True  Chol Hamoed Celebration is only in Israel
True Chol Hamoed Celebration is only in Israel

In the Diaspora, Jews may observe chol hamoed (the intermediate days of Sukkot and Pesach), but only in the land of Israel do Jews actually celebrate chol hamoed. Over the last thirty five years chol hamoed has become a 'holiday time' for many observant and non-observant Israeli Jews.

This article will argue that our populist celebration of chol hamoed is a very tangible sign of our people's incremental, National Redemption in our Land. It will also note the sociological forces that G-d has employed to hasten this Redemption.

Israel is a different Israel on chol hamoed.
In the Diaspora, Jews may observe, but not celebrate, chol hamoed because their social space belongs to non-Jews. Non-religious,diaspora Jews have never heard of chol hamoed, and most religious Jews have to work on chol hamoed (other than hassidic sects that are employed in Orthodox Jewish businesses, or upper middle class Jews who can afford a hotel for a week).

Three personal incidents accurately portray the humble status of chol hamoed in the Diaspora. On my first chol hamoed Sukkot in Israel, after making aliyah, I brought my tefillin to synagogue. Everybody was surprised. In America we put on tefillin on chol hamoed because it was a regular work day. Here in Israel the custom is not to do so because in reality chol hamoed is a semi-holiday. That Sukkot I also remember my niece teaching me the halakha that one should refrain from manually writing on chol hamoed. In America not one questioned the idea of writing because it was a necessity of work. Finally, on Sukkot in America I took potatoes and eggs, a light meal for lunch, because there was no sukkah at my place of work, or in the vicinity, and I did not want to eat baked goods outside of the sukkah.

America is exile, and I experienced there little sense of festivity on chol hamoed.

In contrast, in Israel chol hamoed is felt by everyone. We joke about putting projects off until 'after the holidays'. Many workers find themselves on forced vacations as certain businesses and many public services are either closed, or provide only emergency services. Non-observant Jews schedule their trips abroad for chol hamoed because then they do not have to deal with prime season prices and summer crowds.

Chol hamoed is a high point for internal Israeli tourism. The guest houses and national parks are full. Parks make sukkot available to visitors. There are special museum exhibits and art and music festivals, many having Jewish content. The Judea and Samaria municipalities have heavily invested in building a chol hamoed tourist infrastructure so Gush Dan can get to know Gush Shilo.

Hundreds of thousands flock to the Kotel and the Old City. There is the centralized blessing of the Kohanim at the Kotel. Local religious communities organize festivals and music and dancing at simchat beit hashoeva and hoshanna rabba celebrations.

Most important, families use the vacation time to travel and visit with each other.

Israel is a different Israel on chol hamoed. What can we learn, religiously and sociologically, from this blessed phenomenon? Religiously, our modern chol hamoed echoes significant elements of the original chol hamoed of Temple times. Then a Jew made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, bringing family and produce, in order to rejoice and strengthen their bond with G-d, the Temple, and Jerusalem.

Similarly, most of the chol hamoed activities described above also act to enhance our bonds with our Jewish heritage. Chol hamoed is thus a concrete example of how we are socially developing a modern, authentic Torah- based social culture, by which I mean social experiences and values that enhance Jewish identity, have their origins in the Torah and halakha, and relate to all domains of our social life. For example, visiting historical sites, enjoying the Jewish content of music festivals, eating in a wilderness sukkah, and visiting the Kotel are all activities   that enhance our bond with the Torah.

And just as chol hamoed can be celebrated (and not merely observed) only in the land of Israel, so can a Torah- based social culture be developed only in a Jewish state where we control our social space.

Sociologically it is important to note that the celebration of chol moed is not the result of Knesset legislation, or decisions by the Chief Rabbinate. Chol hamoed, as we know it today, is the result of a populist social movement from the bottom up. Primarily it is the result of 'Torah economics', Torah supply and demand.

The observant-traditional third of the Israeli Jewish population wants their recreational leisure life to have certain Jewish-Torah content. They are willing to use assigned vacation days to do this. They are willing to pay for concerts and day trips. With this demand, a 'supply' of artists, event producers, religious teachers and travel agencies have eagerly created over the last thirty five years a social cultural celebration of chol hamoed.

This celebration of chol hamoed in modern Israel, thus, is Torah populism at its very best.

On the surface, these chol hamoed celebrations may merely look like a string of pleasant, leisure and recreational pastimes. However, when they possess Torah content, and begin to coalesce into a unifying social culture, and happen in the historical context of Am Yisrael building a state in Eretz Yisrael, these mere leisure and recreational activities develop, almost 'magically', into an incremental path of National Redemption.