Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

Sukkah, Garden of Eden & re-creating God’s world


I have often thought about Sukkot as a time to enable humanity to re-enact the creation of the world. This was always a hunch, with proximity reinforcing the thought. We read the creation narratives immediately following Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. We enter a closed environment and live there for seven days, a full creation cycle. Heaven is accentuated by the s’chach, and we hold plants. God created the world through a series of separations: the upper from the lower waters, the land from the water, heaven from earth, light from darkness. Each act of separation gave identity, purpose and function to natural phenomena as the structure of reality emerged through a process of thought, speech and development.

The structure of the sukkah also reflects separations. The walls of the sukkah, the defanot, support the s’chach that alludes to but separates the interior of the sukkah from Heaven. The walls of the sukkah form the basis, is broader legal discussions, for the concept of mechitzot, which form partitions that create separations in a variety of contexts such as prayer spaces and spaces that might transmit the existential energy called tumah that affects a person spiritually when sharing a space with a corpse.

In the Talmud, the rabbis discussed the interior dimensions of the Sukkah by referencing the Mishkan, the Mikdah, the aron kodesh, and Mt. Sinai. Ten handbreadths prefigured as the minimum interior height of a sukkah, excluding the thickness of the s’chach. The Talmudic discussion that develops the significance of the dimension of ten handbreadths is organized around the theological question of how close God and humanity can come to each other:

The Gemara asks: And did the Divine Presence never descend below ten handbreadths? But isn’t it written: “And God descended onto Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:20)? The Gemara answers: Although God descended below, God always remained ten handbreadths above the ground. Since from ten handbreadths and above it is a separate domain, in fact, the Divine Presence never descended to the domain of this world. The Gemara asks:

But isn’t it written: “And on that day God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4)? The Gemara answers: Here, too, God will remain ten handbreadths above the ground….The Gemara asks: But isn’t it written: “He grasps the face of the throne, and spreads God’s cloud upon him” (Job 26:9)? And Rabbi Tanḥum said: This teaches that the Almighty spread of the radiance of God’s Divine Presence and of God’s cloud upon Moses. Apparently, Moses was in the cloud with God. The Gemara answers: Here, too, it was below ten handbreadths. (Talmud Bavli Sukkah 5aff)

God’s presence never penetrates the human domain completely, nor does the human ascend totally to the divine. The allusion to God’s protective cloud applies directly to the structure of the sukkah. Later in the same discussion Rabbi Elazar taught that the sukkot inhabited in the desert by Bene Yisrael were themselves made of the clouds of God’s presence. (Bavli Sukkah 11b) These teachings suggest that the interiority of the sukkah is structured to create a sacramental, transformative space. Its structure evokes and the space holds the sanctity reflected by the dimensions of the aron kodesh, the mishkan, the beit hamikdash, and the clouds of God’s holy presence themselves. God’s presence hovers just above the s’chach, never quite descending inside, but infusing the space with divine intimacy at the same time.

These associations inspire me to wonder: what about the interior of the Sukkah? The Talmud records a similar conversation about the structure and interior of the aron kodesh in the mishkan. There the dispute reflects whether or not the “original” Torah written by Moshe himself which was on the side of the aron was on the outside, requiring a shelf protruding from the ark, or on the inside. I want to ask the same question about the interior of the sukkah: what elements create its environment, and what is the power of that space?

The Torah describes the celebration of sukkot in two different ways. The first description in Vayikra, the Torah describes a celebration with plants: On the first day you shall take the fruit of a “goodly” tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Vayikra 23:40) The second description in Devarim, however, describes an in-gathering of humanity for the purpose of expressing gratitude for the life and bounty the earth has granted them:

After the harvest from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall celebrate the Sukkot for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim 16:13-15)

These two descriptions of Sukkot emphasize four species of plants, and describe a humanity that spans a broad socio-economic range of experience. The formulaic description of insiders and outsiders coming together suggests to me a universalistic dimension to Sukkot that appears to be central. The universality of sukkot appears in other ways. The rabbis associated the seventy oxen offered throughout the holiday as suggestive of and corresponding to the seventy nations of the world. (Bemidbar 29:12 ff; statement of Rabbi Elazar in Bavli Sukkah 55b) The Beit haMikdash, according to rabbinic teachings, was established in Jerusalem on Mt. Moriah, the site of the binding of Isaac and the site of the Garden of Eden:

And it is a tradition accepted by all, that the place where David and Solomon built the altar at the threshing floor of Arauna was the place that Abraham built the altar and bound Isaac upon it, and that was the place that Noah built upon when he left the ark, and that was the altar upon which Kain and Abel sacrificed, and upon which Adam the First sacrificed when he was created. And from there was born the saying of the sages that “Man was created from the place of his atonement. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit haBechirah 2:2; For a composite of the Rambam’s sources for each of these associations, see, Talmud Zevachim 62a, Yalkut Shemini Bereshit 119, Mishnah Yoma 53b, Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 31, Talmud Yerushalmi Nazir 7 halacha 2)

This is an extraordinary set of associations. The Midrash Tanchuma records Jerusalem as the “navel of the world.” (Tanchuma Buber, Kedoshim 10). This means that all of the events that occurred there nourish the world as the site of a divine umbilical chord. (Indeed, the ancient Greek word for navel is omphalos, meaning, “umbilical chord.” Many cultures identified a spiritual site as the world’s navel. For the Greeks, it was Delphi. For us, it remains Jerusalem.) The events that the Rambam collected are at once particular to the Jewish people, as well as universal for all of humanity. That is where the world began, where the first act of fratricide occurred, where Noach constructed the ark and saved creation, where God tested Avraham’s faith, the loyalty of God’s beloved human, and where the Temple was built. The prophet Amos calls that Temple, Sukkat David, “King David’s Sukkah. In other words, a sukkah represents a microcosmic space containing the Garden of Eden, God’s holy sanctuary, and holding all of the yearning and pathos of humanity within its walls and under its s’chach.

