Word of the Day / Hol Hamo’ed: The Profane Part of the Festival

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Credit: Yaron Kaminski

“Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!” Romeo tells Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet,” in one of a series of oxymorons. “O heavy lightness! serious vanity! Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms! Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!”

The intermediate days of Sukkot, of which today is one, offer neither loving hate nor feather of lead, but they are known by a seemingly self-contradictory term of their own: hol hamo’ed (khol ha-moh-ED), which literally translates as “weekday of the holiday” or “profane of the festival” and is the name for the days in the middle of Judaism’s two, week-long biblically mandated festivals, Passover and Sukkot.

The concept of splitting a holiday into multiple parts – with work prohibited at the beginning and end, as on Shabbat, but far less circumscribed in the middle – is set forth in the Bible. Here’s the verse for Sukkot, which teaches about hol hamo’ed by omission: “Howbeit on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruits of the land, ye shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.” (Leviticus 23:39)

As for the term itself, let’s split hol hamo’ed into its two component parts. Mo’ed can refer to a set time, as when Sarah “conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time [mo’ed] of which God had spoken to him.” (Genesis 21:2)

But it can also denote a festival, since these take place at a set time of the Hebrew month. The verse “And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons [mo’adei] of the Lord,” (Leviticus 23:44) appears just after the commandment to observe Sukkot and has been incorporated as part of the daytime kiddush for festivals. The evening blessing over the wine includes the phrase mo’adim lesimcha, “appointed festivals for gladness,” which is a common greeting on the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover.

The word hol means profane, as in the ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and holidays and includes a blessing noting the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the hol. Similarly, secular studies like English and math are limudei hol, and a regular weekday – not Shabbat or a holiday – is a yom hol.

Hol comes from halal (khalal), which in this context refers to desecration or turning something that was sacred into something profane. Eating a sacrifice when one is not authorized to do so means one “hath profaned [hilel] the holy thing of the Lord,” (Leviticus 19:8); desecrating the Sabbath is known as hilul Shabbat.

In practice, hol hamo’ed in Israel means that schools are closed and many adults take time off from their jobs – or their workplaces shut down altogether – enabling Israeli families to hike, barbecue and throw too much litter on the ground in the country’s national parks. As for Shakespeare’s misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, that’s as good a description as any of what takes place on hol hamo’ed in the sukkahs set up outside many kosher restaurants, come lunchtime.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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