06. Studying Torah

There is a mitzva to study Torah on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, as God gave the festivals to the Jews so that they could study Torah in peace and joy. This is the same reason that work is prohibited on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, as Sefer Ha-ḥinukh (§323) states: “For the days of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed were not established for working, but rather for rejoicing before God, that is, for gathering together in study halls and listening to beautiful expositions of the holy books.” Furthermore, the Sages state (San. 99a): “Anyone who is capable of studying Torah but does not do so is in the category of those who have ‘spurned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment’ (Bamidbar 15:31).”

As we have seen (1:5-6 above), on Shabbat and festivals one must divide his time between God and himself – “half the time eating and drinking, and half the time in the beit midrash” (Pesaḥim 68b). If this is the case even on Yom Tov, when it is a mitzva to have large leisurely meals, it is certainly true of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed – one must dedicate at least half his day to Torah study. This is also why the Sages forbade commerce on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed even though it is not an absolute melakha. Business dealings are time-consuming and worrisome, and thus likely to detract from festival joy and Torah study (AHS 539:4).

We calculated above (1:6 n. 2) that in order to dedicate half a day to God, one must dedicate about nine hours to Torah and prayer on Shabbat and holidays, and at a minimum six hours to Torah. Thus, on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, when the prayers take less time, one should dedicate more than six hours to Torah study, in order to reach a total of nine hours dedicated to God.

According to the Yerushalmi, “R. Abba bar Mamal said: If only someone would be willing to join with me, I would permit melakha on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed! The only reason to prohibit melakha then is so that people will eat, drink, rejoice, and study Torah – but instead people eat, drink, and act frivolously” (y. MK 2:3). We see that wasting time which could have been used for Torah study on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed is even worse than doing melakha then (Kol Bo §60).

Along these lines, our Sages expound upon the verse: “These are My fixed times (mo’adai)” (Vayikra 23:2). “When you keep the commandments and sanctify the festivals by gathering the nation together in places of worship in order to study Torah, then God says, ‘These are My times.’ Otherwise God says, ‘These are not My times but yours.’” Compare R. Akiva’s response to a certain heretic, who challenged him by asking: “Why do you keep the festivals? Does it not say (Yeshayahu 1:14), ‘Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing’?” R. Akiva responded: “If our intention is only to pleasure our bodies, then these are not God’s times but our times. It is then that God says He is filled with loathing. However, if the festivals are dedicated to divine worship and Torah study, they are not hated but loved and precious” (Bamidbar Rabba 21:25 as paraphrased by Shlah, Masekhet Sukka, Ner Mitzva §35).

  1. Moshe ben Makhir writes:

A person should not say, “Since I cannot do melakha on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, I will eat, drink, go on outings, and enjoy myself,” because this is not the purpose of the festivals. God forbid that anyone would believe it is! Rather, the truth is that the festivals were given to the Jews only in order to free them from their work, allowing them to study Torah undisturbed. These are auspicious days for Torah study, when study is blessed with success. Therefore, one must not lose them to food, drink, sleep, and outings. Rather, each person should stay put, and focus on studying whatever area of Torah God has given him a talent for – whether it is Tanakh, Mishna, or Gemara. He should eat food that is good and tasty, drink as appropriate, and sleep a bit. All of this gives oneg to his body. Afterward, for the rest of his day he should give oneg to his neglected soul, which is like a prisoner in exile. No one cares about the soul and its purpose, as they are all too busy pandering to the evil inclination and the lowly desires of the pitiful body…. There is extra sanctity on all the days of the festival…. It makes no sense that the holy days of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed would be given us so we could eat, drink, and treat them like regular weekdays. One who does treat them in this way has been struck with madness, and in the future will be called to account for desecrating these holy and special days. (Seder Ha-yom, Inyan Ḥol Ha-mo’ed)

Outings do have a place on the festival. As we saw, the Sages permit carrying on Yom Tov as part of an outing in the public domain (6:2 above). Similarly, if one wishes to take a trip on horseback, he may prepare with unskilled labor: trimming the horse’s hooves, and fixing the saddle and bridle (SA 536:1; 11:15 below). However, the permissibility is limited to short outings, which contribute to festival joy and are not exhausting or burdensome. They certainly should not come at the expense of the half of every day that must be dedicated to Torah study.

In order to visit Jerusalem, the city of holiness and of the Temple, or in order to visit one’s rabbi, a long journey may be undertaken (1:16-17 above), even if this means that one will not be able to dedicate half of that day to Torah. It would seem that doing these mitzvot includes both halves: the travel is the half “for you,” while the mitzva it facilitates is the half “for God.” After all, being present in God’s courtyard and visiting one’s rabbi are serious and important preparations for Torah study.