissible to build a shul during Chol HaMoed. The Rashba felt it was prohibited. Firstly, it is melechet uman and delaying its construction would not incur a loss. Furthermore, it was not needed for Chol HaMoed as there was an existing shul. Finally, the Rashba is unsure whether the permit of tzorchi rabbim only applies to matters that are tzorchei guf – bodily needs – as in the case of the wells. The Rama (544:1) rules like the Rashba that maaseh uman that are not tzorchei guf are not permitted during Chol HaMoed. Consequently we find that if the work is maaseh uman it must be required for the Moed and tzorchei guf.
The Aruch HaShulchan cites opinions that permit the construction of shuls today out of concerned that the shul will not be built. He also cites others that allow the repair of shul benches to prevent disputes. Nevertheless the Aruch HaShulchan distances himself from such repairs and writes that a local ruling would depend on the state of the city as such heteirim can be degrading to the Moed. Consequently, even if a certain activity might be permitted, consideration regarding a potential degradation of the Moed would be reason to forbid it.1
1 The sources were taken from the Minchat Yitzchak (6:52). In the responsa, the Minchat Yitzchak was asked regarding the construction of Shaarei Tzedek hospital during Chol HaMoed, and if prohibited, could building supplies be delivered then. These are only some of the sources the Minchat Yitzchak cited. The Minchat Yitzchak prohibited the construction (since it is maaseh uman and not needed for the Moed), but permitted the delivery of the supplies under specific conditions. Unfortunately, the room allocated to these articles is insufficient to present the full responsa satisfactorily and I strongly encourage readers to see the responsa in full.
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