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Non-Jews often wonder about the value of close study of Jewish law. To the outsider it can seem hyper-specialized, often applying to a very narrow range of situations. What wisdom comes from this nitpicking about legal requirement, they wonder? Quite a bit, in fact. Seemingly remote rabbinic discussions can trigger fresh thoughts about contemporary problems.

On Shabbat and major holidays, actions defined as “work” are biblically prohibited. There are also restrictions on what can be done on the intermediate days of major holidays (hol ha-moed). On days three through six of Passover and days three through seven of Sukkot, for example, one must refrain from laundry or haircuts. Some of these rabbinic enactments are meant to ensure that the intermediate days are treated appropriately and that we do not enter the holiday ungroomed because we have put off these tasks to the leisurely “vacation days” of hol ha-moed. The prohibition is an incentive to get laundry and personal grooming done in advance. Exceptions to the laundry prohibition are specified situations where adequate preparations before the holiday are not doable; the most common exception used to be washing non-­disposable diapers on hol ha-moed.

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