Today’s daf (Moed Katan 10) addresses a range of activities that people may want – or feel that they need – to do on Chol HaMoed. But in order to understand the halachic discussion in today’s daf, we need to understand the tone of halachic discourse relating to activity on Chol HaMoed.
Overall, constructive activities that are not required for Chol HaMoed may not be done on Chol HaMoed. However, unlike the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov, there is greater ambiguity concerning the activities which fit into the category of those prohibited on Chol HaMoed, and while different Rishonim present different approaches in their pursuit of classifying those activities that are, and are not, prohibited on Chol HaMoed, we find that – like various other areas of halacha – the decision is often situational and is determined not only by what is being sought to be done, but also by the context in which it is being done.
Nevertheless, precisely because the notion of ‘need’ is highly debatable, we find that halacha permits two tiers of activities on Chol HaMoed. What this means is that where an activity is directly related to the sustenance of people (אוכל נפש), or, where failing to do that activity will lead to a loss (דבר האבוד), then the activity may be done even if it requires highly trained skills and labourers (מעשה אומן). However, where an activity needs to be done on Chol HaMoed but does not meet the above-mentioned criteria, then it may be done but it should not involve specialised work or workers (מעשה הדיוט).
Having explained all this, we can now understand that the many disagreements found in our daf, such as the debate between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages (see Mishna Moed Katan 1:9 on Moed Katan 10a), are underpinned by deeper, and often non-explicitly stated considerations about: a) whether what is being discussed is necessary on Chol HaMoed; b) whether what is being discussed is sufficiently necessary (i.e. אוכל נפש, דבר האבוד) that it may be done even if it requires highly trained skills and labourers (מעשה אומן), or, c) whether it may be done on Chol HaMoed but it should not involve specialised work or workers (מעשה הדיוט).
For example, in the above-mentioned Mishna we are told that Rabbi Yehuda forbids chiseling millstones for the first time on Chol HaMoed – and from here we could erroneously assume that Rabbi Yehuda is merely being ‘strict’ about the laws of Chol HaMoed.
However, we later read (see Moed Katan 10b) that Rabbi Yehuda permits the trimming of the hooves of a donkey that turns a mill on Chol HaMoed, and the setting of the stones of a mill in their place on Chol HaMoed, and the building of the base of a mill on Chol HaMoed, and the construction of a water channel to carry water that drives a mill on Chol HaMoed, and the building of a stable for horses on Chol HaMoed.
Clearly, Rabbi Yehuda did not change his mind about his understanding of the laws of Chol HaMoed, and clearly he wasn’t being strict before and more lenient later. Instead, as various commentaries explain, his ruling in the Mishna was based on the fact that such an activity required highly trained skills and labourers (מעשה אומן) and could not be justified for the needs of the day, whereas those that he did permit were either due to the fact that they did not require specialised work or workers (מעשה הדיוט), or in the case of those that did, they were directly related to the sustenance of people (אוכל נפש) or because failing to do that activity would have led to a loss (דבר האבוד).
Unfortunately, far too often we classify rabbinic rulings as being ‘strict’ (מחמיר) or ‘lenient’ (מיקל) without taking the time to consider why certain conclusions have been reached, and among the reasons why we unfortunately often fall into this trap is because some halachic conclusions are often based on non-explicitly stated considerations, or due to the fact that the answer is due to a unique context or situation.
This is why we need to be careful in our study and discourse of halacha. It is why we need to ask questions such as ‘why was this decision reached?’ and ‘what was the context that led to this answer being given?’ before jumping to conclusions. And this is why terms such as ‘strict’ or ‘lenient’ are too often invoked and, at the same time, too often misunderstood.