Succot, Shemini Atzeret, & Simchat Torah
Rabbi Bernard Fox
“You should dwell in Succot for seven days. Every member of the nation of Israel must dwell in Succot. This is so that your future generations will know that I caused Bnai Yisrael to dwell in Succot when I brought them forth from the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d.” (VaYikra 23:42-43)
Our passages describe a fundamental mitzvah of the festival of Succot. We are required to live in thatched huts – Succot – for seven days. The Torah explains the reason for this commandment. The mitzvah reminds us of the Succot of the wilderness. During the sojourn in the wilderness, the nation dwelled in these insignificant structures. These huts provided minimal protection from the harsh elements of the wilderness. Nonetheless, the nation survived the sojourn and even thrived. This experience provides testimony to the providence of the Almighty over His people. During the festival of Succot, we reenact the experience of the wilderness. Through this process we are reminded of the Almighty’s providence.
In Tractate Succah, the Talmud suggests that an important law can be derived from these passages. The first mishne of the Tractate records various laws regarding the structure of the succah. One of these requirements is that the structure may not be higher than twenty cubits – the equivalent of thirty to forty feet. The mishne does not state the reason for this restriction. However, the Gemarra poses the question. What is the reason for the limit on the succah’s height? The Talmud offers various explanations. One is derived from our passages.
The Sage Rabba suggests that our passages provide a reason for restricting the height of the succah. According to Rabba’s interpretation, the passage requires the height of the succah to be consistent with the purpose or character of the structure. The essential component of the succah is its roof or covering. This covering must be composed of sechach – branches or vegetation. The character of the roof must be evident to its occupant. A person’s immediate range of vision extends to a height of only twenty cubits. If the succah is within twenty cubits, the occupant is aware of the sechach. If the height exceeds twenty cubits, the sechach is above the person’s range of vision. The occupant will not be cognizant of the sechach.
Rabba’s position raises a number of questions. First, how does Rabba derive his principle from our passages? Our passages state that we are required to dwell in the succah during the festival. The passages also explain the reason for this mitzvah. It is intended to remind us of the huts in the wilderness. The passage does not seem to state any structural restriction.
The second difficulty with Rabba’s position requires a brief introduction. The Torah contains 613 commandments. Each commandment has a reason or purpose. In some instances, the purpose of a commandment is not revealed. In other cases, the reason is revealed. What intentions or thoughts must a person have in performing a commandment? Certainly, a full understanding of a commandment enhances its performance. But what is the minimum cognizance required in performing a mitzvah?
There is a dispute among the Sages regarding this issue. Some maintain that a person must be aware that the activity is a commandment. Others take a different position. They assert that the person must consciously perform the activity required by the mitzvah. However, the person is not required to recognize that the performance is a commandment.
An example will illustrate the dispute. Assume a person picks us the Four Species. The person is not thinking about the activity and is barely aware of the action. Both authorities agree that the commandment has not been performed. Now, assume a person picks up the species. The action is done with intention and forethought. However, the person is not aware of the mitzvah of the Four Species. Has the commandment been performed? The more lenient view is that the mitzvah has been fulfilled. The more stringent view is that the commandment has not been performed. The person was not aware of performing a commandment.
It must be noted that neither position maintains that the person must be aware of the purpose of the mitzvah! This higher level of understanding and thought is not required for the minimal performance of a mitzvah.
We can now understand the second question on Rabba’s position. Rabba maintains that the occupant of the succah must be aware of the sechach. Why is this necessary? The most obvious explanation is that the sechach reminds us of the purpose of the commandment. The occupant’s awareness of the sechach assures recognition of the purpose of the mitzvah. In other words, performance of the mitzvah of succah requires cognizance of its purpose!
This requirement is an anomaly in halacha. At most, we are required to be aware that we are performing a commandment. Generally, a mitzvah is achieved without awareness of its purpose. In other words, Rabba posits that it is insufficient for the succah to merely reflect the purpose of the mitzvah. The height must assure that the occupant is actually aware of the purpose in performing the commandment. This level of awareness is not generally required.
The commentaries offer a number of responses to our first question. One of the simple explanations is provided by Rabbaynu Nissim. He begins by acknowledging that the passages have a clear simple interpretation. The passages state a commandment and its purpose. He then explains that these objectives could be accomplished in a more concise manner. The passages could have merely stated that we are required to live in the succah during the festival because Hashem caused us to live in huts during the sojourn in the wilderness. Instead, the passages contain a seemingly superfluous phrase. This phrase is, “This is so that your future generations will know”. This entire phrase could have been replaced by the single word “because”. Every word and phrase in the Torah has a message. Rabba is providing an interpretation of the seeming verbose wording of the passages. The additional phrase has a message. The message is that the succah must be constructed in a manner that makes known to its occupants the purpose of the commandment. This is accomplished by restricting the height of the succah. Through this regulation, the sechach is within the visual range of the occupants. The sechach reminds these occupants of the purpose of the mitzvah.
BaCh extends Rabbaynu Nissim’s reasoning in order to answer our second question. He begins by noting an oddity in the Tur’s discussion of the mitzvah of succah. The Tur is a code of halacha. Generally, the Tur does not expound upon the theological purpose of commandments. However, in a few instances the Tur deviates from this policy. One of these instances is the mitzvah of succah. The Tur’s discussion begins with an elaboration on the purpose of the mitzvah. The Tur then explain various laws and requirements of the mitzvah in light of its purpose. BaCh asks the obvious question. Why does the Tur deviate from its usual method of presentation and digress into this theological discussion?
BaCh responds that the answer lies in our passages. Rabbaynu Nissim observes that the passages are apparently verbose. He explains that the seemingly extra phrase is establishing a structural requirement. BaCh asks a simple question. How do the passages communicate this message? He responds that the passages tell us that it is not sufficient for the succah to reflect its purpose. The succah must effectively communicate its message to the occupants. This communication is accomplished through fostering an awareness of the sechach. In other words, the passages establish a unique requirement for this mitzvah. The reason for the mitzvah must be communicated. Cognizance of purpose is fundamental to performance of the commandment.
BaCh explains that now we can understand the Tur’s digression into the purpose of the mitzvah of succah. In the case of most mitzvot this discussion is irrelevant. Performance of the commandment does not require appreciation of its purpose. The Tur’s mission is to define the elements required for proper performance of the mitzvah. A discussion of the mitzvah’s purpose is not relevant to this objective.
The mitzvah of succah is different. Our passages establish a unique requirement for the fulfillment of the mitzvah of succah. In this instance, cognizance of purpose is fundamental to the proper performance of the mitzvah. Therefore, it is appropriate for the Tur to discuss this purpose.
We can now answer
our second question on Rabba. Our
interpretation of Rabba is correct. He
does acknowledge the role of a special cognizance in the performance of the mitzvah of succah. The structure must
foster an awareness of purpose.
Generally, this level of awareness is not needed. However, our passages establish a special
requirement for the mitzvah of succah.
In the performance of this mitzvah,
cognizance of purpose is fundamental to the performance.
“If rain begins to fall, one enters the house. At what point can one leave? Once enough drops are falling so that were they to fall into the food, they would ruin it… Rama: This applies even if there is no food present. If one is not competent in making this measurement, one can evaluate the rain as follows: If this much rain leaked into one’s house, would one leave the house? If so, one leaves the succah.” (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 639:5)
“Anyone who is exempt from the succah and does not leave it, does not receive a reward for this behavior. Rather he is considered simple-minded….” (Rama, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 639:7)
During the festival of Succot we are commanded to live in the succah. We must make the succah our dwelling or residence. This mitzvah is fulfilled through transferring basic daily activities to the succah. At a minimum, we should eat and sleep in the succah. Performing additional activities in the succah increases the fulfillment of the mitzvah.
Generally, we are exempt from the mitzvah of living in the succah if rain renders it unfit for use. At what point is the succah unfit? Rama provides a simple rule. The succah should be treated as ones’ house. If the rain would cause a person to leave one’s house and seek better shelter, one can leave the succah.
This raises an important question. Assume it is raining. The downpour is heavy enough to exempt me from dwelling in my succah. Is there any reason to stay in the succah? In the case of most commandments we would respond in the affirmative. Even if one is exempt from a commandment, one is still rewarded for its fulfillment. Women are exempt from the commandment of Shofar. Yet, common practice is for women to hear the shofar blasts. We would expect the same principle to apply here. Based on this reasoning, there would be a reward for eating in a dripping succah.
Rama explains that this is not the case. In the instance of a succah that is dripping rain, there is no benefit in remaining in the succah. He supports his view by quoting the Talmud Yerushalmi. The Talmud explains that anyone who is exempt from a command and nonetheless performs it, is considered a simpleton.
As we have shown above, the rule of the Yerushalmi cannot be universally applied. In many cases, we recognize the validity of an exempt person performing a mitzvah. When does the Yerushalmi’s principle apply? Why does it apply to the rain sodden succah?
It seems that there are two circumstances under which a person is exempt from a mitzvah. First, a person can be exempt because the obligation to perform the command does not extend to this individual. Our case of a woman and the mitzvah of shofar is an example of this situation. Women are not obligated in the mitzvah. Similarly, women are not obligated in the mitzvah of shaking the four species. However, if a woman executes these commandments, the performance is valid. Therefore, a woman is rewarded for listening to the shofar blasts and shaking the four species. Despite their exemption, they have executed a valid performance of the mitzvah.
Second, a person can be exempt from a mitzvah because this individual cannot perform the commandment. Imagine a person who, unfortunately, has lost both arms. This person cannot perform the mitzvah of placing one of the teffilin on his arm. This person is not merely exempted from the mitzvah. Performance is impossible. In such a case, any attempt to perform the commandment is obviously foolish. Apparently, the Yerushalmi refers to this situation.
Based on this
distinction, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Zt”l
explains the position of Rama. We are
required to dwell in the succah. If a person cannot be comfortable in the succah because of rain, extreme cold or
some other condition, the person is exempt.
Rav Chaim explained that this exemption is not because the obligation
does not extend to this person. The exemption
results from a more basic issue.
Dwelling in the succah, under
such circumstances, is not recognized as the type of dwelling required by the mitzvah. As Rama explains, we must evaluate whether a person would dwell in one’s house under such
circumstances. If the answer is
negative, then this is not the type of dwelling required by the mitzvah. The rain makes it impossible to perform the commandment. Therefore, remaining in the succah serves no purpose.
“The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to benefit Israel. Therefore He provided them with many laws and commandments.” (Tractate Makkot 23b)
On Simchat Torah we celebrate the annual completion of reading of the Torah and the initiation of a new cycle. This celebration is an acknowledgement of the importance of the Torah. Implicitly, we affirm the Almighty’s kindness in providing us with the Torah.
The quotation above discusses the benefit we derive from the Torah. In order to understand this insight, we must begin with the simple meaning of the quotation. The Torah is composed of six hundred thirteen commandments. Each of these commandments includes a multitude of laws. The laws define the manner in which the commandment is fulfilled. For example, the Torah directs us to dwell in a succah during the celebration of Succot. This is a mitzvah. Various laws are needed to define the means of fulfilling this obligation. The laws describe the structure of the succah. The laws also define the meaning of “dwelling”. In other words, the laws delineate the specific acts required to establish a state of dwelling in the succah.
Many of these mitzvot seem to serve similar purposes. We are required to dwell in the succah in order to remember our exodus from Egypt and our sojourn in the wilderness. The celebration of Pesach also recalls our exodus from Egypt. Shabbat is associated with the redemption form Egypt. The requirement to recite the last paragraph of the Shema is designed to remind us of our rescue from bondage. Why are so many mitzvot required? Why is a single theme reinforced by a multiplicity of commandments?
This is the issue addressed by our Sages in the above quotation. The Sages respond that this very redundancy somehow enriches us. The Sages do not clearly explain the nature of this benefit. We must solve this mystery. We must identify the exact benefit to which they allude.
Sefer HaChinuch provides a solution to this problem. He explains that the Torah is both a system of laws and a personal philosophy and outlook. Clearly, an objective of the Torah is to teach us this outlook and encourage our assimilation of this philosophy.
How is this objective met? Commonly, a teacher or scholar wishing to teach a novel philosophy communicates its tenets. The student must master these tenets and incorporate them into a person world-view. This is a formidable task. If the philosophy is truly unique, it will be difficult to assimilate. The student may clearly understand its principles. Yet, it is difficult to revise one’s perspective and world-view. These attitudes are ingrained. They are part of the personality. Therefore, this new philosophy fails to effect a real change in the student.
The Torah solved this problem through combining its philosophy with mitzvot. The commandments provide the means for assimilating the Torah outlook. These mitzvot train us to see reality though the perspective of the Torah. Let us return to our example. There are many mitzvot that share the goal of reminding us of our redemption from Egypt. These mitzvot are redundant. But there is a reason for the redundancy. Though repeated actions that reinforce the message of redemption, we assimilate this concept into our personal outlook. The mitzvot translate the Torah’s philosophy into a personal outlook.
We can now understand the insight of our Sages. The Almighty wanted us to actually benefit from the wisdom of the Torah. This requires that we absorb this wisdom and incorporate it into our personal world-view. Therefore, He gave us a multitude of laws and mitzvot. These laws and mitzvot enable us to mold our personal perspective.
This edition of "Thoughts" completes the seventh year of this publication. With a tremendous amount of seyata de’shmaya — assistance from the Almighty — we have succeeded in publishing "Thoughts" every week.
The Yeshiva has served the Seattle Jewish community for twenty-five years. Yet, we feel that the Yeshiva needs to continue to communicate the nature of the education it provides. It is difficult to describe a Torah education. It is far easier to provide examples. We hope that through this publication we have provided concrete examples of the Yeshiva’s approach to Torah learning. We have also aspired to communicate some of the essential themes that we transmit to our students.
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I must acknowledge the influence of my teacher, Rabbi Israel Chait. For too few years I had the remarkable good fortune to study under Rabbi Chait. Each shiur — class — was characterized with the Rosh HaYeshiva’s overwhelming love for Torah and learning. This love was expressed though a pure joy which flowed from our teacher and filled the room. Rabbi Chait also encouraged of us to grow in our own unique manner. Students have different strengths. Each must learn how to best apply his or her talents to Torah study. I hope that, to some modest extent, I have succeeded in transmitting these messages to my own students.
I dedicate this publication to my beloved mother, and my father of blessed memory.
Rabbi Bernie Fox
On a personal note, I thank you Rabbi Fox, for contributing your teachings to the JewishTimes. I have learned much from your writings, and your shiurim. May you continue to imbue many with the beauty of Torah.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
 Mesechet Succah 2a.
 Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven, (Ran) Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Succah 1a.
 Rabbaynu Yaakov ben HaRash, Tur Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 625.
 Rav Yoel Sircus, (BaCh), Bayit Chadash Commentary on Tur, Orech Chayim 625.
 Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Berachot 2:9.
 Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Reshimat Shuirim, Succah, pp. 92-93.
 Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 16.