When Shabbat coincides with Chol HaMoed, our prayers are elevated

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach
Exodus 33:12-34:26
Numbers 28:19-25
Ezekiel 36:37 – 37:14

The term Chol HaMoed, referring to the intermediary days in the middle of the Pesach holiday, is a difficult one. Chol means weekday — a secular concept. Moed literally means “holiday” — a sanctified time. This expression at first glance seems to be a contradiction in terms. The expression Shabbat Chol HaMoed complicates this quandary even more. Not only do we have the union of weekday and holiday, but we now add a new dimension of the ultimate sanctity of Sabbath.

Of course, we can just conveniently and simply explain this all as a vernacular phrase, an easy way of referring to the occasion. It is the time when the intermediary days of Yom Tov coincide with Shabbat. Still, if we examine the Talmud (Betza 17) and Maimonides (Helchot Tefilla 2), we discover a significant reference to this period. The occasion here is called Shabbat Shechol B’chol HaMoed, Shabbat that occurs on Chol HaMoed.

As we know, Shabbat doesn’t “occur” on any time other than its own fixed time of the seventh day of the week. Therefore, the wording suggests something extraordinary about the whole idea of Shabbat and Chol HaMoed coinciding, or can we say colliding? Apparently, when Shabbat meets Chol HaMoed, Shabbat is a different Shabbat and Chol HaMoed is a different Chol HaMoed.

In the prayers for Shabbat Chol HaMoed there is one place where this idea is distinguished. The prayer of Adir Adireinu is recited although it is normally said neither on Shabbat nor on Chol HaMoed, suggesting that when Chol HaMoed and Shabbat coincide there is apparently a call to elevate the prayers. The message we can derive is this: The secular, the mundane, the materialistic, when coupled with holiness, take on an altogether new existence. Here the whole is greater than its parts.

For this reason, it is customary to read the Song of Songs on Shabbat Chol HaMoed. What could be taken as erotic poetry becomes the ultimate expression of affiliation with G-d when infused with an understanding of holiness. The Sefat Emet, the great 19th-century sage, suggests that we read the Song of Songs at this juncture because during this festival the Jew must channel his earthly drives to the service of G-d. Rabbi Akiva says in the Mishnah (Yadaim 3:5), “If all the songs in the Torah are holy, then the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holiest.”

As in the Song of Songs, the Haftarah for Shabbat Chol HaMoed also presents the message that it is only through spiritual elevation that the physical has any meaning. The Haftarah relates Ezekiel’s famous vision of the Dry Bones. The prophet describes a scene in which bones of those who have been long deceased spring to life, developing anew as functioning bodies.

The Talmud Sanhedrin 92B argues whether this vision is to be taken literally or allegorically. Rabbi Ben Besera stood up and announced, “I am a descendent of those people, and here are the tefillin of my grandfather who was one of them.”

The display of the tefillin is important. It is only by showing that he had remained faithful to his grandfather’s traditions that the bones can be considered as truly coming to life.

If a Jew cannot transmit his spiritual legacy to the next generation, then he tragically becomes relegated to nothing more than a heap of bones following his passing.

Without the spiritual, we will be left with Chol but no Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.