The Temple itself was such a microcosmic re-creation of the Garden of Eden. The Garden had four rivers flowing from its center, and the Mikdash had water flowing from the altar down to the Shiloah spring beyond its walls. On Sukkot in particular, the altar was transformed into a garden with large palm fronds on all sides. Both the Temple and the Garden were sources of nourishment: the garden with all vegetation, and the Temple, with korbanot. Both had custodians to “work and protect the environment:” Kohanim in the Temple and the first humans in the Gan. I am now suggesting, though, that each sukkah a person builds becomes itself a Mikdash Me’at, a microcosmic Temple, and therefore, by extension, a gateway into the Garden of Eden for all who enter.

Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud, Sukkah 33a, stated that in order to pray appropriately with the Lulav and etrog, the four species must be bound together. The sages decided that this would be an act of chasidut, a particularly pious and punctilious way of celebrating, and this has become a universally accepted way of taking the lulav. This binding is called, egged lulav. Furthermore, there is a widespread custom of “benching lulav,” i.e., reciting the blessing while holding the lulav, hadasim and aravot in one hand and the etrog upside down in the other, and then turning the etrog around so that it is held as it grows, place the etrog together with the other three species, and then wave them together in six directions. This minhag is practiced inside the sukkah. By holding the four species together inside the sukkah, one is choreographing a moment in the garden of Eden, because by holding the species together, one literally creates a tree! The lulav is the trunk, the aravot are the branches by flowing water, the hadasim the leaves, and the etrog, the fruit.

The rabbis, indeed, identify the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the center of the Garden of Eden, with an etrog! From what kind of tree would the first human being have eaten?…Rabbi Akiva of Acco said, an etrog tree, since the etrog tree is edible….(Pesikta Rabbati 42:175) The ancient rabbis read the Song of Songs as a metaphor describing the love and romance between God and the Jewish people. There, the over says of his beloved: The fragrance of your breath is like the fragrance of “tapuchim.” (Song of Songs, 7:9) Tapuach in modern Hebrew is translated, “apples.” However, apples were not indigenous to the land of Israel. The Targum to Shir haShirim, however, translates this verse with the words: The fragrance of your breath is like the fragrance of the tree of paradise. This suggests to me that the biblical word, tapuach might be translated into the dialect of rabbinic Hebrew as, etrog. This is corroborated by a description of etrogim, the “citron,” by the Roman natural historian, Pliny, who lived in the first century CE. In his Natural History, he describes the citron as a kind of “apple:”

There is another tree also with the same name of “citrus,” and bears a fruit that is held by some persons in particular dislike for its smell and remarkable bitterness; while, on the other hand, there are some who esteem it very highly. This tree is used as an ornament to houses…. The citron tree, called the Assyrian, and by some the Median apple, is an antidote against poisons. The leaf is similar to that of the arbute, except that it has small prickles running across it. As to the fruit, it is never eaten, but it is remarkable for its extremely powerful smell, which is the case, also, with the leaves; indeed, the odour is so strong, that it will penetrate clothes, when they are once impregnated with it, and hence it is very useful in repelling the attacks of noxious insects. The tree bears fruit at all seasons of the year; while some is falling off, other fruit is ripening, and other, again, just bursting into birth. (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book XII)

The rabbis of the Talmud knew this as well:

Rabbi Hamma said that Rabbi Chanina said: Your fragrances is like the fragrance of “apple” trees….Why is Israel compared to a tapuach tree? Because the Jewish people proclaimed, ‘We will obey God’ before they proclaimed, ‘We will understand God.’ This is just as the tapuach tree produces fruit often before they produce leaves.’” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88a)

This, too, describes the etrog, Bringing the etrog together with the lulav, hadasim and aravot into the sukkah throughout the holiday transforms the sukkah into the Gardenof eden with our holding onto the tree of life. Thre, inside this now magical environment, we stand within 10 hadbreathds of God’s presence, on the the very spot where the first humans prayed for forgiveness, where the first act of human violence was perpetuated, where humanity learned the first lesson of faith n the Creator, and built a holy sanctuary to protect and guard against sin, transgression, and any form of violence that would diminish God’s image in the world. More powerful than entering the sukkah, perhaps, is re-entering the world we inhabit after the seven days of sukkot-re-creation. May we enter our sukkot prepared to live in paradise for seven days, and then energized by the spirit of God’s presence to re-enter our present world dedicated to filling God’s world with righteousness, compassion and justice.

Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.