Tefillin on Chol HaMo'ed
Do we wear Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed (the intermediate days of the major festivals)?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
There are different customs. The basic issue is as follows. The Talmud (Eiruvin 96a) explains why we do not wear Tefillin on Shabbat and Yom Tov – the festivals. The Torah describes Tefillin as a “sign” (“oas”): “And it shall be a sign on your arm” (Exodus 13:16). It is a special symbol of the love between God and Israel. Now the Torah also calls Shabbat and the festivals a sign – see Exodus 31:13: “But you shall keep My Sabbaths for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations…” (This applies to Yom Tov too in which we may not perform most types of labor – see commentary of Ritva to that Gemara.) Thus, it is not appropriate to don the “sign” of Tefillin on Shabbat and Yom Tov because such times themselves testify to the bond between God and Israel.
What about Chol HaMo’ed – the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover? Are they too a sign between God and Israel? The issue is unresolved. On the one hand, most forms of labor are forbidden on these days as well, and the major laws of each holiday apply on its intermediate days – eating in the Sukkah on Sukkot and not eating leaven on Passover. Some authorities, however, are of the opinion that labor is only rabbinically forbidden on Chol HaMo’ed, not from Torah law. Furthermore, there are sources in the Talmud which indicate that people used to wear Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed (see Tosafos to Eiruvin 96a s.v. “yamim” for a brief discussion on this). On the second hand, the Zohar writes unequivocally that one should not wear Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed (Zohar Chadash, Shir HaShirim 79b). This is also the conclusion of the Vilna Gaon (O.C. 31:4).
As a result, there is no clear conclusion in Jewish law, and different communities follow different customs. The very basic rundown is that Ashkenazi Jews generally wear Tefillin. Many Jews of German descent (“Yekkies”) also recite the blessings on Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed (albeit quietly) while most other Ashkenazim do not. Sefardim and most Chassidim – who tend to follow more Kabbalistic practices – do not wear Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed and this too is the near-universal custom in Israel. (See Shulchan Aruch O.C. 31:2 with Rema.)
Unless you live in Israel, you should follow the custom of your family if you’re aware of it or that of your community. If you’re not sure of your ancestry and there is no uniform custom in your community, then the most recommended practice is to put on Tefillin without reciting the blessings. It’s even a good idea to have in mind that you’re wearing them “just in case” – and that if there really is no obligation to wear Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed, then you do not intend by wearing them to fulfill the mitzvah (Mishna Berurah 31:8).
People who wear Tefillin on Chol HaMo’ed take them off right after the Shemoneh Esrei of Shacharit, before Hallel (Rema 25:13, MB 60, see also MB 31:7). Also, it is not proper to have two different customs in the same minyan (MB 31:8).