Thriving on ambiguity

Thriving on ambiguity

Hol Hamo’ed Pesach

To the consternation of our detractors through the ages, Jewish literature is largely legal. Critics prefer the word “legalistic,” implying an endless series of picky squabbles and a sorry excuse for religion. Actually, halachic debate is its own form of poetry, the quintessential Jewish way of framing spiritual insight. 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,” uniquely sacred); 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 they apply to ordinary weekday time but not the sacred time of Shabbat and holidays. So what do you do for hol hamo’ed, a little bit of both? Unraveling that conundrum raises two Jewish principles that I call the “Law of Undilution” and the “Law of Healthy Uncertainty.”

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

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

So far so good. But what about hol hamo’ed, which is partly holy-day, partly not? Everything depends on what there is about holy-days that make them a “sign.” It might be cessation from work. If so, we should definitely wear tefillin on hol hamo’ed, since (unlike Shabbat and full holy-days) we allow work then. Lacking one ot (resting from work), hol hamo’ed is appropriately outfitted with another ot: tefillin.

But perhaps it is the act of observing the holiday that constitutes the ot. The act of eating matza alone provides a sign of God’s relationship with us. In that case, wearing tefillin would be a redundant sign, and we would not wear them.

Here we encounter the “Law of Healthy Uncertainty.” Rather than insist on one opinion or the other, Jewish law admits both as possible and lets people choose, depending on local custom. Following the Zohar and Joseph Caro (who wrote the Shulhan Aruch) Sephardim do not wear tefillin on hol hamo’ed. Ashkenazi Jews do. Some people hedge their bets, putting them on without the requisite blessing, perhaps, or saying the blessing but not out loud.

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

The Principle of Healthy Uncertainty is likewise nothing to sneeze at — especially in an era of decreasing tolerance for alternatives. Some religions cannot live with such ambiguity. Judaism thrives on it. The rabbis maintain, in fact, that redemption will occur only when we practice it.

There is, first, the coming of the Messiah, which we anticipate when we open the door for Elijah every seder night. Despite the fact that our seder nowadays includes four cups of wine, a minority view early on demanded a fifth cup that would be drunk if Elijah really materialized. Some medieval Jews opened the door with a fifth cup in hand; others did not. Elijah would arrive not because a single practice was the norm, but precisely in the context of honoring healthy uncertainty.

And then there is that other aspect of redemption promised by tradition: t’hiyat hameitim, “resurrection of the dead.” Resurrection, say the rabbis, will occur only during hol hamo’ed — the classic occasion in which we live with diverse interpretations.

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 it bids us to remember a healthy respect for diversity.

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