Which Labors are Permitted on Yom Tov?

  • Rav David Brofsky


the laws of THE FESTIVALS



by Rav David Brofsky




Shiur #22: Which Labors are Permitted on Yom Tov?





Each festival, in addition to its individual identity and halakhic obligations, is also a “Yom Tov,” a festive day. Alongside the specific mitzvot of each chag, such as eating matza, sitting in a sukka, and shaking the arba minim, we are also commanded to relate to each day as a Yom Tov, during which one may not perform melakhot (except for the sake of okhel nefesh) and one is obligated to rejoice. In that sense, Yom Tov seems quite similar to Shabbat, during which one may not perform any of the 39 melakhot. 


Shabbat and Yom Tov differ in at least three significant ways, however. 




One who intentionally performs a melakha on Shabbat violates both a positive (Shemot 23:12) and negative (ibid. 20:10) commandment, and incurs, under certain conditions, capital punishment (ibid. 35:2). If these conditions are not met, one incurs the punishment of karet (ibid. 31:14). One who unintentionally violates the Shabbat must bring a korban chatat (Rambam, Hilkhot Shegagot 1:1).

One who intentionally performs a prohibited melakha on Yom Tov violates a negative commandment (Shemot 12:16), and possibly a positive commandment (see Rambam, Hilkhot Yom Tov 1:2), but only incurs malkot.


Chiluk Melakhot:


The gemara (Makkot 21b) teaches that on Shabbat, there is “chiluk melakhot;” if one were to unintentionally violate numerous melakhot on Shabbat during one period of unawareness (he’elem achat), one must bring a separate korban chatat for each melakha. On Yom Tov, however, there is no “chiluk melakhot. Therefore, one who violates numerous melakhot on Yom Tov be-he’elm achat brings only one korban.


Okhel Nefesh:


The Torah states (Shemot 12:16): “No work is to be done on those days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat - that is all you may do.” We learn from this verse that one may perform melakhot necessary for the preparation of food on Yom Tov. Furthermore, the mishna (Megilla 7b) teaches: “The only difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov is okhel nefesh.” The mishna implies that the central difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov lies in the permissibility to cook on Yom Tov. 


To what can we attribute the qualitative difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov?


We might suggest that refraining from melakha accomplishes two goals.  First, by refraining from melakha, one remembers the creation of the world (Bereishit 2:1-3). On Shabbat, the primary theme of the day is the commemoration of the creation of the world, and by refraining from melakha, one fulfills this goal. Furthermore, each and every labor performed on Shabbat is significant; one who violates the Shabbat denies God’s role in the creation of the world, and is therefore “cut off” from this world. 


Second, abstaining from melakha contributes to an atmosphere of “mikra’ei kodesh” (Vayikra 23:1-2). The Yamim Tovim commemorate historical and agricultural occasions. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (298) explains why the Torah prohibited “working” on Yom Tov:  


The purpose of the mitzva [is to ensure] that the Jewish People will remember the great miracles that God wrought for them and their forefathers, and that they should discuss them and inform their children and grandchildren. Through refraining from worldly matters, they will be free to engage in this. If one could work on the festival, even light labors, each person would focus on his business and the respect for the festival would be forgotten by the adults and their offspring. 


In addition, there are other benefits from refraining from labor, as the entire nation gathers in their houses of worship and houses of study to hear words of wisdom, and the communal leaders can guide and teach them. 


On Yom Tov, the prohibition to work plays a secondary role - it provides the proper atmosphere for one to celebrate the specific festival. For that reason, melakha on Yom Tov is prohibited by an ordinary negative commandment, and it is not accompanied by capital punishment or karet.  In addition, as we shall see, Yom Tov is observed not only by fulfilling the mitzvot specific to each festival, but also through eating, drinking, and rejoicing both physically and spiritually.  Therefore, the halakha places less emphasis on each individual melakha (ein chiluk melakhot), and even permits those melakhot that may enhance the atmosphere of the day (okhel nefesh).  [See R. Michael Rosensweig’s “Be-Inyan Issur Melakha Be-Shabbat Ve-Yom Tov,” Beit Yitzchak 5751.]


