Chol HaMoed is literally the “mundane of the festival” – the intermediate days of the festivals which are bookended by more ritually observant days, and we see this twice a year with the festivals of Pesach and of Sukkot in the spring and the autumn.
It is a strange phrase, and halachically it is an odd time – some work is restricted but not all. The boundaries are blurred between special festival time and ordinary working day. Does one do a particular ritual or not? If so, does one say the blessing or not? Needless to say, hours of rabbinic time have been spent over the generations in deciding just how much of the time is Chol – ordinary, and how much of it is Moed – festive.
And Succot has an extra dimension. Biblically there are seven days of Succot ending with Hoshanah Rabbah, when there are 7 hakkafot (circuits of the synagogue) with the lulav and etrog, and when the final judgment written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered – yet we have an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, literally the” eighth of ending” which in the diaspora has also claimed a second day. No one quite knows what Shemini Atzeret is for – though it may have been the day of cleaning the Temple, which, given the tradition that seventy bulls were sacrificed on Succot to atone for the seventy nations of the world, might certainly need some cleaning.
The Rabbis of the Talmud are themselves somewhat puzzled about what Shemini Atzeret is, and declare Shemini Atzeret to be a holiday in its own right, not just the final day of Succot. Reform Judaism has added Simchat Torah, an entirely different festival following a different cycle, to the date. Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This concatenation of different celebrations does mean one thing though – while the intermediate days of Succot may be an unclear time of both secular and holy mixed together, the final days are a blur of festivity and enjoyment. Not for nothing is this festival period called “zeman simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing. For a week there is the pleasure of sitting in one’s Succah, not obligated to work at the daily grind, and entertaining guests – ushpizin. And then follows the exuberance of Simchat Torah, the achievement of having read the whole scroll and the anticipation of starting again kicks in, and we dance and sing and drink and eat sweet things and let go of all the sombre introspective tropes that have been shadowing us since the beginning of Elul, or some would say since Tisha b’Av.
Simchat Torah is a time for partying. We have been so solemn, so thoughtful, so penitent. Now we turn back into Life – and we dance, sing, laugh, run, bound back into life, with all inhibitions left behind.
Famously Samuel Pepys witnessed Simchat Torah in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1663 and this is what he wrote in his diary:
“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.
And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…”
Pepys was horrified at what he saw, and had no understanding of it. He had no context in which to view it and a certain set of beliefs about what constituted worship. I would love for every synagogue to have a Simchat Torah like the one he saw – the joy, the comfort with the sifrei Torah, the comfort in offering worship through the body as well as the mind, the pleasure in knowing that a new year is started, and one that offers us all the opportunities we might need once more.
Judaism is unusual in that we move on from our Atonement once we have come together as a community and taken seriously the command to return to God and let go of our habits and inclinations that stop us living the lives we should. We move on always into Life. And if we need more Atonement – well, we can always return to God, do Teshuvah at any time, but at a fixed point in our yearly cycle we make sure we do it. I think that is the beauty of this strange concept of Chol HaMoed – there is always time for the world in our festivals, and there is always time for our religious commitments in our daily lives. While much of Judaism is about keeping boundaries, we also allow the crossover places, the liminal space which allows us always to return, always to make holy that which is ordinary, and keep holiness as an ordinary imperative in our lives.