What does “Chol HaMoed” mean?

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!

 

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Freedom From, Freedom To

Image: Woman dancing before the sunset. Photo by jill111/pixabay.

How is this Shabbat different from all other Shabbats?

This Shabbat falls within the week of Passover, the festival of freedom. Our ancestors were not free to keep Shabbat in Egypt – their work week was 7 days, like everyone else in the ancient world. Only after we left Egypt were we free to take on that mitzvah, the mitzvah to rest once a week.

Everyone else thought it was laziness. We have records of Greeks and Romans talking about the peculiar habit of the Jews, and they believed it showed that Jews were morally inferior.

Certainly the robber barons and bosses of the Gilded Age in the United States thought it was nothing but laziness, when labor leaders (many of them Jewish) argued for a five day work week that would allow Jews and Christians to keep their Sabbaths.

Free people are free to keep Shabbat. Now, in our new Gilded Age in the 21st century, as rich and poor slip farther and farther away from each other, Shabbat may seem a luxury few can afford. For others, addiction to electronics may make it extremely difficult to unplug.

This Shabbat, it’s time to ask ourselves, to whom or what am I enslaved? What can I do about that?

Whom have I enslaved? Is there anyone I underpay? Anyone of whom I take unfair advantage? Anyone I expect to drop everything for me, because I am, well, me? What can I do about that?

This Shabbat, as we rest, or as we are unable to rest, we can ponder the realities of our lives.

A Shabbat Shalom to all my readers, and to all, moadim l’simchah, may you enjoy these remaining days of Pesach!

What is Chol HaMoed?

Matzah brei serving
Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

Image: Matzo brei – A Chol HaMoed treat. licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Happiness.” The proper reply is “Chagim u’zmanim l’sasson!” – “Holiday and Times of Joy!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead.