A topic that arises in today’s daf (Moed Katan 13a) relates to the types of business deals and other work that may be done on Chol HaMoed in order to provide money for someone who אין לו מה יאכל (meaning ‘does not have anything to eat’).
Clearly, this is not just speaking about someone who is literally starving (who must be assisted immediately in whichever way possible as part of the laws of פיקוח נפש – lifesaving). Instead, it primarily refers to those who do have the most basic means to sustain themselves, but who don’t have enough money for them to purchase special foods and other necessary items to celebrate whatever festival that is currently being celebrated. What this means is that we permit sales of homes and other items on Chol HaMoed when the seller is in need of funds and אין לו מה יאכל (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 539:12), and we also permit work to be done to sustain workers who אין לו מה יאכל (ibid. 542:2).
Having explained this, I would like to make reference to an exquisite responsum by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo 91:18) who asks the following question: If someone is a tailor who has a worker who is unfortunately very poor and who only knows how to stitch and sew, but who is not skilled in the cutting of fabric (nb. all these activities are – strictly speaking – avoided on Chol HaMoed). This worker is paid according to the work received, which means that during Chol HaMoed, there is less work and he has less money. Given this, the question posed by Rabbi Auerbach is whether the store owner may, proactively, cut fabrics on Chol HaMoed so that he can provide work for the poor worker.
There are two things that I would like you to take from this responsum. Firstly, Rabbi Auerbach permits the activity – although he suggests that the store owner not cut the fabrics in the public eye as the permission to do so is really only to help their worker which may not be evident to others. And secondly, the fact that Rabbi Auerbach was thinking about this question in the first place because this was not a question he received, but instead, one that he conceived.
All too often, Rabbi are accused of stretching halacha and of creating halachic loopholes. Frequently, those who make such accusations do so based on incomplete understandings of Jewish law. At the same time, it is true that there are occasions when efforts are made to stretch the law. And this is why I wanted to share the above-mentioned responsum – because the question isn’t whether halacha can be stretched in certain situations, but rather, what those situations are. And the fact that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was proactively thinking about how employers can find ways to increase earnings of poor workers on Chol HaMoed speaks volumes about him, and the kinds of considerations that should be considered a priority in terms of creative and proactive halachic decision-making.