The days sandwiched between the beginning and ending days of the holidays of Passover and Sukkot are called Chol Hamoed. Commonly referred to as the “intermediate days,” the words “Chol Hamoed” literally mean “the profane of the appointed time (a.k.a. the festival).”

This somewhat oxymoronic name seems quite fitting for days when, unlike the holidays themselves, “some labors are prohibited and some are permitted.”1

However, as the Talmud itself attests, it can be a bit challenging to categorize which types of work are prohibited and which are permitted during these days.2

To understand why that is, we need to understand the source and reason for work being prohibited on Chol Hamoed.

Who Says We May Not Work on Chol Hamoed?

The Babylonian Talmud lists a number of sources in the Torah where it is strongly implied that work is prohibited on Chol Hamoed.3

The Talmud concludes:

It is taught in another baraita: The verse states: “Six days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly for the Lord your God; on it, you shall do no work.”4 If so, just as the seventh day of the Festival is precluded from the performance of labor, so are the six intermediate Festival days precluded, [since the word “and” in the phrase “and on the seventh day” connects it to the previous days].If so, perhaps: Just as the seventh day is precluded from the performance of all labor, so too the six intermediate days are precluded from the performance of all labor, even those whose performance prevents irretrievable loss.

It states, “And on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly [lit. atzeret] for the L‑rd your G‑d; on it, you shall do no work.”5 (The word atzeret is based on the root word a-tz-r, which means to “stop.”)This indicates that the seventh day alone is precluded from the performance of all labor, but the other six days are not precluded from the performance of all labor [but only from certain forms of work. Since the Bible does not specify which types of work are prohibited], the verse has therefore entrusted the matter to the sages exclusively, to tell you on which day work is prohibited and on which day it is permitted, and similarly which labor is prohibited and which labor is permitted.

Some commentaries, such as Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), explain that although work on Chol Hamoed is indeed biblically prohibited, the Torah purposely left it to the sages to determine which type of work is prohibited.6

Others, like Tosafot, explain that, in truth, work is only prohibited on a rabbinic level (as implied by the Jerusalem Talmud7). The sources cited in the Talmud are what is called an asmachta (sometimes translated as hint). In this case, the Torah uses an asmachta to strongly imply that it does not want us to do work on Chol Hamoed, and it may be a violation of the “spirit of the holiday.” Nevertheless, the Torah left it to the sages to create the prohibition together with its actual parameters.8

Why Is Work Prohibited on Chol Hamoed?

In the Jerusalem Talmud, one of the sages expresses the sentiment that work is prohibited on Chol Hamoed so that people have time to dedicate to learning Torah while celebrating with food and drink.9

According to Maimonides,10 it is forbidden to perform labor during Chol Hamoed so that these days will not be regarded as ordinary weekdays that are not endowed with holiness at all. Although Chol Hamoed is not referred to as a Sabbath (as the holidays are), it is still referred to as "a holy convocation" and it was a time when the chagigah offering was brought in the Holy Temple.

Maimonides continues to say that since the intent of the prohibition is that the day not be regarded as an ordinary weekday with regard to all matters, only some types of labor are forbidden while others are permitted.

Others explain that the primary principle behind the laws of Chol HaMoed is that one should enjoy the holiday. Thus, activities that further this purpose are permitted, while those that hinder this goal, especially ones that involve excessive effort, are forbidden.11

Which Work Is Forbidden?

The broad rule is that all work prohibited on a holiday (with the exception of things like carrying items not needed for that day, moving muktzehitems, and lighting a fire) is also prohibited on Chol Hamoed. However, there are five general categories of work that are permitted on Chol Hamoed.12

The five general categories of permitted work are:

a) Tzorchei hamoed—things needed for the holiday (e.g., you can build a sukkah on Chol Hamoed)

b) Davar ha’avud—work that if not done now will result in financial loss (e.g., if employees will lose their job if they don’t work on Chol Hamoed, they may do so [otherwise, they may worry about their loss, which will in turn ruin their ability to be joyful])13

c) Poel she’ein lo mah yochal–laborers who do not have sufficient food may work in order to earn enough to make it through the holiday

d) Tzorchei rabim—public needs

e) Ma’asei hediot—simple, amateurish work (for example, it’s permitted to fix [in an unskilled fashion] a musical instrument)

Ultimately, although quite a bit is permitted, there are still many things that one should be careful about doing on Chol Hamoed. Additionally, one shouldn’t do strenuous activities that involve excessive exertion.14 Thus, for example, one shouldn’t do business, write, sew, do laundry or move heavy furniture (unless one of the above exceptions apply).

Celebrating Joyfully

There is a biblical mitzvah to rejoice on Chol Hamoed, just as we are commanded to rejoice on the holidays themselves.

Practically, this means that although there is no absolute obligation to do so, one should endeavor to wash and have a meal with bread (hamotzi),as well as drink a revi’it of wine (approx. 3 oz.) each day. It is also customary to wear nicer clothing, perhaps even holiday finery,15 during Chol Hamoed.

Transforming the Mundane

Although we translated “Chol Hamoed” as “the profane (or mundane) of the festival,” the Chassidic masters explain that on a deeper level, it is called Chol Hamoed because the divine service of the day is to transform the mundane (chol) into a festival (moed).16

Indeed, as we mentioned earlier, the sages of the Talmud explain that the intention for celebrating Chol Hamoed and prohibiting certain types of work is that we increase in our Torah study and connection to G‑d.

For more on the laws and do’s and don'ts of Chol Hamoed, see Chol Hamoed - The “Intermediate” Festival Days.