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Work on Chol HaMoed


At the end of Parashas Pinchas we read of the holidays – their status and sacrifices. This week we will provide an overview of the halachos pertaining to work on Chol HaMoed –What is the nature of the prohibition to work on these days – Torah or rabbinic? If the prohibition has the status of a Torah prohibited activity, how could the Sages — lacking the ability to permit a Torah prohibition — have permitted some jobs? How is a forbidden action defined? Can one turn on a light, send an email, or cook for the Shabbos after Yom Tov? Who is permitted to work, and who must use his vacation days for Chol HaMoed? People like to go on “Chol HaMoed trips” complete with various recreational activities – bowling, fishing, sports. Which are permitted and which are forbidden? Of this and more, in the coming article.

The Nature Of The Prohibition

The Gemara (Chagigah 18a) presents several sources for the prohibition to work on Chol HaMoed. The Gemara ends the discussion with the words: “Since the Torah does not specify which types of work are prohibited, the pasuk has therefore entrusted the matter to the Sages exclusively, to tell us on which day work is prohibited and on which day it is permitted, and similarly which labor is prohibited and which labor is permitted.”

The Rishonim are perplexed how to explain this Gemara – if the prohibition is a Torah prohibition, how can the Sages delineate what is permitted and what is forbidden?

The Tosefos (Chagigah 18a), Rambam (Yom tov, 7:10, Rosh (Moed Katan 1:1), and the Mordechai explain that the entire prohibition is rabbinic. On the other hand, some of the Rishonim (which will be detailed below) regard this prohibition as a Torah prohibition, and do not explain how the Sages have the power to permit or forbid certain actions.

According to the Biur Halacha the following Rishonim opine that working on Chol HaMoed is a Torah prohibition: the Sheilitot, Rif, Rashi, Rashbam, Eshkol, Haritz Giat, Shibolei Haleket, the Teachers of the Yereim, Ramban, Rashba, Ritva, and Tosafos. (Several Achronim disagree with the Biur Halacha, claiming that there is no conclusive proof of this approach from the above-mentioned sources.)

The Beis Yosef notes both opinions and then records (what seems to be) his own opinion: working on Chol HaMoed is a Torah prohibition. This was, seemingly, his halachic ruling as understood by the Be’er Hagola (Orech Chaim 530), and Shulchan Gavoah (Orech Chaim 539). The Magen Avraham (530:1), Rabbi Akiva Eiger (glosses, Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 530), Kad Hakemach (footnote 2), and Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha 530) prove from specific leniencies mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch that he sees the prohibition of working on Chol HaMoed as rabbinic in nature. The Biur Halacha ends, though, that in his opinion, had the Shulchan Aruch seen all the sources that the Torah prohibits working on Chol HaMoed, it is possible he would have changed his mind and ruled stringently. (This ruling follows the Beis Yosef’s general halachic rationale that appears in his introduction to the Tur: we cannot follow our own understanding and choose between the great halachic luminaries. Therefore, ruling always follows the majority opinion of the three pillars of halachic ruling: the Rif, Rambam, and Rosh. Since the Rambam and Rosh rule it is rabbinic, the Beis Yosef follows their ruling.)

The Magen Avraham and Be’er Hagola understand that the Rama sees working on Chol HaMoed as a Torah prohibition (Orech Chayim 530:1). The Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha 530) rules accordingly (following the majority of the Rishonim) and so does the Gra (ibid).

Therefore, practically, where in doubt, followers of the Ashkenazi customs should be more stringent because the Ashkenazic halachic authorities see working on Chol HaMoed as a Torah prohibition, while those who follow the customs the Eidot Hamitzrach can be more lenient on the matter.

The Pri Megadim (Orech Chaim 530:1) writes that this dispute has halachic ramification regarding disqualification of a witness – one who worked on Chol HaMoed could either be fully disqualified as one who transgressed a Torah prohibition, while the other opinions would see him as only disqualified on rabbinic grounds since he transgressed a rabbinic prohibition. According to the Rama, one who worked on Chol HaMoed because he wants the money is disqualified to serve as a witness (Choshen Mishpat 34:3).

