Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

A Classic Sukkah Joke That’s Deadly Serious

I was recently discussing with a friend what goes into building a sukkah, and promptly remembered one of my favorite Jewish jokes. After he stopped laughing, it hit me: this actually has a serious message, highly relevant to our times.

In a 19th century shtetl, a very poor Jew named Shmuel dreamed every year of building his own sukkah from scratch. One year, he finally managed to save enough kopecks to purchase the materials. After buying all that he needed, he asked his rabbi: “Are there any Jewish sources that could help me build the sukkah exactly according to the halakha?”

The rabbi replied: “Absolutely! Go to Tractate Brakhot [Blessings]. In chapter 1 you’ll find everything you need, especially if you follow Rashi’s explicit explanations and instructions.”

Shmuel hurried home, opened the Talmud, and sure enough there were Rashi’s explanatory instructions. He followed them exactly.

Came the evening of Sukkot, Shmuel went to synagogue and after the service arrived home. He entered the beautiful, little sukkah, lavishly decorated by his children; his heart was bursting with joy. As was customary, he started with kiddush. Halfway through, a slight gust of wind breezed by – and the entire sukkah collapsed inwards!!

Shmuel was distraught and made a beeline across the shtetl. Bursting into the rabbi’s sukkah, he agitatedly asked: “Rabbi, I did everything Rashi instructed! Why did a small breeze cause the sukkah to collapse?”

The rabbi looked at Shmuel, stroked his beard a few times and then replied: “You know, the later commentator Tosefot asks the same question!”

What’s funny about this joke is that the rabbi’s response “repeats” a classic line from yeshiva Talmud study, but in a ridiculous situation. However, it is also funny and sad because the rabbi was so ensconced in “academic” study that he didn’t have the presence of mind to realize that the entire Talmudic discussion with the commentaries had real, practical relevance. And the joke is completely tragic, given that the rabbi was “warned” way ahead of time about the ensuing disaster – but didn’t take heed to inform lowly, poor Shmuel.

Sound familiar? If not, think of Mount Meron. How many lives would have been saved this past April 30 if the celebrants (and their leaders) had heeded the warnings of the authorities and taken steps to avoid the disaster of the ensuing “crowd collapse”?

Are Israelis – and people in general – fated to repeat this same mistake over and over? Not necessarily. A “miraculous” thing occurred in the city of Holon, Israel, this past week. When some cracks started appearing in an old building, the municipal engineer was called in. After a short, spot inspection, he demanded that all the residents leave immediately. Amazingly (with some cajoling; after all, this is Israel), they did leave their homes within a very short time. The entire building collapsed the next day!

If you think that these are localized, isolated cases – think again. It is no different than the medical authorities last year (and this) calling for everyone to be vaccinated against the Coronavirus, and to wear masks. Yet despite the urgent warning, millions of Americans and Europeans (and thousands of Israelis) have refused to do so. The outcome: disaster, mainly for the unvaccinated. In Israel this week, the Health Ministry announced that the unvaccinated were many times more likely die from Covid-19 than were those vaccinated twice – and the ratio is even greater compared to those who received a third booster shot.

Rashi and Tosefot lived centuries ago. We don’t have forewarnings today centuries in advance, but on the most critical issue facing the world today we certainly have had several decades advance warning: global heating and climate change. Our Earth sukkah is definitely teetering; we should have been heeding the scientific “Prophets of Doom” from the start, but it seems that humans are generally not “built” for action until the house really falls on our head.

So, as you sit in a sukkah next week, think of its symbolism: we live in a world of great tenuousness. When it comes to potential danger, heed the authorities. That goes for Talmudic scholars and average home dwellers alike.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book will be published in early 2022 (Springer Nature): VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9789811665257#aboutBook). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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