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Introduction to Masechet Sukkah by Gitta Jaroslawicz-Neufeld

Compiled by Gitta Jaroslawicz-Neufeld In loving memory of her father ר’ יוסף בן מנחם מענדל ופעשי ע” ה who exemplified the themes of Sukkot and taught us to open our homes and hearts to all.

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Introduction to Masechet Sukka

The holiday of Sukkot is replete with a wide variety of mitzvot. Some are stated explicitly in the Torah, while others are considered halacha leMoshe miSinai. Rav Steinzaltz zt”l explains that there are several themes associated with the holiday, and the halachot reflect this multifaceted nature. There are the general mitzvot of a chag (which we will learn in Beitza), and the mitzvot of the Shalosh Regalim (which we will learn in Chagiga). In addition, on Sukkot we have the mitzva of sukka, the arba minim (four species), multiple korbanot that are exclusive to this chag, and special ceremonies performed in the Mikdash.
Sukkot does not commemorate a specific historical event. It does not relate to a stage of the agricultural year. But it is the conclusion of all the chagim of the year. It closes the calendar year, and it encapsulates our history. While remembering the past, we also look to the future and pray for success. All this is captured in our observance of the chag. The sukka represents the 40 years of nomadic existence, without stability or a country, but with the protection of the ananei hakavod (clouds of glory). And then we arrived in Eretz Yisrael, whose bounty we celebrate with the arba minim (four species) and pray for rain and successful harvests in the year ahead.
Sukkot is also unique in that it has a universal, rather than national, character. The thanks for material security and success, and the prayers for life-giving rain, are not reserved for the benefit of the Jewish people. The Rabbis associate the seventy bulls offered as korbanot during the holiday with the paradigmatic seventy nations of the world (Sukkah 55b):

אָמַר רַבִּי )אֶלְעָזָר( הָנֵי שִּבְעִּים פָרִּים כְנֶגֶד מִּי כְנֶגֶד שִּבְעִּים אוּמּוֹת פַר יְחִּידִּי לָמָּה כְנֶגֶד אוּ מּה יְחִּידָה מָשָל לְמֶלֶךְ בָשָר וָדָם שֶאָ מר לַעֲבָדָיו עֲשוּ לִּי סְעוּדָה גְדוֹלָה לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן אָמַר לְאוֹהֲבוֹ עֲשֵה לִּי סְעוּדָה קְטַנָה כְדֵי שֶאֵהָנֶה מִּמְּךָ אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אוֹי לָהֶם לַגוֹיִּים שֶאִּבְדוּ וְאֵין יוֹדְעִּין מַה שֶאִּבְדוּ בִּזְמַן שֶבֵית הַמִּּקְדָש קיָים מִּזְבֵחַ מְכַפֵר עֲלֵיהֶן וְעַכְשָיו מִּי מְכַפֵר עֲלֵיהֶן:
Rabbi Elazar said: These seventy bulls – to what do they correspond? They correspond to the seventy. Why a single bull (brought on Shemini Atzeret)? It corresponds to the singular nation (Israel). A parable about a king of flesh and blood who said to his servants: Prepare me a great feast. On the last day, he said to his beloved servant: Prepare me a small feast so that I can derive pleasure from you alone. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Woe unto the nations that lost something and do not know what they lost. When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for them. And now, who atones for them?

In a Messianic vision, Zecharyah (14:16) tells us:
וְהָיָה כׇּל־הַנוֹתָר מִּכׇּל־הַגוֹיִּם הַבָאִּים עַל־יְרוּשָלָםִּ וְעָלוּ מִּדֵי שָנָה בְשָנָה לְהִּשְתַחֲוֺת לְמֶלֶךְ ה ’ צְבָאוֹת וְלָחֺג אֶת־חַג הַסֻּכוֹת׃
All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King LORD of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths.

Sukkot will be celebrated by all because it represents all people.

