Rav Gideon Weitzman
Former Rosh Kollel Kansas City (1998-2000)
“You shall sit in succot for seven days, all citizens of Israel will sit in succot. In order that your generations shall know that I enabled the children of Israel to dwell in succot when I brought them out of Egypt, I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra23:42-43). God commanded us to live in succot for the entire seven days of the festival of Succot 1 . The reason that we are to do this is given as a reminder that God brought us out of Egypt and ‘built’ succot for us in the desert.
The Torah does not define what a succah actually is, but tells us that we need to live in one. The rabbis came and filled in the picture, qualifying and quantifying what a succah is and the minimum and maximum dimensions for its construction.
A succah is a temporary dwelling that is constructed outside one’s house under the stars with a roof made of natural plants that are no longer attached to the tree or to the ground. This botanical covering must be thick enough to provide more shade than sun, but it cannot be too thick. One must be able to see the stars through the roof (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim631:1&3).
The roof is called s’chach, meaning covering and this gives the building its name of succah. The s’chach is fragile and gives the entire structure its temporary nature.
In addition to the s’chach the succah must also have walls of the appropriate standard. The first Mishnah of the tractate of Succah opens with the words “A succah that is taller than twenty amot is disqualified” (Succah1:1). The maximum height for the succah is 20 amot, where an ama is the distance between the elbow and the tips of the fingers, approximately 40 to 50 cm. Therefore a succah that is taller than 10 metres is not kosher.
The Gemara explains why this is the case: “up till 20 amot one constructs a temporary building, but higher than 20 amot one does not construct a temporary building, but a permanent building” (Succah2a).
Building such a tall succah would require the laying foundations and the erection of a permanent structure. This is disqualified as the nature of the succah is to be temporary, fragile and frail.
There is another law concerning the walls that proves just how impermanent the succah can and should be. The Mishnah states that the succah needs to have three walls (Succah1:1). However, the Gemara qualifies this statement “two have to be full walls, but the third can be even a tefach, a handbreadth” (Succah6b).
The halachah follows the Gemara. If one were to build a succah with two walls and a third that is only 10 cm that succah would be kosher. Such a building, if we can call it such, barely keeps out the wind or the sun but yet it is a kosher succah. One can build the succah with four or more walls, but the minimum requirement is two and a bit walls. Again we see that the succah should be temporary.
Decorating the Succah
There is one more law that is pertinent to our discussion of the succah and its message.
The Gemara tells us that one should decorate their succah with “decorated cloths, and hang nuts, almonds, peaches, pomegranates, grapes, wheat, wine, and oil” (Succah10a). It is appropriate to decorate the succah in the same way that we decorate and beautify all of our mitzvot. In the words of the Gemara, “‘This is my God and I will beautify Him’ (Shemot15:2), make the mitzvot beautiful: make a nice succah, a nice lulav, a nice shofar, nice tzitzit, a nice Sefer Torah” (Shabbat133b).
The halachah does not just say that beautifying the succah is commendable; it goes much further than that. The law is that the succah decorations become reserved for that specific mitzvah and cannot be used for any other purpose. “Throughout the entire festival it is forbidden to make any use of the food and drink that were hung in the succah for decoration, even if they fell down. On Shabbat and the festival they cannot be moved as they are reserved [for the purpose of decorating the succah]” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim638:2).
The decorations become an integral part of the structure of the succah and cannot be used for any other use. They are muktzah, reserved for a specific purpose only. Any other use would degrade them (Mishnah Berurah, ibid., note 12) and so for the days of succot they remain as part of the decorations. Even if they fall down they cannot be used for anything else.
We see that the decorations are not just a pleasant addition to the succah, they are an indivisible part of the succah. This halachah will enable us to understand the essence of the succah itself.
The Protective Succah
It may be surprising to note that in the Tanach and rabbinic literature the succah was presented as a symbol of protection.
In the psalm that we recite morning and night during the month of Elul and Tishrei we say “He will cover me in His succah on an evil day” (Tehilim27:5). God will protect me on the evil day that I will need His protection, He will cover me in the succah.
Elsewhere in the psalms it says “protect them in the succah from the argument of their enemies” (Tehilim31:21). Again the succah is used here as a place that affords protection.
The book of Nechemiah discusses how those who returned to Israel from Bavel made succot. “All the nation that returned from captivity made succot, and they sat in the succot as the children of Israel had not done so since the time of Yehoshua bin Nun until that day, and there was very great rejoicing” (Nechemiah8:17). The Gemara questions this statement: “Is it possible that David [and all the subsequent scholars and Jewish leaders] came and did not make succot until the time of Ezra?” (Erchin32b). One answer is given that because during this time “they slaughtered the evil inclination for idolatry 2their merit protected them like a succah” (ibid.).
According to this when the verse says that they made succot it does not literally mean that. Rather it refers to the generation of Ezra and Nechemiah who were protected as though by a succah.
