Making the most of life’s joys

Making the most of life’s joys


To critics through the ages, Jewish literature is largely “legalistic,” implying an endless series of picky squabbles and a sorry excuse for a religion. Actually, halachic debate, the quintessential Jewish way of framing spiritual insight, has its own form of poetry. A terrific example emerges during hol hamo’ed, the intermediate days of Passover. 

Hol hamo’ed is anomalous. It is (by definition) both hol (“profane,” better understood as “ordinary”) and mo’ed (“holiday,” which is to say, “holy-day”); more precisely, it is “the ordinary part of the specially sacred.” So is hol hamo’ed sacred or ordinary? 

A legal issue arises regarding tefillin. Those who wear tefillin during prayer know to do so during ordinary weekdays but not on Shabbat or sacred holidays. So what about on hol hamo’ed, a time that is a little bit of both? Unraveling that conundrum raises two Jewish principles I call the “Law of Undilution” and the “Law of Healthy Uncertainty.” 

The Law of Undilution insists we enjoy to the full every simha that comes our way. The law says, “We may not mix one simha with another” for fear the rivalry between them will cause dilution of each.

It happens that the Bible calls tefillin an “ot” (“sign”) of the love we share with God. But Shabbat too is called an ot, as, by extension, are holidays. Given the joy of observing a “sign” of God’s presence, the Law of Undilution mandates that we do not superimpose one ot upon another. That is why we do not wear tefillin on Shabbat and holidays.

But what about hol hamo’ed? Everything depends on what there is about holy-days that make them a “sign.” It might be cessation from work. If so, we should wear tefillin on hol hamo’ed, since we are allowed to work on those days. Lacking one ot (resting from work), hol hamo’ed is appropriately outfitted with another: tefillin

But perhaps it is the act of observing the holiday that constitutes the ot. Maybe eating matza provides a sign of God’s relationship with us — so wearing tefillin would be redundant.

Here we encounter the “Law of Healthy Uncertainty.” Rather than insist on one practice or the other, Jewish law admits both and lets people choose, depending on local custom. Following the Zohar and Joseph Caro, Sefardim do not wear tefillin on hol hamo’ed. Ashkenazi Jews do. Some people put them on without the blessing or say the blessing but not out loud.

To outsiders, a decision about religious practice based on not multiplying “signs” does seem picayune. But insiders understand the importance of the Principle of Undilution, which, in turn, encapsulates the broader philosophy of making the most of life’s joys.

And the Principle of Healthy Uncertainty is especially important in an era of decreasing tolerance for alternatives. Some religions cannot live with such ambiguity; Judaism thrives on it. 

We study Halacha not just to determine law but to explore principle. Hol hamo’ed reminds us to dilute neither the ordinary joys of life nor the signs of God’s presence and urges us to have a healthy respect for diversity.

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