Another distinctive feature of Sukkot is the emphasis on simcha (joy). In addition to the “general” simcha of every holiday, Sukkot brings with it a special mitzva of simcha, to the point that in the tefillot, we describe the day as zman simchateinu (the time of our rejoicing).
We also pray for rain and blessing in the upcoming year. In the Mikdash, the simchat beit hashoeva (the water libation ceremony), the surrounding of the mizbeach with willow branches, and the waving of the willows on the last day all represented this aspect. The arba minim are all species which require ample rain to grow, as well.
It’s interesting to note two major themes which run through the masechet. Many of the discussions revolve around the transmission of halacha leMoshe miSinai and other traditions, especially with reference to the definition of terminology used. What exactly is a sukka? What are its dimensions? What materials can be used? And what about the arba minim? What is the precise definition of the species prescribed in Vayikra 23:41?:

וּלְקַחְתֶם לָכֶם בַיוֹם הָרִּאשוֹן פְרִּי עֵץ הָדָר כַפֺת תְמָרִּים וַעֲנַף עֵץ־עָבֺת וְעַרְבֵי־נָחַל וּשְמַחְתֶם לִּ פנֵי ה ’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִּבְעַת יָמִּים׃
On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

Since these are not specified in the Torah, we must rely on transmission from previous generations. This is further complicated by the Mikdash ceremonies which are not explicit in the Torah. And this also explains why when these ceremonies were opposed by various sects, the Rabbis felt compelled to magnify their performance.

The second theme is the difference between what happens in the Mikdash and outside it (referred to as the “medinah”). Some of the holiday’s observances are totally independent of the existence of the Mikdash, such as sukka. Others are in effect exclusively in the Mikdash, such as the korbanot. And then there are the mitzvot whose observance is different in the Mikdash and outside it. When the Mikdash is destroyed, the Rabbis introduced chances in the performance of these mitzvot.

For more information about the celebration and observance of Sukkot in the Mikdash: Sukkot – Temple Institute

A note about Shemini Atzeret: Halachikally, this chag is separate and distinct from Sukkot. However, since it follows immediately after Sukkot and is also called zman simchateinu (the season of our rejoicing), aspects of its observance are discussed in this masechet as well.

The structure of the Masechet: 

The mitzva to dwell in a sukka

Vayiqra 23:42-43

בסֻּכֺת תֵשְבוּ שִּבְעַת יָמִּים כׇּל ־הָאֶזְרָח בְיִּשְרָאֵל יֵשְבוּ בַסֻּכֺת׃ לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֺרֺתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכוֹת הוֹשַבְתִּי אֶת־בְנֵי יִּשְרָאֵל בְהוֹצִּי אי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִּצְרָיִּם אֲנִּי ה ’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.

The parameters: Seizing upon the word תֵשְבוּ (you shall dwell), the Gemara mandates תשבו כעין תדור ו (dwell – in the sukka – as you would reside – in your house). According to the braita on 28b, any activity you would normally perform in your home (such as eating and sleeping) must be done in the sukka during this week. If one does not do so (by eating or sleeping outside the sukka, the act is a ביטול עשה – failure to observe a positive mitzva. Of course, the acts of “eating” and “sleeping” will need to be defined in the Gemara.

The exemptions: Residing in the sukka is a מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא – a positive time-bound obligation. As such, women are exempt (This will lead to an extended discussion of this concept.) If a person is ill or suffers severe discomfort, he is also exempt (26a and 28a). A child “who no longer needs his mother” is obligated in sukka. Interestingly, Shammai insisted on his newborn grandson living in a sukka, by removing the plaster roof over the crib and placing wooden beams instead.

The roof סכך : The Torah does not define how the sukka is to be built; the details are therefore derived from pesukim or taught as Halacha leMoshe miSinai.

  • Definition: A roof which provides shade and is built for that purpose. The shade provided must be greater than the light which comes through the gaps; this means that the solid part of the s’chach must have a greater total area than the open areas.
  • Materials: The materials used must:
    • grow from the ground
    • be severed from the ground, and
    • not be susceptible to tuma.
  • Size: The area covered must be at least seven by seven tefachim (21-28 inches in each dimension). A gap of less than 3 tefachim (9-12 inches), or invalid materials of that size, in one direction can combine with the valid part of the s’chach, and the sukka is fit for use. However, if the invalid section is at least 3 tefachim in both directions, the roof is unacceptable, because the size of the s’chach is now less than the minimum requirement.If there is an empty gap (3 tefachim wide) or a strip of unacceptable material (4 tefachim wide) running across the sukka, the sukka is viewed as being divided into two separate sukkot. Each “sub-sukka” must meet the minimal requirements – size and number of walls – on its own.
  • דופן עקומה (a bent wall): The s’chah must abut the wall of the sukka. If it does not, or there is intervening invalid material, the sukka is invalid, unless there are enough other walls (see next section). However, there is a leniency if the interposition of invalid material is less than 4 amot (6-8 feet), which considers that space as part of the adjacent wall. The wall is regarded as bending inwards, and “eliminates” the separation.

