Sukkot — Ideal, Real, & Human Life, 5781

Today we’ll continue to make our way through passages in the 2nd chapter of Tractate Sukkah. On page 27a, we learn (see previous posts here and here).

Statement: Rabbi Eliezer says in a baraita — One may not depart from one sukkah to another sukka. And one may not establish a sukkah during the intermediate days of the Festival [if not done before Sukkot]. And the Rabbis teach [quite differently]: One may depart from one sukkah to another sukkah, and one may establish a sukkah on the intermediate days of the Festival. And they all [even Rabbi Eliezer] agree that if a sukkah [built before Sukkot] collapsed, she may rebuild it during the intermediate days of the Festival.

Question/Response #1: What’s Rabbi Eliezer’s grounding for this ruling? It’s as the verse says: “You shall prepare for yourself the festival of Sukkot for seven days…” (Deuteronomy 16:13) [In other words], establish a sukka that is suitable for seven days. 

Question/Response #2: And the Rabbis grounding for their ruling? This is what the Merciful One is saying: Construct a sukkah during the Festival. 

Restatement on collapsed Sukkah, to be explored: And they agree that if a sukkah that one constructed before the Festival collapsed, she may rebuild it during the intermediate days of the Festival. 

Challenge: That is obvious–why would this be a problem for Rabbi Eliezer of the Sages)!? 

Resolution: Well, you might have said [that according to Rabbi Eliezer the rebuilt sukkah] therefore, is a different sukkah altogether, so we had to be explicitly told Rabbi Eliezer would agree with the Sages. 

———————————-

Here’s what’s happening. There seems to be core disagreement as to how “7 days” can be interpreted. Rabbi Eliezer, according to the gemara, believes “7 days” defines the nature of the sukkah, i.e., it must be one 7-day sukkah. Therefore, leaving the sukkah for another necessarily defines it as not a 7-day sukkah

The Sages, according to the gemara, believe “7 days” describes not for how many days the sukkah should be built, but when it can be built–at any point during the intermediate days of the festival. Like today. Therefore, since one 7-day sukkah isn’t a requirement at all, sukkah hopping itself is not problematic. 

Their opinions converge only in that Rabbi Eliezer would agree if from the outset one built a 7-day sukkah, it can be rebuilt. (The law is eventually codified in major codes according to the Sages. See Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayyim, 637:1.)

And, once again, the foundational dispute is instructive to the multiple worldviews that animate so much of religious life today. A Rabbi Eliezer worldview–based on a hyper-literal read of the Torah verse–asks that the initial construction of our temporary home conform to a particular ideal, and if the ideal isn’t met (or possible to meet), something is definitionally askew. The object itself is somehow diminished. 

A Sages worldview–based on perhaps a less-literal read of the verse, but still against the grain of its plain meaning–recognizes that our intentions, whatever they may be as a holy moment approaches, can very easily be disrupted by the ebb and flow of our lives. The Sages recognize that in the space between the words of the verse, there’s an opening to interpret second (and third, fourth, etc..) opportunities to capture a moment of precarious dwelling under God’s protection. 

Moreover, by permitting sukkah hopping, as it were, they establish the potential for so many of us to fulfill the obligation of sukkah dwelling in another person’s sukkah, regardless of whether or not we have the time, space, or mean with which to construct our own. 

I’m struck by, this year in particular as the worldwide pandemic continues to take and disrupt lives, the ways we have all had to adapt to quickly changing circumstances. We have now experienced the greater part of a Jewish ritual year, Purim to Sukkot, with Covid-19. And it is a Sage-like worldview that ought give us the courage to continue to adapt from within the white spaces that so define our oral tradition. 

And I’m also struck by the ways so many in too many communities refuse to adapt, thereby risking more and more precious lives, tragically under the banner of a “religious mandate” not supported by the flexibility of our legal tradition, nor the interpretive expansiveness of our texts. 

As long as you’re dancing, you can

break the rules.

Sometimes breaking the rules is just extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

                               ~Mary Oliver, Three Things To Remember, Devotions, 48

My short riff on this: As long as human life is central, you can

break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules is just extending the rules.

There are always rules which allow for breaking the rules.

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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