Talmudic Debates on the Holidays Session 1: Sukkot

During this fall, I am teaching an adult education class in which we study sections of the Talmud dealing with the holidays of the year. The goals of the class are both to have some exposure to the way Talmudic discussions are structured and to discuss some customs of the holidays. Some of the customs are well known, others less so but each sheds some light on the significance of the practice of the holidays.

I intend to use my blog to summarize the classes after they have been held so that those who were not able to attend could learn from the texts as well.

Our first subject was the holiday of Sukkot and we began with a study of the first section of the Mishna in the tractate of Sukkah. The Mishna begins with the statement that a sukkah which is more than 20 cubits tall is “pasul”, can not be used as a sukkah.

In the Gemara, the commentary on the Mishna, (which together with the Mishna forms the Talmud) we read 3 different ideas as to why there might be a height restriction on the sukkah.

The first, from the teacher known as Rabbah,  notes that the Torah says, about Sukkot, “l’maan yaydu dorotaychem”, that your generations should know that I (God) made you dwell in Sukkot when  I brought you out of Egypt. The word “know” leads Rabbah to explain that if the Sukkah were too high, one wouldn’t “know” that one was inside a structure since the roof was so high above one’s head that it would not feel like one were inside.

The second opinion, from Rabbi Zera, notes that we have to dwell in the shade of the Sukkah, which the Rabbis identify as meaning the s’chach, the covering of the Sukkah. This opinion reasons that if the Sukkah is too tall, one would be dwelling for most of the day in the shade of the walls and not the shade of the roof.

Finally, there is the opinion, taught by Rava,  that we are supposed to build the Sukkah as a “temporary” dwelling and that a Sukkah that was over 20 cubits high could hardly be considered “temporary”. Each of these interpretations refers to either a verse in the Tanach or a particular Rabbinic tradition.

The next discussion we studied concerned the fact that according to the mishna, a child who “does not need his mother” is obligated to be in the Sukkah. The Rabbis discuss how one determines that the child does not need his mother.

There are two opinions to this question. The first from the school of Rabbi Yannai teaches rather bluntly, that the child has to be toilet trained and does not need his mother to clean him.

The second, from Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish,  is that a child does not need his mother if he doesn’t wake up from sleep calling: “Mother”.

In a charming comment on this idea, there is a note that many older children (the word used is gedolim and that might refer to adults as well) wake up and call for their Mother. So, the text is amended to read: the child who wakes up “calling Mother, Mother”. In other words,  the child deemed too young to be in the Sukkah is one for whom calling out  isn’t just a reflexive action but one which reflects a sincere need for the mother to come to the child’s aid. This is proven by the fact that the child calls out twice.

We discussed this at length. Either way, it is clear that the operative principle is that  men (women were exempt from being in the sukkah  according to the Mishna) did not want to have to bother with children in the sukkah, either because of the cleaning needs of the child or because of the disruption in the peaceful atmosphere of the sukkah that would come with a crying child. Either way, it seemed to reflect the reality of those times in which fathers were not accustomed to spending much time with their very young children. Obviously times have changed in many ways and we should all maintain that the youngest child, and of course, their mothers, should be in the Sukkah as often as possible.

Finally, we discussed briefly the beautiful tradition which states that when it rains, one can come in from the Sukkah when the food is ruined by the rain dripping through the roof. One Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef,  notes that he has a lower threshold and comes in even when some of the schach just happens to fall but he claims that this is because he is very fastidious. This raises an interesting point: sometimes some of us have different criteria than others regarding our observance of certain customs. While there is a clear delineation of expectation involved in halacha, Jewish law, occasionally individuals find areas in which they are less inclined to observe to the letter of the law. The implications of Rabbi Yosef’s statement are worth considering.

In regard to rain in the sukkah, the Mishna had mentioned a parable. If it rains in the sukkah, it is compared to a slave who comes to fill a cup of wine for his master and he poured the pitcher over his face.

The question asked in the Gemara is: “Who is the “he:”? Who poured wine on whom?” The answer is that it is the master who, for whatever reason, poured the wine in the face of the servant saying: “I have no desire for your service”.

In this case, it appears that the Rabbis are teaching that rain in the sukkah shows that God does not desire us to be in the sukkah. Some might see this as reflecting a failure of one kind or another on the part of the people who built the sukkah incurring God’s anger and causing rain, which is usually considered a blessing, to fall. Or perhaps it is the simple statement that God does not want us to be in the Sukkah if we’re uncomfortable in the rain and would rather have us enjoy the holiday inside the house.

Our next session dealt with Hanukkah and I will post the summary soon.


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