The walls: There must be at least three walls (The derivation of this is discussed on 6b). Two of these walls must be at least 7 tefachim wide; the third is valid if it is at least one tefach (4-6 inches) wide. The height of the walls must be between 10 tefachim (40-60 inches) and 20 amot (30-40 feet). We learned some of the concepts involved in the walls of the sukka when we learned Eiruvin.

  • לבוד (Lavud; literally, “closed”): When 2 surfaces are less than 3 tefachim (12-18 inches) apart, they are regarded as connected. Therefore, gaps of less than 3 tefachim are usually not an issue.
  • גוד (Gud; Literally, “extend”): Although the walls must touch the ground and the s’chach, the concept of gud sees walls that are ten tefachim (40-60 inches) high as extending to areas they don’t actually reach. This can be:
    • גוד אסיק מחיצתא : Extended upward (towards the s’chach)
    • גוד אחית מחיצתא : Extended downward (towards the ground)
    If the lower edge of the wall is more than three tefachim (12-18 inches) above the ground, this concept cannot be applied, since small animals could pass through. However, when the related principle of פי תקרה יורד
    וסות ם (the edge of the roof extends downward and seals off) is applied, allowing the edge of the roof to form a wall, the three-tefach limit is not considered.


The Arba Minim

The mitzva of “taking” the arba minim is found in Vayiqra 23:40

וּלְקַחְתֶם לָכֶם בַיוֹם הָרִּאשוֹן פְרִּי עֵץ הָדָר כַפֺת תְמָרִּים וַעֲנַף עֵץ־עָבֺת וְעַרְבֵי־נָחַל וּשְמַחְתֶם לִּפְנֵי ה ’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִּבְעַת יָמִּים׃
On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

The halacha (35a) defines these species as:
• פְרִּי עֵץ הָדָר :The etrog (citron)
• כַפֺת תְמָרִּים :The lulav (palm frond)
• עֲנַף עֵץ־עָבֺת : The hadas (myrtle)
• עַרְבֵי־נָחַל :The arava (willow)
All four species combine to form a collective mitzva.

Note that the verse states on the first day, yet we are accustomed to “take” the arba minim on every day of the holiday except Shabbat. In the Mikdash, the arba minim were “taken” every day of the full week of Sukkot, since the pasuq states “you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” Outside the Mikdash, they were “taken” only on the first day. This means that the Torah requirement for “taking” the arba minim is on the first day only, if not in the Mikdash. After the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ordained that the arba minim be “taken” all week, in commemoration of the Mikdash.

The conditions: Of course, since there are multiple species involved, there will be specific conditions for validity and invalidity for each of the species, such as size and color. There are also general conditions for validity, which are derived from the pasuq above:
• וּלְקַחְתֶם (and you shall take): On 34b, we will learn that this is read as
ולקחת תם (you shall take completely), meaning that you need all four, and that no single species can be damaged.
• לָכֶם (for you): You must legally own the arba minim you “take.” Therefore, borrowed or stolen ones are invalid.
• הָדָר (beautiful): On page 31a, this description of the etrog is extended to all the species. This is the only case where a lack of beauty invalidates a mitzva (as opposed to “merely” being a less-than-optimal way of mitzva observance).

Nazir 2b:
כִּדְתַנְיָא זֶה אֵלִּי וְאַנְוֵהוּ אֶנָאֶה לְפָנָיו בְ מצְוֹת אֶעֱשֶה לְפָנָיו סוּכָה נָאָה לוּלָב נָאֶה צִּיצִּית נָאָה אֶכְתוֹב לְפָנָיו סֵפֶר תוֹרָה נָאֶה וְאֶכְרְכֶנוּ בְשִּירָאִּין נָאִּים
As it is taught in a baraita: “This is my God and I will glorify Him [anvehu]” (Exodus 15:2). I will be beautiful before Him in mitzvot. How is this done? I will make before Him a beautiful sukka, a beautiful lulav, beautiful ritual fringes. I will write before Him a beautiful Torah scroll, and I will wrap it in beautiful silk cloths [shira’in] .

Since the mitzva of “taking” the arba minim is Rabbinic after the first day, some of these conditions are relaxed for the last six days. The requirements of ownership and a complete set apply only on the first day (29b, 36b). The requirement of beauty is the subject of a dispute between Rashi and Tosafot, who hold that it pertains for the entire week, and Rambam, who states that it applies only to the first day.