However, this image of the succah as a provider of protection does not really accord with the laws of the succah. How is it possible that the flimsy succah can protect anyone, let alone be heralded as the ultimate protection? When we consider that the succah is kosher if it only has two and a bit walls, we are even more intrigued by the choice of the succah as the archetypal symbol of defense.
We tend to think that if we live in houses with strong walls then we are safe. We discover that thieves can break in, so we devise alarm systems and security precautions. As the thieves become more sophisticated and learn how to break through these systems we invent more intricate ones. They protect us for a while until they, too, are penetrated.
We build strong buildings only to find that they can easily be torn down by bombs. As the bombs become stronger and more powerful they are capable of destroying more and more buildings, no matter how fortified they may be.
Such devices as alarms and walls do not really protect us. What really protects us is the Divine word, the hand of God. Only when God protects us are we shielded from harm. No bombs or thieves can attack us unless God allows them to.
During the Gulf War, the State of Israel suffered many bomb attacks, with almost no casualties. Many buildings were destroyed, much damage was caused, but people were unharmed. We can only explain this as an expression of Divine protection.
The ultimate example of this defense is the apparently vulnerable succah. When we view the succah simply as a physical structure is found to be sadly lacking. However, the succah teaches us that outward appearances can be deceiving. The succah is the ultimate protection because God told us to live in the succah for seven days. During these seven days the succah is not just a makeshift hut. During the festival of Succot, the succah becomes our home. We eat in the succah, invite guests to the succah and sleep in the succah.
The message is clear. God protects us, and He can protect us just as well in a frail shed in the garden as He can in the strongest and most fortified castle. We have to recognise the true protector and the protection that God gives us. We have to be willing to leave our ‘secure’ homes and dwell in the succah, in the same way that the Jews left Egypt and placed themselves in the hands of the Divine Protector.
The succah represents the word of God, this is the one element that we can rely on for our safety. This does not mean that we should not lock our doors nor that we should turn off the alarm system. Rather we have to realise the limitations of such human security. We need insurance policies, but we also should know that God stands behind any defense that we do have. When we live in such a way, we are realistic about our own safety and do not rely too much on inadequate security measures.
For one week in the year we prove our faith in God by giving ourselves over to His hands. This is supposed to teach us a lesson that should remain with us for the whole year.
The National Succah
There is a connection between the succah and the land of Israel. The verse says “His succah was in Shalem 3 and His dwelling place in Zion” (Tehilim76:3). The Gaon of Vilna explained that in both the mitzvah of succah and that of living in Israel we fulfil the mitzvah by entering in with our entire bodies (See Kol HaTur1:7).
In the same way that the succah only stands and protects us due to the word of God, so does the land and the State of Israel survive due to Divine protection. There is no other explanation. The reason that Ben Gurion was able to declare a State in 1948 is due to God’s intervention. After all, there were many Jews who came to live in Israel throughout the ages. Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi did not declare a State, neither did the Ramban, nor the students of the Ari, the Gaon of Vilna, or the Ba’al Shem Tov, all of whom lived in Israel and even established communities. None of them had a State.
God decided that the time had come in 1948, and that is when we received our State. “You will arise and have mercy on Zion, as the time has to redeem her, the era has arrived” (Tehilim102:14).
In the same way that we recognise the Divine protection of the succah, so should we appreciate that it is God who preserves us in our national homeland. We need an army and strong borders, but we also need God to protect us, the army and the borders. “It is a land that God always watches over, the eyes of God are on it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” (Devarim11:12).
We need to go back to the succah, to accept God’s word and will and feel His imminent protection.
Decorating God’s Word
The plain word by itself is not enough. When we come to the people and present the message of God and His mitzvot we have to know how to present the truth in a way that can be palatable and pleasant to everyone.
The succah needs to be decorated and only then can we invite guests and live there ourselves. We have to present the Divine word in a pleasant and beautiful way. The Gemara says that Jerusalem itself was destroyed because “they judged according to the law of the Torah” (Baba Metzia30b). The Gemara itself explains this surprising statement, they judged only according to the strict letter of the law, and did not accommodate for the spirit of the law. They did not look for justice and kindness, only for a cold callous law.
The law must be pleasant and acceptable to all. We need to know how to make the law appear this way and how to apply the laws of the Torah convincing and genuinely. We cannot change the law, nor break the law, we must learn how to present the law and seek the spirit of the law.
When we do so we are ready to go back to the succah, to the national home that is afforded Divine protection. We have to rely on the word of God to guard us and be willing to give ourselves over to His hands. But we also need to be willing and capable of presenting the word of God in a pleasant and beautiful way. In that way we will see everyone willing to dwell in the succah, both the physical one and the spiritual, national one.
1 With regard to the eighth day of succot in the Diaspora there are various different opinions and customs as to whether one needs to live in the succah. The Torah speaking about the Jews in Israel requires seven days of succah dwelling
2 See Sanhedrin 64a and the chapter on Shiva Asar B’Tamuz “Breaking the Tablets, Mending the Tablets”
3 This is a reference to Jerusalem, see Ibn Ezra ad loc.