Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (cited by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Shiurim Lezecher Abba Mari Z”l 1:119) characterizes Chol Hamoed as a day that is, “endowed with the same Kedushat Hayom as Yom Tov; the only difference is that we are permitted to engage in Melacha on Yom Tov.” The Ritva (Moed Katan 13a s.v. Ela Amar Rav Ashi) asserts that the objective of the Chol Hamoed work restrictions is to remove impediments to proper Simchat Yom Tov. On the other hand, Halacha permits certain labor activities on Chol Hamoed to facilitate Simchat Yom Tov.
Accordingly, the nature of the Chol Hamoed restrictions fundamentally differs from the prohibition to work on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The prohibition to work on Shabbat and Yom Tov is not utilitarian in nature. Thus, the Halacha forbids Melacha on Shabbat and Yom Tov in all circumstances except for danger to life. The prohibition to perform certain work on Chol Hamoed, on the other hand, is utilitarian in nature. Its purpose is to create an atmosphere of Simchat Yom Tov. Work is permitted if it serves to enhance Simchat Yom Tov. We emphasize that this assertion is not contingent on the dispute among the Rishonim whether it is biblically or rabbinically forbidden to perform certain actions on Chol Hamoed (for a review of this debate see Biur Halacha 630 s.v. Umutar). The Ritva’s assertion appears to be universally accepted.
Masechet Moed Katan presents a blueprint of how to create a joyous Chol Hamoed. However, many of the specific activities that the Masechta evaluates are archaic. We must discover the underlying principles of Masechet Moed Katan to apply these principles to the contemporary context. In this essay, we will present a rudimentary sketch of the major principles regarding permitted and forbidden categories of work on Chol Hamoed. Then we will present a number of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s rulings that apply the traditional principles to the modern setting. We will quote extensively from Rav Moshe’s rulings regarding Chol Hamoed that are printed in Rabbi Dovid Zucker and Rabbi Moshe Francis’ book Chol Hamoed (pages 33-38 of the Hebrew section).
The Basic Principles – Permitted Activities
The five basic rules of permitted labor on Chol Hamoed are as follows. Halacha permits one to engage in work in order to avoid a loss (Davar Haaveid) if it does not involve excessive effort (Tircha Yeteira). The aforementioned Ritva explains that if work would be forbidden in this circumstance one would worry about the loss and be unable to enjoy the Yom Tov. One may perform work for Chol Hamoed or Yom Tov needs (Tzorchei Hamoed). One may fix certain broken items in a makeshift manner (Maaseh Hedyot). One may employ a poor worker who does not have sufficient funds to purchase his Yom Tov needs. One may engage in labor that is necessary for the community. For example, both Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Mordechai Willig ruled that it was permissible for me to visit a community to design its Eruv on Chol Hamoed.
The Basic Principles – Forbidden Activities
The basic five categories of forbidden labor on Chol Hamoed are as follows. Generally, one may not engage in work that involves considerable effort if no concern for monetary loss exists. One may not perform such work that is not needed for Yom Tov or Chol Hamoed.
One may not fix a broken item in a professional manner (Maaseh Uman). One may not perform labor that one deliberately delegated for Chol Hamoed (Keevein Melachto Lamoed). Finally, one may not perform work that involves excessive effort even if one will incur a loss if he does not perform this labor on Chol Hamoed.
Using Vacation Days on Chol Hamoed
Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that it is preferable to forego one’s summer vacation and use his vacation days to avoid the need to work on Chol Hamoed. However, if one needs to take his vacation during the summer, he is permitted to do so. Rav Moshe believes that this does not constitute intentional delegation of work for Chol Hamoed. Rav Moshe considers the loss of a restful summer vacation for one who feels he needs it for his sense of well-being, to constitute a legitimate Davar Haaveid that suffices to permits one to work on Chol Hamoed.
Some Poskim, however, disagree with Rav Moshe and require one to forego his summer vacation in order to avoid working on Chol Hamoed (see Chol Hamoed p.62). It seems that Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef 5:512) rejects Rav Moshe’s leniency. Rabbis Zucker and Francis note (ibid.), though, that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzsky agrees with Rav Moshe’s ruling. However, Rav Yaakov rules, “If, when Chol Hamoed arrives, a worker still has unused vacation time or can take an unpaid leave without losing his job, he must do so since a Davar Haaved is not involved” (ibid). One might add that even if one must work on Chol Hamoed he should try to limit the hours he works. This is especially true if he works at a very demanding job where he must often work until the late hours of the night.
