Understanding Chol Ha’moed

Moed Katan | Yisrael Bankier | 15 years ago

Moed Katan begins by discussing which activities are permitted to be engaged in during Chol Ha’moed – the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot. When first learning this masechet it can be difficult to follow the reasoning of why various activities are prohibited and others permitted. In general it is forbidden to work during Chol Ha’moed. The Mishnah Berurah (530:1) lists five categories of melachot that are permitted during Chol Ha’moed:

  1. A matter that will result in irretrievable loss if it is delayed till after the festival.

  2. An activity that is required for the festival itself.

  3. Activities undertaken by a labourer that has no funds from which to purchase food.

  4. A matter of public need.

  5. Non-professional labour.

While the above list may provide a conceptual framework through which we may better understand the coming Mishnayot perhaps more fundamental questions need be asked. Why does Chol Ha’moed have this unique status of prohibiting a portion of melachot? And what is the source and nature of this prohibition?

The Gemara (Chagigah18a) lists a number of Beraitot that bring various biblical sources for the prohibition against working during Chol Ha’moed. In fact one of these sources includes Chol Ha’moed alongside the festivals under the banner of “mikra’ei kodesh”. If Chol Ha’moed is compared to the festivals, why do we not prohibit all melacha?

One beraitah explains:

“For six [more] days you shall eat matzah and on the seventh day [it] shall be an atzeret (a cessation) to Hashem, you may not do any work” (Devarim 16:8) - just as on the seventh day it is an atzeret so too during the six days [of Chol Ha’moed]. If so, then just like on the seventh all melacha is forbidden, so too during the six days? [No,] the verse specifically mentions “on the seventh day.” Rather, [since not all melacha was forbidden] the Torah gave the authority to the Chachamim to teach… which melacha is forbidden and which melacha is permitted.

Consequently Chol Ha’moed appears to be biblically mandated as a “quasi-“holiday period with a partial ban on melacha. The authority over the details of this ban was handed over to the Chachamim. This is indeed the opinion of a number of Rishonim that the prohibition against work during Chol Ha’moed is biblical (see Rashi, Rashbam Makkot 23).

The Tosfot (Chagigah 18a) argues however that the prohibition against work is rabbinic and the p’sukim are brought as asmachtot - a support but not a proof. Amongst other arguments they quote the following Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 2:3) as a proof: “The only reason why melacha was prohibited during Chol Ha’moed was so that people would be able to eat, drink and be occupied in learning Torah.”

The Rambam (Yom Tov 7:1) similarly rules that the prohibition is rabbinic:

Even though Chol Ha’moed is not referred to as Shabbaton, since it is called “mikra’ei kodesh” and since it is the period during which the festive offering is brought in the Beit Ha’Mikdash, it is forbidden to perform melacha so that it should not be considered a regular weekday devoid of sanctity.

One should note that there is however a third, intermediate opinion. The Ramban (and Rashba) rules that the prohibition against some melacha is indeed biblical. There were however additional activities that were prohibited rabbinically. (See the Bach for more detail.)

The elevated status of Chol Ha’moed is expressed in more than just the prohibition of work. The Orach HaShulchan (430:4) writes that there is an obligation give honour to Chol Ha’moed wearing clothes that are nicer than the regular weekday clothing and with good food and drink (ideally meals with bread).

From all this we find that Chol Ha’moed is not a regular weekday. But as a final note, simply taking a holiday, while perhaps appearing to satisfy the halachic requirement, would be, to say the least, unsatisfactory. In reference to the above quoted Yerushalmi, the Kol Bo (Mishnah Berurah 430:2) writes:

“It appears from this that there is a greater prohibition in joking-about than working, for Hashem’s intentions in giving us the festivals was in order for us to cleave in awe and love and to delve into his Torah.”

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