Permitted Work

The Tur (Orech Chaim 530) mentions five classifications of permitted activities on Chol HaMoed. The 39 creative labor categories forbidden on Shabbos are also forbidden on Yom tov, excluding what is necessary for food preparation. These categories are also forbidden on Chol HaMoed, unless done for at least one of the five following reasons:

  1. Davar ha’aveid– work done to avoid a loss.
  2. Tzorchei hamoed – work needed for the holiday even if not necessarily related to food preparation.
  3. Poel she’ein lo ma yochal – a worker who will not have enough food to eat during Chol HaMoed is permitted to do work which will earn him money for food.
  4. Tzorchei rabim – public needs.
  5. Ma’asei hediot – simple acts that can be performed by a non-skilled worker.

In discussion with my rebbe and mentor Rabbi Luxemburg, he clarified that these categories are in place to ensure the days remain, as the Torah describes them “Mikraei Kodesh” – holy days. One should behave on these days just as he would on a personal holiday – e.g. on his daughter’s wedding day. Just as he would not spend the day on unrelated matters, while if he had something urgent, e.g. a burst water pipe – he would take care of it even if it required him to remove his wedding finery and take a wrench, so too – work done to prevent loss does not violate the festive the nature of the day. Similarly a simple act, a worker who is working because he is lacking food to eat that day, etc. is not violating the holiness of the holiday.

In this article we will try to highlight the different aspects of working on Chol HaMoed. As with every halachic issue, here too, there are many details involved and for practical ruling on the matter one should consult with a qualified halachic authority.

Simple Work

The definition of forbidden work on Chol HaMoed is (according to most authorities) an action included in the 39 categories of labor forbidden on Shabbos, which is not done for at least 1 of the 5 above-mentioned leniencies. This opinion appears in the Mishna Brura numerous times.

The Chazon Ish is of the opinion (Moed, 135) that every action that demands strenuous work — which a lazy person would not do — is forbidden, whether prohibited on Shabbos by a Torah or rabbinic prohibition. Work, however, that involves toil but is not defined as labor and would be done by a lazy person, is permitted even if it is a Torah prohibition on Shabbos and Tom Tov. Therefore, on Chol HaMoed one is permitted to move a small amount of merchandise into public areas, cut fabric to size, or flick on a light switch. He notes that this approach does not follow the Mishna Brura’s opinion (Biur Halacha 539:5).

Therefore, using an electric machine – e.g. sending an email – is forbidden according to the Mishna Brura unless one of the 5 leniencies is in place, while according to the Chazon Ish there is no prohibition involved.

Preventing Loss

One can do work to prevent a financial loss. If this necessitates hiring help for the job, one should preferably find a non-Jewish worker, or a Jewish worker who needs the money in order to buy food for the holiday, or — perhaps one who would do the job for free. If this is not possible, a Jewish worker can be hired for the job although the financial loss he is preventing is not his own, but another person’s (Orech Chaim 537:1; 542:1 and in the Mishna Brura.)

When working under this leniency, the job should be done with the least amount of effort possible. However, it need not be done by a non-skilled worker or in an abnormal manner (537;1) unless the difference is minimal, in which case it should be done by a non-skilled laborer and in an unusual fashion (Mishna Brura 540:2; Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 67:11).

The definition of “preventing a monetary loss” is very flexible and may include many things. Here we will mention a few, and as always, in practical cases one should consult with a competent halachic authority.

Working on Chol HaMoed

One who would be fired for refusing to work on Chol HaMoed is permitted to work on Chol HaMoed, even if the job itself prevents no loss for his boss. However, one who has vacation days on his contract must utilize these days for Chol HaMoed. One may not volunteer to work overtime on Chol HaMoed. A Jewish boss may not employ a worker on Chol HaMoed and threaten to fire him so as to categorize his work as preventing a loss (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso, 67:11).

The poskim are split in their ruling regarding the owner of a large company with many employees who would be forced to pay a lot to his workers if he would close his factory on Chol HaMoed (Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 67:11). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that keeping the factory running is permitted, while Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach does not see this as an action to prevent financial loss but rather suggests the owner calculate the salaries with Chol HaMoed included in the contract (i.e. pay less because workers will work less days) and keep his plant closed on Chol HaMoed.

