The Juxtaposition of Yom Kippur and Succot: An Alternative to the Approach of Yael Unterman

On Yom Kippur we encounter the Divine. Through the five depravations which we inflict upon ourselves — the eenuim of refraining from eating and drinking, from washing our bodies with water, from smearing creams or oils on our skin, from inserting our feet into comfortable leather shoes, and from indulging in conjugal activity — we attempt to abandon our mundane physicality and enwrap ourselves in the mystery of spirituality.

The halakha treats our effort to escape the limitations of our physicality and climb the Mountain of the Lord as meritorious. Accordingly, the halakha rules that on the Day of Atonement, and only on the Day of Atonement, we are permitted to chant the words baruch shem kvod malchuto l’olam v’aed which feature as the second sentence in the kriyat sh’ma out loud. As the Talmud explains, this sentence is the property of God’s ministering angels. And it is for this reason that we are required to utter this sentence in a barely audible whisper on the other 364 days of the year. On Yom Kippur, however, our status is raised to the level of the angels, almost, and so we too can declare in a loud and strident voice that the infinity of God’s supernal majesty is a perpetual blessing.

But on Yom Kippur day, when we arrive at the mincha service, there is a marked change in the attitude of the halakha toward our spiritual aspirations.

At the mincha service, usually chanted in the late afternoon just around the time that we begin to imagine that we have mastered our physical and biological deficiencies, the halakha instructs us to read from the Torah the portion in the Book of Leviticus which addresses our desire to indulge in sexual promiscuity. This portion, known in halakha as the arayot, identifies all of the women — your mother, your father’s wife, your sister, your sister-in-law, and many more — with whom conjugal activity is deemed to be incest and thus forbidden.  And it even warns against indulging in other more extreme forms of sexual debauchery including homosexuality and bestiality.

How odd; and how disconcerting. At the penultimate service of the day, when the intensity of the five deprivations peak and we secretly suspect that maybe, just maybe, we have conquered our bodily desires and are on the road to becoming spiritual beings the halakha reminds us with startling and cold efficiency that such aspirations are delusional. We are not angels but flesh and blood human beings, men and women forever incarcerated by our physicality; forever beholden to our biological instincts.

In essence, the halakha is telling us that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, it is nice to indulge at least for a while in our spiritual illusions and attempt to reach for higher ground. But at the end of the day – both literally and figuratively — the halakha makes it clear that doing so is not possible. That place, the higher spiritual realms, known in Hasidic literature as the olam ha’atzilut, is not our place. Our place is here on earth where we are compelled to deal with our physicality each and every day of the year, including Yom Kippur day. And our task in our place is not to try to slip the surely bonds of time and fly in the supernal realms, and not even to aspire to do so. Rather, our task is to anchor ourselves in this world which is the only place where we can fulfill the halakhic requirement of kivshu u’ridu, dominate the world of nature and rule it. For this reason the peeut — the poetic prayer — with which the n’eela service concludes, is entitled ata hivdalta enosh m’erosh — man is the most distinguished of God’s creations — which expresses in lyrical words our obligation to rule over the world of nature.

The holiday of succot teaches us how this mission is to be accomplished.

During the entire course of the holiday we are commanded to exit from our homes and reside in a succa which the halakha defines as a makeshift hut identified by its thatch roof.  And there are specific and detailed laws governing the makeup and placement of that roof.

But there are almost no laws governing the construction of the hut itself. In fact, the laws which do relate to the actual hut seem calculated to transform the hut into an utterly artificial construct, nothing more than an imaginary legal device. As such, the halakha determines that the succah hut does not require four walls to be deemed a hut.  Rather, three walls are sufficient. And one of those three walls does not really have to be a full size wall. A stump of a wall measuring no more than a few handbreadths is adequate, which means that a succah hut is not really a hut but an elaborate lean-to.

In other words, when we fulfill the commandment to remove ourselves from our homes and dwell inside of the succah during the course of the holiday we are actually sitting outside of our homes in relatively open space. But through the “magic of measurements” the outside space, that is, the actual physical world is deemed to be enclosed. By imposing upon the world of nature the artificial quanta of the halakhic system we render the natural world artificial recreating it in our image. And by so doing, we sanctify the succa hut by using the logical constructs of the halakha to transform a lean-to into a hut made up of two real walls and two imaginary walls.

This form of religious observance is the absolute antithesis to the equally imaginary and completely emotional concept that we call spirituality. It is rooted in the utterly secular and totally rational act of quantification. When taken seriously, the act of quantification incarcerates us within our physical and biological reality inoculating us from the appeal of spirituality. And yet, it is the only way to maintain a life dedicated to fulfilling the rules and regulations of the halakha.

Such is the message of the closing services on Yom Kippur; such is the lesson of the holiday of succot.  Beware of the appeal of spirituality.  It will only lead you astray.

Chag Samayach

Yael Unterman’s blog post is here.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY