Of the 39 melachot that are prohibited on Shabbat, some, which relate to the preparation of food and to other matters of physical and spiritual comfort, are permitted on Yom Tov. “The only work you may perform [on Yom Tov] is that which is required for your nourishment (ochel nefesh),” (Exodus Chapter 12, Verse 16).
Accordingly, based on the ochel nefesh permit, one may, for the purpose of Yom Tov pleasure, carry food from domain to domain and light a fire from an existing flame in order to cook food, warm up the house, kindle lights or heat water to wash the dishes or parts of one’s body. Although one may not cook on Yom Tov for a weekday, or on the first day Yom Tov (which is of biblical origin) for the second day Yom Tov (which is of rabbinical origin), one may add to the amount of food being cooked for the first day so that it lasts for the second day of Yom Tov, provided that this is done before the meal is eaten and provided further that one does not explicitly state that one is cooking for the next day. The justification for this is that in the absence of such an explicit statement that one is adding more food today for tomorrow’s meal, one may rely on the probability that the extra quantity can enhance the flavor of the food to be eaten today.
If one is allowed to cook on Yom Tov, why, one may ask, is one not permitted to initiate, as opposed to transfer, fire on Yom Tov? After all, you cannot cook without fire. The answer is that the Torah does permit one to initiate fire on Yom Tov, but the rabbis forbid it. This is because the rabbis restrict the ochel nefesh permit to such activities that cannot reasonably be performed before Yom Tov. Thus, while they fully appreciate that freshly cooked food tastes better than frozen food and therefore permit cooking on Yom Tov, they do not permit one to kindle the source (or pilot) light on Yom Tov if one could just as well have lit it before Yom Tov. Nevertheless, if one was unable, or forgot to do so, and finds oneself without any source of fire on Yom Tov, some authorities permit one to ask a non-Jew to initiate the fire on one’s behalf.
Unlike Shabbat, on which extinguishing or reducing a flame is prohibited in all circumstances, on Yom Tov one may, under certain circumstances in connection with cooking, extinguish or reduce a flame. Accordingly, if one were to extinguish a piece of coal while grilling a damp piece of meat on top of a barbecue, one would not have violated any Yom Tov law. Similarly, one may lower the gas flame (but not an electric coil) in order to avoid burning food. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, this may be done even when the alternative exists of lighting a new, but lower, flame from an existing pilot light and transferring the pot to it. Whereas one may not turn off an electric light on Yom Tov, some authorities permit one to turn off an electric light that keeps one awake at night.
One of the conditions for the application of the ochel nefesh permit is that the desired melacha be one that generally appeals to everybody, “davar hashave l’kol nefesh,” such as cooking, as opposed to individual tastes or needs, such as, perhaps, smoking. Accordingly, in view of the fact that, today, unlike the past, smoking is not generally appealing, there is much discussion among modern-day poskim whether smoking should continue to be permitted on Yom Tov. The consensus is that while those who suffer severe withdrawal symptoms can avail themselves of the ochel nefesh permit, occasional smokers may not. In any event, those who smoke on Yom Tov should take care to light up only from an existing flame, to let the cigarette burn out rather than put it out and to let the ash drop rather than flick it off.
Based upon the opinion of Hillel, the ochel nefesh permit may be extended to apply not only to physical enjoyment on Yom Tov but to spiritual enjoyment as well. By virtue of this extension, referred to as “mitoch she-hutra letzorech, hutra nami she-lo-letzorech,” or just “mitoch,” one may, on Yom Tov, even in the absence of an eruv, carry a machzor, tallit, shofar, lulav or etrog or push a baby carriage to synagogue.
On the first night of Yom Tov, except Shavuot, candles can be lit either at the same time as on Erev Shabbat, or from an existing light, after returning from Maariv evening prayer. On the second night, however, as well as whenever Shabbat precedes Yom Tov, and on both days of Shavuot, they should be lit from an existing light after nightfall.
Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed,” available for purchase by emailing Raphael at [email protected]