Where the workers are also Torah observant Jews who would prefer to use their vacation days for Chol HaMoed, there is no allowance for keeping the plant open on Chol HaMoed.

Preventing Bounced Checks

The Mishna Brura permits working on Chol HaMoed in private in order to pay up a debt that, if not paid, would cause serious financial loss. Therefore, one who will not have coverage for his checks if he does not work on Chol HaMoed or have money to cover his electric or water bill and will suffer a great loss as a result (the water or electric company will cut off his water or electricity; he will be slapped with fines and tariffs etc.) is permitted to work on Chol HaMoed in private.

Opening a Store

One may open a store that sells foods and other Yom Tov necessities. However, clients should not do their monthly shopping on Chol HaMoed. Stores that sell unnecessary items should generally be kept closed. If keeping one’s store closed will cause a significant loss one should consult a halachic authority.

Holiday Needs

One may engage in any activity that is necessary for his holiday needs, even if it could have been done before the holiday. Therefore, grinding wheat for bread may be left for the holiday. However, on Chol HaMoed one may not grind more wheat than is necessary for his holiday meals, and in addition – he may not do so if he already has ground wheat at home. If, however, he wants something better than what he already has – e.g. he already has bread in the freezer, but he wants freshly baked bread for the Chol HaMoed meal, or bread of a different kind of flour, it is permitted. One is permitted to grind a generous amount so he has a sufficient supply of flour (counting and measuring is unnecessary) but he should not do so with intention of having extra for after the holiday (Orech Chaim 534:1).

Yom Tov Sheini Needs

Cooking for the last day of Yom Tov is permitted on Chol HaMoed (Mishna Brura 539:39). Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach asks how it could be permitted if we rule that activities on Chol HaMoed are a Torah prohibition while the second days of Yom Tov are rabbinic holidays. He answers that since the Sages instituted the days as full-fledged holidays and cancelled Torah commandments (e.g. tefillin) as well as instituting reciting Kiddush (including mention of Hashem’s Name, which when done unwarranted is a Torah prohibition), they had the power to permit this too.

Halachic authorities are divided, however, with regard to an Eretz Yisroel resident cooking the meals for the second days of Yom tov for people who come from, or are in chutz la’aretz. According to Rav Nissim Karelitz (Chut Shani Choshen Mishpat 243) it is forbidden. According to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo I 19:2) it is permitted because a resident of Eretz Yisroel is obligated to care for his friend from chutz la’aretz’s Yom Tov pleasures. Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso (66:27) explains that this leniency is only applicable when the guest has difficulty or cannot cook for himself, and in general it is preferable for the ben chutz la’aretz to cook for himself.

Isru Chag needs

When Shabbos falls on the day after the last day of Yom Tov, preparing for Shabbos is permitted on Chol HaMoed despite having no Eiruv Tavshilin in place. Contemporary poskim are disputed on the scope of this leniency. According to Rav Eliyashiv (Sefer Hazikaron Mevakshei Torah, Choshen Mishpat p. 746) one is permitted to prepare food with no restrictions. However, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz (Chut Hashani p. 243) writes that one should taste all the food he prepares on Chol HaMoed. Preparing large amounts is permitted because the food is intended for a mitzva such as meals for Shabbos or a Bris Mila.

Recreational Activities

Many families see the days of Chol HaMoed as opportune times for family activities. Activities may include various forms of work which is unnecessary for the holiday — fishing, fruit picking, carpentry, pottery, etc. When these activities are not done out of need for the fish, fruit or pottery, Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchaso (67:106) notes that the poskim are disputed on the matter: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permits it, stipulating that one should preferably eat from the fruit or fish on the holiday. The Be’er Moshe forbids it and so do Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Wosner (Chol HaMoed Kehilchaso, p. 244).

Laundry and Haircuts

An important sidenote: the prohibition to take a haircut or do laundry on Chol HaMoed are unrelated to the prohibition discussed here. Rather, the prohibition to take a haircut or do laundry is in place in order to ensure people enter to the holiday neat and clean. Therefore, the rules regarding haircutting and laundry are different and require a separate article.


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