Why I Don’t Wear Tefillin on Chol HaMoed

My Zaidy called me the other day and asked me: “Daniel, do we wear tefillin on Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover)?”

I had to laugh.  My grandfather is in his early 90s and has put on tefillin nearly every day of his adult life.  He’s the one asking me?

The custom of whether to wear tefillin on the intermediate days of the festival is generally a combination of your heritage and your family practice.  Sephardim do it.  Ashkenazim do not do it.  As we continued to chat, my Zaidy seemed to recollect that his Hungarian grandfather (who also wore tefillin regularly) “might have done it.”  That should have settled the argument.

Ultimately, however, as a congregational rabbi living in the year 5782, I’ve decided that I am not going to wear tefillin on the intermediate days of the festival.  Here’s why:

One could argue that the decision to wear tefillin, on some subtle level, takes a perspective that these days are more ordinary than sacred.  This makes good sense.  During these intermediate days of the holidays we shop and spend money.  My kids attend school.  I go to work.

Yet I have to believe that this perspective — that we need more days to be mundane and ordinary — is the last thing that our world needs at the moment. In the 21st century, even our holiness is beginning to look a little too ordinary.  We Zoom our services.  We don’t take off from the holidays because we can’t afford to: the grind never stops.  All of us struggle to define the boundary between ordinary and holy time and space.  

We are in an ever-increasing time where we need distinctions to remind us that Judaism, in its wisdom, gave us our holidays as a gift.  I will be the first to admit that in the largely secular landscape that I occupy, I sometimes need these reminders myself.  

You could therefore accuse me of not wearing tefillin as an aspirational act, rather than one that reflects reality on the ground.  If everyone is treating these days as secular and treats them this way, shouldn’t you wear tefillin too?  

In the space I occupy, you’d be correct.  

However, Judaism always challenges us to aspire for greater things.  In this case, when it comes to the potential to better acknowledge sacred opportunities, I know my Zaidy would agree.

About the Author
Daniel Dorsch is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He also serves a Vice President of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. He enjoys studying Daf Yomi, barbecuing in the winter, and spending time with his family.
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