Pesach: Working on Chol Hamoed: Sources, Status, Nature, and Rules

Nov 17, 2014

R. Joel Zeff and R. Eliezer Kwass

What is it?
“Chol Hamoed”, referring to the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, literally translates as the non-holy (“chol” is the opposite of kodesh) part of the festival (“moed” means appointed time). The expression itself seems like an oxymoron. It’s not Yom Tov, for it is chol, but it is still part of the festival, still moed. What is it, then?

The Halakhot
The the laws of Chol Hamoed are unique among the Torah’s work prohibitions. The default work prohibition includes the 39 forms of forbidden work. On Shabbat and Yom Kippur all 39 forms of forbidden work (the 39 melakhot) are prohibited. On the Yamim Tovim (the first and last days of Pesach, on Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, the first day of Sukkot and on Shemini Atzeret) the Torah permits work activities that are needed for food. On Chol Hamoed five types of work are permitted, although, once again, the starting point is the 39 prohibitions. However, after the exceptions, quite a lot ends up being permitted.

The five (permissible) exceptions (listed in the Mishneh Brura’s introduction to Chol Hamoed in Orach Chayim #530) are:
1. “Davar Ha’aveid” – work that will be lost if not done now. [example: If the produce of a field will be lost if not irrigated, that irrigation is permitted.] 2. “Tzorkhei Hamoed” – things needed for the holiday [example: If needed, a sukka can be totally rebuilt.] 3. “Bishvil poeil she’ein lo ma yokhal” – work created to enable a worker to make enough money to eat
4. “Tzorkhei rabim” – public needs [example: Fixing a broken city water main is permitted.] 5. “Maasei hediot” – simple acts [example: Flipping on a light switch, which involves no craftsmanship is permitted.]

Two Questions
All five of these categories are permitted during Chol Hamoed, while other work is prohibited. What emerges is a group of days on the holiday where work is partially permitted. Shabbat, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the other yomim tovim are considered holy days, days of “kedusha”. Their holiness, among other things, is expressed in the prohibition against work. What about Chol Hamoed – is it also considered a holy period? Another related question – the Torah explicitly prohibits work on Shabbat and the Yamim Tovim. What about Chol Hamoed – is work prohibited biblically or rabbinically?

The answer to both of these questions – whether there is kedusha on Chol Hamoed and whether the work prohibition is biblical or rabbinic – is related to another question, that the Talmud asks: what is the source for the prohibition against work on Chol Hamoed?

The Talmud Bavli (Chagiga 18a) collects a number of opinions for the source for the prohibition against work on Chol Hamoed:
1. “Keep the Holiday of Matzot seven days,” (Shemot 23) (Rabbi Yoshia);
2. If work is prohibited on the first and last days of the holiday, certainly (kal vachomer) work should be forbidden on Chol Hamoed. Chol Hamoed is both preceded and followed by days of holiness (Yom Tov). In contrast, the first and seventh days of Pesach and Sukkot are not both followed and preceded by days of holiness, yet work is still prohibited on them. Certainly on Chol Hamoed, sandwiched by Yom Tov, work should be prohibited (Rabbi Yonatan);
3. “No work (‘milekhet avoda’) should be done,” (Vayikra 23:) must refer to Chol Hamoed because it is immediately followed by the command to give the holiday sacrifice for seven consecutive days (Rabbi Yossi Haglili);
4. “These are the holidays of Hashem, [days] called holy . . .” must refer to a prohibition against work on Chol Hamoed. The first and seventh days of the holiday are explicitly called days of rest by the Torah, so this verse, by process of elimination, must refer to Chol Hamoed. (Rabbi Akiva);
5. “Six days you should eat matzot and the seventh is “Atzeret” to G-d.” (Devarim 16:) The Hebrew “Atzeret” is based on the root “a’-tz-r”, meaning to stop — to stop, refrain, from doing work. Based on the juxtaposition of the first and the second halves of the verse (the earlier days of the holiday and the last day) we derive, “Just as work is prohibited on the seventh day, so it is on the earlier days.” To the question, “How do we know that the Chol Hamoed prohibition is not identical to the Yom Tov prohibition?” the Gemara answers, “The Torah handed this over to the Sages to decide which types of work are prohibited on which days (“Hakatuv mesaro la’Chakhamim”).

