Aaron Alexander

Sukkot, Halakhah, and Spirituality

The transition from Yom Kippur to Sukkot is the quintessential expression of inhabiting the space between heaven and earth, and blurring those boundaries altogether.  Here are 5 short teachings around the laws of Sukkot that attempt to highlight some of those experiences and tensions.  Hag Sameach!

1) “One can utilize a friend to be a wall of the sukkah and it will be a kosher sukkah. Even on Yom Tov, so long as that person doesn’t know they are a sukkah wall (which would violate the prohibition of building on Yontif). On the intermediate days, one can know they are the wall, and it is fine.” ~Shulhan Arch, Orakh Hayyim, 630:12

Pretty much anything can be used as a wall.

Take a moment to imagine what this would feel like if ever employed. To have a person physically be the structure, the scaffolding, that is necessary for another to experience God’s protective shade.

There’s no way to read this halakhah without imagining a friend, or stranger–right next to you, looking at you–and holding up your roof.

And then consider that this is precisely how it is meant to be. And ought to be. And must be–for so much right now.

2) Rabbi Abba bar Zavda said that Rav said: A mourner (on the first night of sukkot) is obligated in the mitzva of sukkah dwelling.

Isn’t that obvious?!

Nope. You could say that since Rabbi Abba bar Zavda said that Rav said that one who is suffering (mitz’ta’are) is exempt from the mitzva of sukkah, the mourner too is one who is suffering [and exempt.

This teaches us that this applies [the suffering exemption] only with suffering that is caused by the sukkah itself [weather, smell, etc..] However, here (mourner), where she herself is suffering, she is [still] required to settle herself [in order to observe the obligation].  (Bavli Sukkot 25b)

This is a challenging Gemara. At least for me. It can’t be that the sages’ experience/understanding of grief was so vastly different than ours/mine that they assumed one could just turn it on or off, based on the immediate need. (Maybe I’m wrong.)

So I am reading it differently–even if against the plain meaning (and grammar). At least the last 4 words–iyba’ye lay l’i’yatuvey daatey — needs settle herself.

Maybe, instead, the sukkah can be for some of those who are experiencing loss, precisely the place in where the heart can feel like it is settling, nestling, into something that reflects what it is it actually feels. Cracked open, wounded, and awake to that vulnerability. That aliveness. Being surrounded, but also empty, precarious. The unbearable pain that is also embedded with a sober joyfulness of having had what is gone.

Maybe the obligation, which is certainly counterintuitive–just as the give-and-take of the passage asserts in its initial (and artificial) challenge–is the nudge toward sacred vessels for holding deeply felt emotions.

3) Some explicit & holy common sense from Rav Yehiel Epstein (1829-1908) on snacking during Sukkot, light meals not required to be in the Sukkah. This ought be our religious mantra for a wide array of rituals in which people find meaning/joy/contentment by being personally stringent or lenient. Spread it. (O.H. 639:5)

“…We don’t brand one who decides to snack outside of the sukkah as someone who doesn’t like to beautify the mitzvot, and we don’t brand one who wants to snack inside the sukkah as someone who is arrogant. To each, her own (see B. Sukkah 26b/27a).”

4) A quick and clear reminder as to why the halakhah mostly follows Beit Hillel. See the Mishnah (Tractate Sukkah) below, particularly the end.

Halakhic authority depends on the right mix of of lots of different intellectual and emotional faculties, expansive awareness, good mentors, compassion, courage, and… perhaps most importantly: not being unnecessarily judgmental.

“If one’s head and the majority of one’s body is inside the sukkah, and one’s table is in the house, Beit Shammai invalidate it, and Beit Hillel validate it. [The scholars of] Beit Hillel said to [the scholars of] Beit Shamai, “Did it not happen that the elders of Beit Shamai and the elders of Beit Hillel went to visit Rabbi Yochanan ben Hachoroni, and they found him sitting with his head and the majority of his body inside the sukkah, while his table was in the house, and they did not say a thing to [stop] him.” The [scholars of] Beit Shamai responded to them, “Can one really bring a proof from there?! They did in fact say to him, ‘If such has been your custom, you have never fulfilled the mitzvah of sukkah in all your days!'” ~Mishnah Sukkah, 2:7

5) The Torah instructs us concerning the holiday of Sukkot: “You must rejoice in your holiday, together with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and also the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow who belong to your community” (Deuteronomy. 16:13-14).

Legislating emotions is difficult, so Jewish Law provides us with a tangible application: Build and live in a sukkah! Its intention is to be a well-deserved joyous space, a beautifully decorated and furnished respite from the grueling day-to-day life we lead.

In fact, the sukkah becomes, so to speak, a little Jewish Disneyland. No unhappiness permitted.

The rabbis codified this misery-free zone called the sukkah using a specific category of person, the mitzta’er, or, someone who is suffering some unease or discomfort. As the medieval luminary Rabbi Moses Maimonides taught: “Someone who might suffer is exempt from [dwelling in the] sukkah. … And what is considered suffering? One who can’t sleep in the sukkah because of the wind, or flies, or fleas, or [a bad] smell” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sukkah, 6:2). “Exempt” meaning: feel free to not sleep in your sukkah (otherwise, commanded) if you are a little uncomfortable.

The 16th century Ashkenazic authority Rabbi Moses Isserles takes this concept one step further: “Anyone who is exempt from the sukkah and doesn’t leave it will not receive a reward [for staying in it], and is considered quite average” (Shulhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 639:7).

This is a remarkable legal statement. Often Jewish tradition is perceived to reward those who choose to be extra scrupulous in fulfilling their obligations. Not so for the Sukkah, claims Rabbi Isserles. While many practices welcome going beyond the letter of the law, the holy space of the sukkah must remain void of unease, discontent and possible pain. Pain, no gain.

Two seemingly opposing emotions. Sadness for those who are destitute and deserve more; happiness for life, freedom and God’s eternal shelter. How should we navigate this tension? How do we incorporate it into our religious lives?


About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Co-Senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
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