Rav Moshe permits recreational fishing and music lessons on Chol Hamoed. Recreational activities are entirely in keeping with the spirit of Chol Hamoed. The Jerusalem Talmud (Moed Katan chapter 2, cited in Tosafot Chagigah 18a s.v. Cholo Shel Moed) states that Chol Hamoed is time for recreation and Torah study. The Jerusalem Talmud, though, castigates those who spend all of Chol Hamoed involved in recreational activities and do not devote considerable time to Torah study.
Contemporary examples of Davar Haaved include selling stocks because he fears that the stock will soon lose value, writing a check for Tzedaka (the donor may not be willing or able to make the donation after Yom Tov), and writing a receipt for a donation if the donor requests one (the donor might not otherwise make the donation). Rav Moshe permits one to purchase an item on sale if the sale is not a regular event. Rav Moshe even permits one to buy even a non-essential item on sale that he would not have purchased had the store not conducted a sale.
Examples of permitted activities Letzorech Hamoed include driving a car (even if one could have reached his destination by foot) and shining one’s shoes. Rav Moshe rules that taking pictures with a camera, writing with a typewriter, and making a tape recording are permitted activities for Chol Hamoed. Based on these rulings, it is possible to surmise that Rav Moshe would have also permitted typing and storing items on a computer and using a camcorder (these activities seem to present the identical Halachic issues as recording on a tape recorder). Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 8:48) permits both writing on a typewriter and a word processor on Chol Hamoed. See, however, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach cited in Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata 66: note 209 who surprisingly forbids typing and storing information on a computer because it is a form of “building.” For a critique of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s ruling, see Rav Yehudah Henkin Teshuvot Bnei Banim 3:45 and Techumin 19:351 note 2. Some adopt the compromise view that one may use a word processor but not print the material (see Rav Henkin and Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata).
Rav Moshe forbids painting one’s house on Chol Hamoed even if one wishes to beautify his residence for the holiday. This is a modern example of an activity that involves excessive effort that should not be done even Letzorech Hamoed. Similarly, Rav Moshe forbids scheduling one’s yearly medical exam for Chol Hamoed. Rav Moshe instructs a Yeshiva student to delay his return to his Yeshiva after Yom Tov for one day, in order to avoid the need to shop on Chol Hamoed. Chol Hamoed is not the time to take advantage of the free time and accomplish tasks that will save him time after Yom Tov. We must maximize the opportunity of Chol Hamoed for spiritual and recreational pursuits.
Rav Moshe forbids sending clothes to be dry cleaned even if one needs the clothes for the Moed. He believes that this is an activity of Maaseh Uman that is forbidden on Chol Hamoed even Letzorech Hamoed. However, Rav Moshe permits hiring a professional to fix one’s air conditioning system if the weather is exceptionally hot. It is interesting that twentieth century Halachic authorities view air conditioning as a legitimate need when it is exceptionally hot. Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 3:23-24 and Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata 13:34 permit asking a non-Jew to turn on an air conditioner on Shabbat if it is an exceptionally hot day. These Poskim do not dismiss the need for air conditioning by saying that we tolerated living without air conditioning in the “old days,” so we should tolerate extreme heat today as well. This seems to validate Rav Yehuda Henkin’s statement (Teshuvot Bnei Banim 3:2) that one cannot necessarily compare people’s needs from one place to another and from one generation to another.
Rav Moshe forbids hammering a nail into the wall during Chol Hamoed to hang a picture to beautify one’s home unless there is a pressing need to do so. Even though it involves minimal effort, one should refrain from this activity if it is not necessary for the Moed. Mere beautification of one’s dwelling does not constitute a “Moed need” to justify engaging in home improvements on Chol Hamoed. Similarly, Rav Moshe forbids repairing a Megillat Shir Hashirim on Chol Hamoed Pesach since the Megillah is acceptable for the Ashkenazic practice to read Shir Hashirim on Pesach if the scroll has most of its letters written properly. This ruling underscores the need the need to avoid any unnecessary labor on Chol Hamoed even if is done for spiritual purposes.
The study of the Mishnayot of Masechet Moed Katan offers one a glimpse of Chazal’s vision of appropriate observance of Chol Hamoed. The study of contemporary Halachic works such as Rabbis Zucker and Francis’ Chol Hamoed and Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah chapters 66-68 teaches us how the great Halachic masters of the twentieth century applied that vision to the contemporary reality.