There are some questions for which the answer is simple, and there are questions whose answer we think is simple. Everyone knows that the obligation to reside in the sukkah on the festival of Sukkot originates from the pasuk, “…in order that your [future] generations will know that I had Benei Yisrael reside in sukkot when I took them from the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:43). However, someone who studies Masechet Sukkah (such as in the kollel – see back page) will discover that it is not at all clear what these “sukot” actually were.
The Gemara points out that whereas all agree that Benei Yisrael enjoyed the protection of “sukkot” as they traveled in the wilderness, there is some disagreement as to the nature of these sukkot. Rabbi Eliezer claimed that the Torah refers to the “ananei ha’kavod” – “clouds of glory” – whereas according to Rabbi Akiva, Benei Yisrael lived in actual “sukkot” – temporary huts.
The contention that the “sukkot” in which Benei Yisrael lived were made from clouds might help explain some halakhic details concerning the sukkah, such as why one may build a sukkah twenty cubits high, and why it is permissible to use a sukkah with only two full walls, the rest being “virtual” walls.
However, the philosophical underpinnings of this debate are even more fascinating. The two views represent different approaches to understanding the miracle that Hashem performed for Benei Yisrael in the wilderness, two approaches that stem from different outlooks on the manner in which Hashem governs the world. In essence, this discussion touches upon an older debate. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue as to whether heaven or earth was created first. Despite what it may appear at first glance, the nature of this debate is not purely historical; it rather relates to the root of our attitude towards miracles. Beit Shammai maintain that “the heavens were created first”; in their view, our existence and connection to Hashem hinges primarily on overt, supernatural miracles that He performs, which prove and clearly demonstrate His power. Beit Hillel, by contrast, claim that “the earth was created first,” and they therefore ascribe greater importance to that which is natural and earthly. In their view, the most important “miracles” are those that occur within the natural order.
Similarly, it is told that Shammai “ate all week for the honour of Shabbat,” by preparing his food for Shabbat all weeklong. His life was focused primarily on Shabbat, which represents the supernatural realm, a level above the mundane workweek. Hillel, by contrast, would say, “Blessed is Hashem each and every day.” One must bless Hashem each and every day, because this world, as represented by the days of the work week, is – in Hillel’s view – the primary point of focus.
Faithful to the positions taken by their mentors, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva determined what kind of “sukkot” were used in the wilderness. Rabbi Eliezer, a student of Beit Shammai, claimed that the sukkah in which Benei Yisrael dwelled in the wilderness was a miraculous sukkah, the protective clouds of glory, a supernatural phenomenon. Rabbi Akiva, however, a student of Beit Hillel, sought to reveal Hashem’s Hand in the natural world, and therefore claimed that in the wilderness Benei Yisrael lived in actual sukkot.
As we know, Halacha generally follows the view of Rabbi Akiva in his disputes with Rabbi Eliezer. We are thus called upon to rise to the challenge that Rabbi Akiva sets before us, and endeavour to reveal Hashem’s Hand in the world, and see how He governs world affairs, even when that Hand and governance are not clearly visible.