Zoë Lang
Zoë Lang
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Dwelling among stuff: Reflections on Tractate Sukkah

Studying a page of Talmud each day wasn't going to making moving house easy, but Tractate Sukkah did show me how to dwell temporarily in a place
Illustrative. A full moving truck. (iStock)
Illustrative. A full moving truck. (iStock)

The Jewish calendar sets the rhythm of the year for those who observe it, moving from occasion to occasion in a well-worn, familiar sequence. Residents of the Boston area have an additional annual chronological marker that is difficult to avoid: September 1, referred to as Move-In Day. On this occasion, approximately two-thirds of leases in Boston turn over, creating havoc with traffic in an already congested city, as tenants frantically attempt to vacate one place and occupy a new one.

Like any calendrical marker, we know its rituals and rhythms. To “Storrow” a moving van is to drive it under a bridge that is too low, named after the street on which this phenomenon most often occurs to those newly arrived to our fair city. September 1 even evokes religious undertones. This day is also referred to as “Allston Christmas,” when abandoned furniture left from those vacating apartments can be found in abundance throughout one of Boston’s student-heavy neighborhoods — free gifts to anyone who wants to claim them.

Allston Christmas points to one of the most vexing issues that arises when moving: the unavoidable dilemma of what to do with the accumulation of one’s stuff from one living space to the next. The importance of this stuff might vary from individual to individual, but it is rare to find a person able to fully forgo possessions in favor of an unfettered and uncluttered life.

Observant Jews, I have noted, seem particularly attached to stuff, but perhaps that is because our lifestyles require so much of it. We have multiple dish sets, separate Passover paraphernalia, the many trimmings that fit alongside the rhythms of our calendar. These items are needed for chag (holiday) and for chol (everyday), for the sacred and the mundane, for special occasions and for our everyday lives. In Temple times, avoda required sanctified vessels; now, I need the correct spatula and pot to cook my dinner, depending on whether it is meat, milk, or pareve. My stuff is part and parcel of how I live my life in a halachic way.

One of comedian George Carlin’s most renowned and insightful routines is precisely about the importance of stuff, an observation that feels even more relevant in our age of conspicuous consumption. When you go on vacation, you carefully pack your most treasured stuff for the trip, then you experience consternation if your luggage gets misplaced and it does not arrive at your destination with you. When you are a guest in someone else’s home, you never fully feel comfortable. This cannot be due to any inherent structural features of the building, but instead it is a reaction to the fact that you are surrounded by someone else’s stuff. After all, what is the most basic definition of a house, according to Carlin? “A place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff!”

In the opening chapter of Sukkah, the Talmud also defines what a house is through a negative inference: by establishing what constitutes a temporary dwelling as opposed to a more permanent one. The opening daf presents three different opinions about what characteristics a sukkah must possess. It is the third one, by Rava, that raises the notion of where to dwell during the days of Sukkot. Rava derives his explanation from Leviticus 23:42: בַּסּוּכּוֹת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, “You are to dwell in a sukkah for seven days.” How is dwelling defined, according to the Talmud? Leaving one’s permanent house (דִּירַת קֶבַע) and instead occupy a temporary one (דִירַת עֲרַאי). 

Many of the additional requirements of the sukkah presented throughout the first chapter of the tractate are understood through this lens. For example, the rabbis institute gezerat tikra (Sukkah 15a), a prohibition on creating a sukkah from schach material that is valid for this purpose, but that gives the impression that the roof might be permanent. The function of schach, then, is in part to demonstrate the impermanent nature of this structure. As this case shows, temporality is associated with the sukkah’s outward physical characteristics. But what about the items inside? Borrowing from Carlin, what kind of stuff belongs in a temporary dwelling?

On Sukkah 3a, the rabbis seek to determine the minimum dimensions for a kosher sukkah, a matter that is one of the six in the Talmud (per Tosafot) where Shammai prevails. According to Shammai, a sukkah must be large enough for a person’s head, body, and table — a minimal quantity of stuff, but stuff nonetheless. Other stuff is referenced in Chapter 1 as well. A debate ensues as to whether one can sleep in a bed with a canopy (כִילַּת חֲתָנִים, Sukkah 11a and 19b), which might constitute a separate structure apart from the sukkah and thus not fulfill the commandment. As these cases suggest, to dwell in a sukkah means creating enough space for at least a small measure of stuff. 

I would imagine that many observant Jews today are like me, seeking ways to connect contemporary life with the ancient texts in which halakhah is grounded. Stuff and how it pertains to dwelling in a sukkah might seem like a spurious connection, but the Talmud is providing guidelines for what it means to dwell temporarily in a place. This year, I moved from one apartment to another within the Boston area — although I have the good fortune to be doing so ahead of Move-In Day. With this act comes the inevitable feeling of being unmoored as my stuff is in a state of disarray while I organize, pack, unpack, and reorganize. Perhaps there is a more profound connection between the requirements for sukkah and the paucity of stuff that needs to fit within it: there are enough objects to feel like it is a place where you live, but not so much that you feel at home.  


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About the Author
Zoë Lang is on the faculty of Maimonides School in Brookline, where she teaches Jewish history. She is also the Director of Ma'ayan, an organization that creates text-based learning opportunities throughout the greater Boston area. She lives in Brighton, MA.
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