“Half for You, and Half for G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In parashat Emor, the Torah states that creative labor is forbidden on the first and seventh day of the festival of Passover. While the verses specifically speak of Passover, the prohibition of performing creative labor applies to all the holidays, including Sukkot, Shavuot and Rosh Hashana as well. Yom Kippur, however, differs, since it is similar to Shabbat, with much stronger restrictions.

Biblically, Passover and Sukkot are seven and eight day festivals respectively, that have sacred first and last days. These days may be divided into three, the first day, the five or six intervening days (Chol HaMoed) and the final day of the festival. In the Diaspora, two additional rabbinic festival days are added. Thus, the first two days of the holiday are sacred, followed by four or five days of Chol HaMoed, and the two final days, which are sacred as well.

The Torah states in Leviticus 23:7-8, “Ba’yohm ha’ree’shohn mik’rah ko’desh yee’yeh la’chem, kohl m’leh’chet ah’voh’dah loh ta’ah’soo…ba’yohm ha’sh’vee’ee mik’rah ko’desh, kohl m’leh’chet ah’voh’dah lo tah’ah’soo,” On the first day, there shall be a holy convocation for you. You shall do no laborious work…on the seventh day, shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work. What is the definition of “M’lechet ah’voh’dah,” laborious work? According to Rashi, it means work that is regarded as necessary and essential, that if not done, will result in significant losses. According to the Ramban, it means work that is burdensome, such as labor in the factory or a field. Thus, laborious work is forbidden on a festival.

According to all opinions, preparation of food, which is regarded as pleasurable work, including such labors as slaughtering and cooking, is permitted on the festivals that fall on weekdays.

The rabbis have extended the permission to cook and bake on the festivals, declaring that all work associated with cooking and baking is permitted, even not for the purpose of food preperation. Therefore, carrying non-food items in a public thoroughfare or lighting a fire from an existing flame for non-cooking purposes are permitted on the festivals and Rosh Hashana. But, those works that are usually done in advance, such as hunting, are prohibited.

The Torah teaches that there are two primary aspects to the nature of the festivals of Israel. It is a special mitzvah to rejoice on the festivals, as it is written in Deuteronomy 16:14, “V’sah’mach’tah b’cha’geh’chah,” You shall rejoice on your festivals. Another important aspect regarding the nature of the holidays is found in Numbers 29:35, “Ah’tzeret teeh’yeh lah’chem,” that the festivals must be regarded as a holy convocation for you, the celebrants.

There is a significant difference between these two features of the festivals. Rejoicing on a festival is a personal commandment, with no limits. But, even though the verse in Numbers 29:35 defines the holy convocation as “lah’chem,” for yourselves and for your needs, a second verse in Deuteronomy 16:8, “Ah’tzeret lah’Hashem Eh’loh’keh’cha,” asserts that the festivals must be regarded as a holy convocation not only for your sake, but for the L-rd, your G-d.

Our rabbis, Pesachim 68b, distinguish between these two features. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the essence of the festival defines the personal commandment. Therefore, Rabbi Eliezer feels that rejoicing on the festival is not an obligation, but voluntary, thus one may choose to rejoice or not to rejoice. Whereas Rabbi Joshua posits that the personal commandments define the essence of the festival, maintaining that rejoicing on the festival is an obligation. Therefore, the obligation to observe a convocation to the L-rd, your G-d, should only apply to half the festival, in order to ensure that there is sufficient time for personal joyous celebration.

Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yom Tov 6:19, rules, that the Talmudic dictum (Pesachim 68b) of “Chetz’yo lah’chem, v’chetz’yo la’Hashem,” that half the festival belongs to the individuals, and half the festival belongs to G-d, should be followed during the entire festival, including the intermediary days. Even though eating and drinking on the holidays is considered a positive commandment, a person should not eat and drink all day long. Rather, the proper practice should be that community members rise early to pray and to read the Torah in the synagogue, and then return to their homes to eat and drink. The rest of the day should be spent studying Torah in the houses of study.

The The Code of Jewish Law determines that it is a mitzvah to divide the festivals in half, half devoted to study and half to the eating and drinking. The Mishnah Berurah even rails against cantors who prolong the prayer services with extra singing, taking away from the individual joy that those who observe the festivals are required to experience.

The festivals of Sukkot and Simchat Torah are wonderful opportunities to rejoice with family and friends and to bond with the Al-mighty.

Chag Samayach!

May you be blessed.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 18th, 19th and 20th, 2013. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, September 25th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, September 26th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah , begins on Thursday evening, September 26th and continues through Friday, September 27th.