Tefillin or Not Tefillin? Originally Published April 17-18, 2020.

Hol HaMo’ed (חול המועד), literally “weekday of the festival,” refers to the days in the middle of a festival.  Pesah and Sukkot (but not Shavu’ot) have festival days at the beginning and ending of their roughly week-long celebrations, and we are referring to the days that are not considered to be full festival days:  days when we do not take off work and go to the synagogue for services that run until noon, besides Shabbat on which of course we do that anyway. 

This discussion excludes Shabbat, even Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed, because we do not lay tefillin on Shabbat.  Which brings us to the question mentioned one recent Hol HaMo’ed  day at morning minyan:  do we use tefillin on weekday Hol HaMo’ed?  The answer is interesting, and, as often is the case, not straightforward.

Conservative Jews are all over the place on this.  The various traditions show that in general:

  • Ashkenazi, Yemenite, and non-Hasidic Lithuanian traditions wear as on regular weekdays.
  • Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazi followers of the Vilna Gaon, and Chabad Hasidim do not wear.
  • Few Jews in Israel wear (which some opine may be the influence of the Vilna Gaon).

Additionally, some who do lay tefillin on Hol HaMo’ed have the custom of either omitting or reciting the blessings.

Those who do wear tefillin (with or without the blessings) on Hol HaMo’ed generally remove them before Hallel, as Hallel is a clearly festival section of the service.

Some say that because the tefillin are a “sign” upon us, denoting and reminding us of our intent to carry forward the laws and mitzvot expected, when a festival or Shabbat comes along we do not need a further sign to remind us.  The Shulhan Arukh ruled based upon Kabbalah and Zohar, which advised against tefillin on Hol HaMo’ed.  That is the basis of Sephardic Jews’ practice.

Wearing without the blessings has been prescribed by rabbis (e.g., Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Rabbi Moses of Coucy, and Rabbi David HaLevi Segal) as a middle-of-the-road compromise. 

In general, we are advised that if there is an established practice in our family (wearing or not, blessing or not), follow it.  If there is none, ask the rabbi or follow the lead of the congregation.

We note that the original general daily practice was to put on the tefillin in the morning and wear them all day.  Still today, some followers of the Vilna Gaon, and also some followers of Maimonides, and some Yemenites, may wear tefillin all day.

As an additional note, tefillin are not worn in the morning on Tish’ah BeAv, either, a day of minimalism.  But they are worn at Minhah on that day.  (This custom differs in some communities as well.)

Of course there is an exception:  on the third day of Passover, when the Torah reading (following Hallel) talks about the mitzvah of tefillin, many do use tefillin even though they do not do so during the rest of Hol HaMo’ed.  Those who are wearing generally remove after the Torah reading on that day.