Some food for thought:

The Midrash in Vayiqra Rabba (30) states:
דָבָר אַחֵר, פְרִּי עֵץ הָדָר, אֵלּוּ יִּשְרָאֵל, מָה אֶתְרוֹג זֶה יֵש בוֹ טַעַם וְיֵש בוֹ רֵיחַ, כָךְ יִּשְרָאֵל יֵש בָהֶם בְנֵי אָדָם שֶיֵש בָהֶם תוֹרָה וְיֵש בָהֶם מַעֲשִּים טוֹבִּים. כַפֺת תְמָרִּים, אֵלּוּ יִּשְרָאֵל, מָה הַתְמָרָה הזּוֹ יֵש בוֹ טַעַם וְאֵין בוֹ רֵיחַ, כָךְ הֵם יִּשְרָאֵל יֵש בָהֶם שֶיֵש בָהֶם תוֹרָה וְאֵין בָהֶם מַעֲשִּים טוֹבִּים. וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֺת, אֵלּוּ יִּשְרָאֵל, מָה הֲדַס יֵש בוֹ רֵיחַ וְאֵין בוֹ טַעַם, כָךְ יִּשְרָאֵל יֵש בָהֶם שֶיֵש בָ הם מַעֲשִּים 
טוֹבִּים וְאֵין בָהֶם תוֹרָה. וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל, אֵלּוּ יִּשְרָאֵל, מָה עֲרָבָה זוֹ אֵין בָהּ טַעַם וְאֵין בָהּ רֵיחַ, כָךְ הֵם יִּשְרָאֵל יֵש בָהֶם בְנֵי אָדָם שֶאֵין בָהֶם לאֺ תוֹרָה וְלאֺ מַעֲשִּים טוֹבִּים, וּמָה הַקָדוֹש בָרוּךְ הוּא עוֹשֶה לָהֶם, לְאַבְדָן אִּי אֶפְשָר, אֶלָּא אָמַר הַקָדוֹש בָרוּךְ הוּא יֻּקְשְרוּ כֻּלָּם אֲגֻּדָה אַחַת וְהֵן מְכַפְרִּין אֵ לּוּ עַלאֵלּוּ, וְאִּם עֲשִּיתֶם כָךְ אוֹתָהּ שָעָה אֲנִּי מִּתְעַלֶּה, הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִּיב (עמוס ט, ו ): הַבוֹנֶה בַ שמַיִּם מַעֲלוֹתָו, וְאֵימָתַי הוּא מִּתְעֲלֶה כְשֶהֵן עֲשוּיִּין אֲגֻּדָה אַחַת, שֶנֶאֱמַר ( עמוס ט, ו ): וַאֲגֻּדָתוֹ עַל אֶרֶץ יְסָדָהּ, לְפִּיכָךְ משֶה מַזְהִּיר לְיִּשְרָאֵל:
Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The willow (arava) is also used for the culminating ritual on Hoshana Rabba, the last day of the chag. This is in remembrance of the observance in the Mikdash when very large willow branches were cut and placed at each side of the mizbeach (altar), which was then circled seven times by the people. In fact, according to the Rambam (Lulav 7:23), non-Kohanim were permitted to walk between the mizbeach and the heichal (sanctuary), where they were normally not permitted, for this ritual.

Rav Soloveitchik asks why the arava, the symbol of a Jew who lacks substantive Torah and mitzvot, is accorded this honor. He suggests that such a Jew can have other, in his words, “majestic attributes.” This person may be someone who was moser nefesh (sacrificed all) for the sake of Heaven. The willow leaning on the mizbeach represents a person who surrenders something of great value – even his or her very life – for the sake of a noble cause. While many of us would like to be “etrog Jews,” let us also aspire to be “aravot,” leaning in with all our strengths, talents and abilities, to shelter that which is precious, as the Gemara describes on page 45a: וְרָאשֵיהֶן כְפוּפִּין עַל גַבֵי הַמִּּזְבֵ ח – and the tops (of the branches) would be inclined over the top of the altar.

Naama Henkin hy”d, who was killed with her husband Eitam hy”d in a terrorist attack on Sukkot 2015, was a talented graphic designer. This is her work:

The image can be downloaded by clicking here.

Hadran Women

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