             In the upcoming shiurim, we hope to discuss the laws of Yom Tov related to okhel nefesh, those melakhot permitted in order to prepare food for the festival, as well as the other laws of Yom Tov, including the proper celebration of Yom Tov, Eiruv Tavshilin, and Yom Tov Sheini (for one who resides outside of Israel, as well as for a visitor there).


Which Melakhot are Permitted on Yom Tov?


According to the mishna cited above, okhel nefesh, the permissibility of cooking on Yom Tov, encapsulates the difference between Yom Tov and Shabbat.  Indeed, this difference is learned from a verse (Shemot 12:16), which states, “No work is to be done on those days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat -that is all you may do.”


Which melakhot may one perform in order to prepare food? Although one might suggest that all melakhot necessary for the preparation of food are permitted, the gemara rules regarding numerous melakhot (Beitza 14a regarding tochen; 14b regarding borer; 29b regarding meraked; 23b regarding tzad; Shabbat 134a regarding megaben; see also Beitza 2b–3a regarding kotzer and tochen) that not all melakhot are permitted for okhel nefesh. If so, what is the criterion in determining the scope of the heter okhel nefesh? The Rishonim debate the reason for and the level of the prohibition of these melakhot. 


Some Rishonim explain that only melakhot that must be performed on Yom Tov are permitted. If those melakhot were to be done before Yom Tov, one would not achieve the same result. The Rambam (Hilkhot Yom Tov 1:5-8), for example, explains:


Whenever it is possible to perform a labor on the day prior to the holiday without causing any loss or inadequacy, our Sages forbade performing such a labor on the holiday itself, even if it is performed for the sake of [the preparation of] food.

Why was this forbidden? This was a decree [instituted], lest a person leave for the holiday all the labors that he could have performed before the holiday, and thus spend the entire holiday performing those labors. Thus, he will be prevented from rejoicing on the holidays and will not have the opportunity to [take pleasure in] eating and drinking.


For this very reason, [our Sages] did not forbid transferring articles on a holiday, although the transfer of all [articles] is a task that could be performed before the holiday. Why was this not forbidden? To increase our festive joy, so that a person can send and bring anything he desires, and thus fulfill his wants, and not feel like someone whose hands are tied.  With regard to other labors that are possible to be performed on the day before the holiday, since they involve [prolonged] activity, they should not be performed on a holiday.


What is implied? On a holiday, we do not harvest, thresh, winnow, separate, or grind grain, nor do we sift [flour].  For all these and any similar activities can be performed on the day prior to the holiday without causing any loss or inadequacy.


We may, however, knead, bake, slaughter, and cook on a holiday, since if these activities had been performed on the previous day, the taste would be adversely affected. For warm bread or food that is cooked today does not [taste] the same as bread or food that was cooked the day before.  Similarly, meat that is slaughtered today does not [taste] the same as meat slaughtered on the previous day. The same rules apply in all analogous situations.


Similarly, when it would be detrimental for subsidiary activities [involved in the preparation] of food to be performed on the day [before the holiday] - e.g., grinding spices and the like - they may be performed on the holiday.


Similarly, the Rambam writes (ibid. 3:12):


We may not make cheese on a holiday, for cheese will not lose its flavor if it is prepared on the day before the holiday. In contrast, one may crush spices in the ordinary manner [on a holiday], for if they were crushed before the holiday, they would lose flavor. 


According the Rambam, although mi-de’oraita all melakhot necessary for the preparation of food are permitted on Yom Tov, the Sages only permitted those melakhot that cannot be done as effectively before Yom Tov, lest one be “prevented from rejoicing on the holidays and will not have the opportunity to [take pleasure in] eating and drinking.  Rashi (Beitza 3a, s.v. ve-yitlosh; Eiruvin 39b s.v. pasak) implies that these melakhot are Biblically prohibited. 


