During the weekday, we are permitted to perform any kind of labor we like. But on Shabbat, we are forbidden to do any kind of creative labor, particularly those 39 archetypical labors which were necessary to build the Mikdash.
On Yom Tov we are also forbidden to do these labors, but the Torah makes an exception for “that which is eaten by any soul” (Shemot 12:16) – what our Sages call “okhel nefesh”, or “food for the soul”. Let us examine the nature of this special leniency.
Weekdays are days of giving, of creating holiness. Through our involvement in mundane labors, which we perform according to the mitzvot of the Torah, we progressively sanctify material existence, advancing the day of the Redemption when the spiritual repair of the world will be complete.
Weekdays are not days of receiving. Our material enjoyments during the week have to be in moderation, otherwise we lose our consciousness of their source in holiness. Then these enjoyments are degraded into mere animal pleasures.
Shabbat is a day of receiving, of absorbing holiness. On Shabbat we are able to indulge our body without losing our consciousness that our enjoyments are a gift of HaShem – because of the neshama yeteira which is intimately connected to our capacity for enjoyment (Rashi Beitza 16a).
Shabbat is not a day of giving. We are forbidden to engage in mundane labors which repair the world, materially and physically, because Shabbat is a day in which we view our work as if it is already completed, as if the world is already perfected (Mechilta Yitro).
Yom Tov is between these two aspects. On weekdays our material nature is moving towards perfection; on Shabbat it is perfected; on Yom Tov it is perfectible. These days, which commemorate the miracles of our history when the natural world was subjected to HaShem’s will in a supernatural way, are days when we also have the ability to subdue our material nature and enable it to acknowledge HaShem’s goodness. We don’t have an extra spirit on Yom Tov, but our ordinary spirit is especially amenable to conquering its baser nature and appreciating material enjoyments without becoming coarse.
So on these days we are allowed to perform labors which are direct preparation for material enjoyments. Unprepared food is perfected through cooking so that it is completely ready for consumption by the spirit – “okhel nefesh” meaning nourishment for the soul. Other labors advance matter but do not perfect it, and so are inappropriate for Yom Tov, the day of “perfectibility”. And on Shabbat all labors are forbidden, for it is a day of perfection.
(Based on Likutei Halakhot Breslav, Laws of Yom Tov)
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.