The Torah commands us to rejoice on the holidays. Regarding the holiday of Shavuot the Torah says, "And you shall rejoice before G‑d, your G‑d—you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, the Levite who is within your cities, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow who are among you..."1

Similarly, concerning the holiday of Sukkot the Torah states: "And you shall rejoice in your festival—you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow who are within your cities… and you will only be happy."2

On these days one should do things that he feels will bring him joyThe Ba'al HaTurim explains3 that joy is not mentioned regarding the holiday of Passover because at that time of year the grain has not yet been harvested, and people are still concerned about how much produce will be reaped. Because Shavuot is after the harvest, joy is mentioned once, and regarding Sukkot, which is after the gathering of the grain, the Torah mentions joy twice.

Nevertheless, our Sages, of blessed memory, understood that the command to be joyous is extended to all three festivals—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot (including Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot).4

The Chinuch explains5 that by nature people need joyous occasions in their lives. In His kindness, G‑d established holidays when we can experience joy in a holy context and express thanksgiving for the miracles G‑d has performed for us.

Maimonides adds that this joy, when expressed within the context of a community, is also beneficial in strengthening the love between fellow Jews.6

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi points out7 that although Shabbat is considered holier than holidays, there is no mitzvah to be joyous on Shabbat as there is on holidays. The reason is that on holidays we experience the intense spiritual revelations of G‑d's holy attributes. When we experience such a revelation, we rejoice. On Shabbat, however, the revelation that the world receives is so intense that we cannot properly internalize and experience it as joy.8

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, this mitzvah of joy was fulfilled by eating the meat of the sacrifices.9 Jews had the option of eating the meat of the chagigah (the festival sacrifice), or from sacrifices brought specifically for the purpose of rejoicing (shalmei simchah), or meat of other sacrifices.10 Since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the mitzvah is fulfilled by rejoicing with one's family. A man should drink at least one revi'it (approximately 3 ozs.) of wine each day of these holidays. A husband should purchase clothing and jewelry for his wife to bring her joy, and children should be gladdened by being given treats.11

In addition, since the Biblical command involved the consumption of sacrificial meat, the Sages instituted a (non-obligatory) mitzvah to consume meat on the holidays.12 Most authorities13 understand this to mean beef, not poultry, since the sacrificial meat could not be poultry. Some, however, are of the opinion that poultry is sufficient for this mitzvah.14

These mitzvot are to be understood as methods "recommended" by the Sages in order to achieve joy. In a broader sense, on these days one should do things that he feels will bring him joy.15

The Details

One should not leave his family for the holidaySince the main purpose of drinking wine is in the joy that it brings, drinking grape juice is not sufficient for this mitzvah. On the other hand, drinking other alcoholic beverages is considered to be equivalent to drinking wine, according to many halachic opinions.16

It is best to have the abovementioned amount of wine in addition to the Kiddush or Havdalah wine,17 although by the strict letter of the law one can fulfill his obligation with that wine as well.18

One who does not like meat or wine should enjoy the holidays with other foods and drinks that he finds to be tasty.19

In order to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing with one's family, one should not leave his family for the holiday.20

Although it is not obligatory today, it is nevertheless praiseworthy to visit one's rav (primary Torah teacher) on every holiday.21 If a man must leave his family in order to fulfill this ideal, it is especially recommended that he purchase new garments and/or jewelry for his wife in order to bring her joy.22

Honoring and Having Pleasure on the Holidays

The mitzvah of simchah (joy) of the holidays applies to the entire holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, including Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days). It does not, however, apply to Rosh Hashanah.

On the other hand, the mitzvot of kavod and oneg (honoring and having pleasure on the holiday) apply to all of the above holidays – excluding Chol Hamoed – as well as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (with the exclusion of the meals which obviously do not apply to Yom Kippur). This is derived from the words "mikra kodesh" (a day of holy assembly) which appears in the Torah concerning each one of the abovementioned holidays.23

The mitzvot of honoring and having pleasure on the holiday24 include25:

  1. Cutting one's hair and nails before the holiday.
  2. Bathing in hot water and washing one's hair in honor of the holiday.
  3. Baking fresh bread in honor of the holiday.
  4. The clothes that one wears on holidays should be even nicer than the ones that he wears on ShabbatEating two festive meals, which include bread, one at night and one during the day. (It is not necessary to eat a third meal on a holiday that does not coincide with Shabbat.)
    a. These meals should include lechem mishneh (two complete loaves of bread), just like the Shabbat meals.
    b. These meals should be (somewhat) lavish. One should not be frugal when purchasing food for these meals. The Talmud says26 that a person's income for the entire year is determined on Rosh Hashanah, but whatever one spends for the Shabbat and holiday meals is not included in that amount (i.e., whatever one spends will not be detracted from the total amount of money he is to receive in that year).
    c. In fact, these meals should be nicer that the meals of Shabbat, because the Torah does not require joy on Shabbat.27
  5. Refraining from eating a meal during the three hours immediately preceding the beginning of the holiday in order to have an appetite for the festive meal. A snack (i.e., fruits or vegetables or grain foods less than the size of an egg) may be consumed.
    The same applies on the afternoon of the first day of a holiday which precedes the night meal of the second day. One should not begin a proper meal during the last three hours of that afternoon.28
    When the first day of a holiday coincides with Shabbat, one should have only a small third meal in order to comply with the above rule.29 Alternatively, one may divide one's morning meal into two meals.30
  6. The clothes that one wears on holidays should be even nicer than the ones that he wears on Shabbat.31

On Chol Hamoed

On Chol Hamoed, men should drink wine as mentioned above. In addition, men and women should eat meat.32 It is proper, although not obligatory, to eat bread at least once a day.

One should wear nicer clothes on Chol Hamoed than he does during an ordinary weekday. The Maharil would wear Shabbat clothes on Chol Hamoed.33 Nevertheless, if one needs to work on Chol Hamoed (this should be checked with a rabbi, as preferably one should not go to work on Chol Hamoed), he does not have to wear Shabbat clothes, but should still wear clean, respectable clothing.34

One should cover his tables with a tablecloth on Chol Hamoed just as one does on Shabbat and holidays.35