Other Rishonim, however, explain that melakhot which are usually performed on a large scale, in order to prepare food for a longer period of time, are prohibited.  The Rosh (Beitza 3:1), for example, explains:


Since one is accustomed to cut [the grapes of one’s] vineyard and to cut [the wheat of one’s] field together, and to grind a lot [of wheat] and to crush one’s grapes together, they prohibited these activities, as they are similar to one’s weekday behavior (uvda de-chol). For this reason, they also prohibited trapping, as sometime one catches many fish at a time, which is similar to weekday behavior. 


The Ran (Beitza 12b) also explains that the Sages prohibited melakhot which are done in order to prepare for many days, such as ketzira and techina.


            The Ramban (Vayikra 23:7; see also Milkhamot Hashem 12b) offers a different approach. Regarding Shabbat, the Torah prohibits kol melakha,” any manner of work (Shemot 10:9; Vayikra 16:39, 23:3, 28:31; Bamidbar 29:7; Devarim 5:13)." Regarding Yom Tov, however, the Torah generally prohibits "kol melekhet avoda." Concerning Pesach, it says, "On the first day shall be a holy convocation for you, kol melekhet avoda you shall not do" (Vayikra 23:7), and regarding Shavuot it says, "You shall declare on that very day a holy convocation, kol melekhet avoda you shall not do..." (ibid. 23:21). Concerning Rosh Hashana, it says, "You shall not do kol melekhet avoda..." (ibid. 23:25), and regarding the first and last days of Sukkot, the Torah similarly prohibits kol melekhet avoda (ibid. 23:35-36). (See also Bamidbar 16:8, 28:18,25,26 and 29:1,12,35; Shemot 12:16.) 


            What is the difference between melekhet avoda and melakha? The Ramban explains that while on Shabbat all melakhot are prohibited, on Yom Tov, the Torah only prohibited melekhet avoda, toilsome labor. Other labors, however, “executed for the sake of food preparation, are beneficial, rather than onerous." Therefore, melekhot performed for okhel nefesh are permitted. (See Rashba, Ovodat Ha-Kodesh, Beit Moed, sha’ar 1:1). 


            Next week, we will return to this important distinction between those melakhot which are used primarily for okhel nefesh, and melekhet avoda.


Finally, the Yerushalmi (1:10) cites two views that prohibit certain melakhot on Yom Tov. According to Reish Lakish, the proximity of “No work is to be done on those days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat - that is all you may do” to “and you shall watch the matzot” (Shemot 12:16-17) teaches that all melakhot performed prior to “watching” (that is, from the kneading of the dough) are prohibited on Yom Tov. Alternatively, Chizkiya explains that the words “akh hu levadu” excludes three melakhot - kotzer, tochen, and meraked - from the permissible melakhot of okhel nefesh. Some Rishonim (see R. Netanal, Beitza 3a, s.v. gezeira, for example) cite this Yerushalmi. They discuss whether the Yerushalmi should be understood literally, whether Reish Lakish and Chizkiya disagree, and whether the Talmud Bavli agrees with the Yerushalmi. 


The Shulchan Arukh (495) rules that melakhot needed for okhel nefesh, as well as hotza’a and hav’ara, are permitted on Yom Tov. The Rema adds that some are stringent when the melakha could have been performed before Yom Tov without any detrimental impact upon the food. He concludes that if these melakhot were not performed before Yom Tov, they may be done on Yom Tov while employing a shinuy (they should be performed slightly differently than usual). The Bi’ur Halakha notes that the Maharil disagrees with this leniency. In addition, the Acharonim disagree as to whether the Rema permits one to intentionally wait until Yom Tov and then perform one of these labors with a shinuy (Magen Avraham 495:3) or not (see Mishna Berura 10; Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 12). 


            Next week, we will continue our study of melekhet okhel nefesh, as we discuss the scope of the heter.