Today’s daf addresses the question of whether buying and selling is allowed on hol hamoed. Here’s the first mishnah:
One may not purchase houses, slaves and cattle (on the intermediate days of a festival) except for the needs of the festival, or for the needs of the seller who does not have anything to eat.
The mishnah outlaws big purchases on the intermediate days of the holidays but provides two rather significant exemptions. One deals with the buyer: You can only buy if you need the object for use on the holiday itself. The other deals with the seller: You can only conduct business on hol hamoed if you need income to put food on the table. These exemptions join the growing list of principles regulating work on hol hamoed we’ve already seen in this tractate, such as preventing great loss, avoiding onerous work and attending to the needs of the community.
Later on the daf, we again see that the needs of the festival are central to permitting the buying and selling of small objects as well. Here’s the next mishnah:
Those who sell produce, clothing, and utensils may sell them in private, for the needs of the festival. Fishermen and groats makers and (bean) pounders may ply (their trades) in private for the needs of the festival. Rabbi Yosei says: They were stringent with themselves (to refrain from this work even with respect to what was needed for the festival.)
According to this mishnah, there is no prohibition on selling food, clothing and kitchen utensils for use on the holiday as long as it’s done discreetly so as not to create a busy atmosphere or the hubbub of a regular business day in the market. The items listed in this mishnah are things that tend to be used in the short term and are therefore likely to be purchased for the sake of celebrating the holiday.
In contrast, the houses, slaves and cattle referred to in the first mishnah probably aren’t. While the commentators try to explain how someone might need to buy a house or a slave for the festival, these large investments will naturally serve the buyer long after the holiday is over and should generally be purchased in advance.
Why do the millers and the fisherman merit specific mention? After all, these occupations also provide food that could be enjoyed on the holiday. But their trades also entail cumbersome labor, which is to be avoided on hol hamoed, so a special dispensation was deemed necessary. Indeed, despite the permission granted to these professions, the Gemara reports that the hunters, fowlers, and fishermen of Akko, along with the millers of Tzipori, were stringent and declined to work on hol hamoed.
Recurring in this tractate is the suggestion that even if you have a dispensation to work, you still ought to do so discreetly so as not to ruin the celebratory atmosphere. Towards the end of the daf, the Gemara describes what it means to sell in private:
If a store opens into a row of pillars (the storekeeper) may open and close it in his usual manner. However, if it is open to the public domain, he may open only one (door) and must close the other. And on the eve of the last day of the festival, he may take out (his wares) and adorn the markets of the city with fruit in honor of the last day of the festival.
If a store faces a colonnade, then it may open as usual because it is not very visible. But if a store is located on a wide open piazza or main street, then the store must remain partially shuttered. Interestingly, this set of rules is accompanied by yet another exception: On the final day of hol hamoed, sellers are not only allowed to sell, but encouraged to go out into the street and create a colorful market of fruit. Here the problematic activity of commerce is encouraged as it creates an anticipatory atmosphere for the final day of celebration.
All these laws come with exceptions. On every daf, we get a picture of the pliable and liminal nature of hol hamoed: You can’t work unless you must, you can’t buy things unless you need them, and commerce takes away from the spirit of the holiday, except when it adds to it! The parameters of hol hamoed provide us an interesting lens through which to view our own daily consumption. When are we fully present in buying things we actually need, and how often are we swept up in the frenzy of amassing material things in the never-ceasing business of buying?
Read all of Moed Katan 13 on Sefaria.