Image: On Chol HaMoed Pesach, many Israeli families visit the beach in Tel Aviv. (Some rights reserved, via wikimedia.)
Two Jewish holidays run for a week, or eight days, depending on how you do them. One is Sukkot, the other is Passover. Those days begin and end with special days, and the chol hamoed are the “ordinary” days in between.
The holidays begin and end with a yom tov (literally “a good day,” but in reality a very special day.) Those days are very similar to Shabbat: they are days of rest, days to spend in joyful observance and study. Ideally we do no work on those days, nor do we handle money, run errands, etc. They are days of enjoyment, with good food and friends. They are also days of celebration: we celebrate the holiday at hand.
Outside the Land of Israel, we celebrate yom tov in pairs, 2 at the beginning of Passover, and two at the end. Inside the Land, we celebrate only a single day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Passover. (If you are curious about why, see Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside of Israel.) The exception to this rule is the practice of Reform Jews in the United States, many of whom follow the custom of the Land of Israel. (For what your congregation or community does, ask your rabbi.)
The days in between the yamim tovim (plural) are called chol hamoed, meaning “ordinary days of the festival.” We still celebrate the holiday (during Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz) but even the most observant Jew can drive the car, handle money, and so on. In Israel, schools and many businesses are closed during chol hamoed, so it is a time for family vacations. In the Diaspora, we may go to work, but we still make time for the spirit of the holiday.
Now you may be reading this, thinking, “I can’t do all that!” and perhaps feeling a little guilty. The truth is that not all of us have yet reached this ideal of celebration. Especially outside of Israel, it’s hard to do, because the secular world around us doesn’t stop to celebrate Passover or Sukkot. Please don’t beat up on yourself or feel bad about it – and don’t give up on it as an ideal. Perhaps not this year, perhaps not next year, but sometime in your life you may have the opportunity to take some vacation time and truly inhabit the holiday.
Jewish observance is not a pass-fail test, even though some people may talk about it that way. Ideally, if we observe the Jewish year to its fullest, we will reap spiritual rewards – but as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it! Instead, focus on doing what you can do to experience the holiday to the fullest level available to you.
May you have a meaningful holiday, and grow daily as a member of your community and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People!