The thrust of this whole passage is that the Chol Hamoed work prohibition is a biblical level obligation (mid’oraita). Each of the sources offered builds on a biblical verse. Even the last line, “The Torah handed this over to the Sages . . .” can mean that the status of the obligation is biblical but its contentis determined by the Sages.

On the other hand, Rabbi Abba bar Mamel in the Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 2:3) seems to view even the status of Chol Hamoed as rabbinic. He says, “If I had a group of Sages to join me, I would annul Chol Hamoed . . . . Why was Chol Hamoed given in the first place – was it not so that people would be able to eat and drink and toil in learning? Instead, they eat and drink and party!”

The Yerushalmi makes two assumptions:
1. The prohibition against work is rabbinic;
2. Its purpose is to give people time to focus on Torah during the Chag.

There is, then, a dispute between the Bavli and Yerushalmi about the status of the prohibition against work on Chol Hamoed – the Bavli assumes it is biblically prohibited and the Yerushalmi that it is rabbinic.

These are only two of the sources brought in the Rishonim’s discussion about whether work on Chol Hamoed is biblical or rabbinic. Two major camps on the issue exist throughout the period of the Rishonim and the dispute continues until the Tur (Rav Yaakov son of the Rosh) and the Beit Yosef (Rav Yosef Karo). The Tur in Orach Chayim #530 maintains Tosafot’s position that Chol Hamoed is rabbinic. He claims that the biblical sources quoted in the Bavli are “asmakhtot,” biblical hints to the rabbinic law. The Beit Yosef takes the second position, that Chol Hamoed is biblically prohibited. [The Ramban holds to a third, compromise, position, that only some aspects of the work prohibition are biblically prohibited.]

Kedusha on Chol Hamoed

The sources quoted in Chagiga and the Yerushalmi might also help us deal with the second question we asked earlier – whether Chol Hamoed is a day with kedusha. The Yerushalmi (rabbinic) approach implies that the period does not have kedusha but the Sages wanted to insure that people use Chol Hamoed for Torah study. The sources quoted in the Bavli might differ on this point.

The fourth source brought explicitly calls Chol Hamoed holy. The second and fifth sources compare Chol Hamoed to Yom Tov (either through kal vachomer or through hekeish), implying that Chol Hamoed is a mini Yom Tov. The default position for both is the prohibition against the 39 types of forbidden work, but whereas on Yom Tov only those things needed for food preparation are permitted, on Chol Hamoed there are five types of permitted work. In line with this approach the tractate of the Talmud dealing with Chol Hamoed is called “Moed Katan,” the small holiday.

According to the first and third sources, though – 1. “Keep the Holiday of Matzot seven days,” and 3. “No work (‘milekhet avoda’) should be done,” (followed by the seven days of sacrifices) – Chol Hamoed is in a unique position. It is still a day of Chol (non-kodesh) but with a prohibition against work. It could be that Chol Hamoed is a unique Torah category – sanctified chol, not a day that is kodesh but a raised up day of chol.

Viewing Chol Hamoed as a sanctified day of Chol (as opposed to a mini Yom Tov) might enable us to understand a Rashi on Pirkei Avot (3:11). Among Rav Elazar Hamodai’s list of things that cause one to lose his portion in the World to Come is “Hamevazeh et hamoadot” – one who disgraces the holidays. Rashi explains that this refers to one who “desecrates Chol Hamoed through doing work or treating it as a normal weekday with respect to eating and drinking. Because it is not as stringent as Yom Tov he does not take care to keep it.” Why does desecrating Chol Hamoed merit such a serious punishment? If Chol Hamoed is like Yom Tov it is understandable why disgracing the holidays is in the list (the first is desecrating holy things), but Rashi is difficult. The statement must relate to the whole holiday, for the difference between Chol Hamoed and Yom Tov is only one of degree. Perhaps Rashi limits the Mishna to Chol Hamoed because he takes the second position, that while Shabbat and Yom Tov are holy (and might be included in the first item in the list), Chol Hamoed is raised up “Chol”. Chol Hamoed exemplifies a core Jewish approach – sanctifying the chol, creating the bridge between the holy and the mundane. That might be why, according to Rashi, the strong words in the Mishna refer to Chol Hamoed.

Click below to share!