Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Working on Chol Hamoed

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Perhaps the least understood aspect of the Torah-mandated holidays is their Chol Hamoed component. Chol Hamoed, translated as “the secular [days] of the festival,” refers to the intermediate days between the first and last day(s) of the holiday. It is interesting to note that although there are three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), Shavuot does not possess a Chol Hamoed component of its own.

Contrary to popular belief, work is actually forbidden on Chol Hamoed,[1] although not in all forms, for as we will see below, the regulations regarding work on Chol Hamoed are unlike those of Shabbat and festivals. Although strictly speaking, work is indeed forbidden on Chol Hamoed, there are however five specific circumstances in which it is permitted.[2] These five circumstances are:

1. Davar ha’aved

2. Tzarchei hamoed

3. Bishvil poel she’ein lo ma l’echol

4. Tzarchei rabim

5. Ma’asei hedyot

Davar ha’aved refers to work needed in order to avert a financial loss. This clause is often cited as a dispensation that allows individuals to work at their jobs as normal, if they would be fired or otherwise lose much-needed income by missing eight days of work.

Tzarchei hamoed refers to work needed for the sake of the festival. For example, shopping for holiday clothes or cooking for any and all holiday meals would be permitted under this category. It would be forbidden, however, to bake a cake on Chol Hamoed with the intention of saving it for after the holiday.

Bishvil poel she’ein lo ma l’echol refers to work needed for sheer survival. Although somewhat related to our first category, it is a direct dispensation for anyone to work in their normal manner in order to provide for the bare necessities of life rather than having to beg for charity.

Tzarchei rabim refers to essential services needed for the public welfare. This includes all forms of communal work, from garbage collection to the distribution of charity.

Ma’asei hedyot refers to simple, unskilled labors. It is this last category that deceptively portrays Chol Hamoed as being just an ordinary day. Yes, all menial and simple activities are permissible throughout Chol Hamoed. While this category would permit turning on a light, basic writing,[3] and driving a car among many of our other routine activities, it does however exclude such skilled labors as an artist taking his palette, a scribe writing a Torah, an astronaut piloting a rocket ship, and all other activities in which specialized skill or expertise is involved.

As can be seen, while Chol Hamoed does provide a welcome and relaxed flavor to our holiday observance, it is not simply an ordinary day. The Mishna[4] teaches us that among those who lose their share in the World to Come are those who treat Chol Hamoed disrespectfully, as any other weekday.[5]

One would be well advised to bear in mind that the days of Chol Hamoed are holy in all respects. It reminds us of a fundamental idea in Judaism, namely, that everything we do, regardless of how mundane it may seem, can be used to create a link that binds the holy and the mundane as one in the service of God.


[1] Chagiga 18a.
[2] OC 530.
[3] Rema, OC 545:1; Mishna Berura 5:18, 35. Some are careful to avoid any writing at all on Chol Hamoed out of fear that writing on its own may be a forbidden melacha regardless of whether it is professional writing or otherwise.
[4] Avot 3:11.
[5] Rashi, Avot 3:11.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More