One who cannot put food on the table for the festival may work on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed. The point of forbidding melakha on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed is to relieve people of work and worries, freeing them to enjoy the festival through festive meals and Torah study. One who cannot feed himself and his family is preoccupied with his misery and cannot enjoy the festival. Therefore, he may work in order to buy bread, meat, and wine for his family. However, he may not work in order to buy additional delicacies for the meal (SA 542:2).
A business owner may provide work to someone who does not have food. For example, someone who runs a clothing factory may give a worker sewing to do over Ḥol Ha-mo’ed if the worker has no food for the festival. This is permissible even though the owner will also make money, provided that his primary intent is to provide the worker with the means to buy food for the festival, and that if not for this he would not have given him the work (MK 13a; SA 542:2). When necessary, one may also do business in order to provide work for a worker who does not have food (SA 539:12; MB ad loc. 42).
If one has no food, but could take charity in order to buy food for the festival, he may nevertheless work on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, because it is admirable not to take charity. We do not insist that he sell off his furniture and possessions to avoid the need to work. Rather, since he does not have the money to buy basic food for his family on the festival, he may work enough to do so. In contrast, if one can buy food with his credit card or can easily take out a loan, he may not work on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed. Only if he is always careful not to take out loans and not to have an overdraft in the bank may he work to provide food for the festival.
- Shimon Greenfield (Hungary, 1860-1930) wrote in Responsa Maharshag 2:94:2 that working on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed was permitted. Poverty was widespread and taxes were onerous, making it difficult for people to make ends meet, especially those with sons who were studying Torah. Therefore, all earnings were considered necessary for survival. Even so, he said that people should not simply work as usual on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed; they should make some change to their schedule such as working a half day. Ḥol Ha-mo’ed Ke-hilkhato, SSK ch. 68 n. 61, and Piskei Teshuvot 542:4 debate whether Maharshag’s opinion may be relied upon today. They conclude that a halakhic authority should be consulted. It seems to me that nowadays one may not rely on his logic. Since our financial situation is much better than it was at the time of the Sages, we should not change the ruling of the Sages, the Rishonim, and SA. In addition, thanks to Bituaḥ Leumi (Social Security) benefits for the poor and disabled, and the work of charitable organizations, there are far fewer needy people. Therefore, only one who lacks the basics for a festive meal is permitted to work on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed.