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The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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Yeshivat Har Etzion


SUKKOT

 

By Rav David Silverberg

 

            Several writers have noted the peculiar structure of the Torah’s discussion of the Sukkot festival, towards the end of Parashat Emor (Vayikra 23:33-44).  This section first very briefly calls for the observance of a Yom Tov on the first and eighth days, and the offering of special offerings on these days (referring to the musaf sacrifices, which are detailed later, in Sefer Bamidbar, chapter 29).  At this point, the Torah appears to conclude its discussion of the festivals: “These are the festivals of the Lord that you shall declare sacred occasions… besides the Lord’s Sabbaths…” (23:37-38).  Surprisingly, however, the Torah then immediately resumes its discussion of Sukkot, reiterating the obligation to observe a festival and introducing the obligations of the arba minim (four species) and the sukka.  Why does the Torah interrupt the Sukkot section, by inserting a verse that appears to conclude the entire discussion of the festivals?

 

            One answer to this question is cited in the name of Rav Menachem Tzvi Taksin, who asserted that the mitzvot of arba minim and Sukkot did not apply until after Benei Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel.  After all, the Torah explicitly casts sukka as a commemoration of Benei Yisrael’s experiences in the wilderness (23:43), and the four species presumably express our gratitude to the Almighty for the Land of Israel.  For this reason, perhaps, the Torah divided its discussion of Sukkot into two subsections.  It first presents the obligations that applied immediately, during Benei Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness.  Thereafter, the Torah proceeds to the second subsection, which begins, “But – on the fifteenth day of the seventh month [Tishrei], when you gather the grain of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for seven days” (23:39).  The Torah now turns its attention to the laws pertaining to the Land of Israel, which took effect only after Israel crossed the Jordan and entered its ancestral homeland, and celebrated the “gathering of the grain.”

 

            This explanation appeared in the journal Tel Talpiyot, and its publication met with considerable complaints by readers who challenged the right to make such a claim.  Without basis, they argued, one cannot theorize about a given mitzva that it was not practically applicable at the time it was conveyed to the people in the wilderness.  In response, the editor, Rabbi Yisrael Weltz, in a subsequent issue, elaborated on this question to substantiate Rav Taksin’s claim.  In addition, he included a letter by Rav Eliezer Waldenberg likewise supporting the theory.  Among the sources cited is a passage in the Mabit’s classic philosophical work Beit Elokim (Sha’ar Ha-yesodot, chapter 37), where he states explicitly that Benei Yisrael were not obligated to reside in sukkot while in the wilderness.  As for the arba minim, the Rambam writes in Moreh Nevukhim (3:43) that “the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites changed the wilderness… with a country full of fruit-trees and rivers.”  He appears to assume that this mitzva applies only after the transition underwent by Benei Yisrael from desert travel to a life of agricultural enterprise.  Abarbanel similarly writes that arvei nachal (willows) did not grow in Egypt or in the wilderness, but do grow in abundance in the Land of Israel, and for this reason God commanded celebrating on Sukkot with aravot branches.  This, too, might suggest that the obligation of arba minim did not take effect prior to Benei Yisrael’s entry into Canaan.

 

(Taken from the work, Ke-motzei Shalal Rav, Parashat Emor)

 

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            The Mishna in Masekhet Sukka (28b) introduces the provision exempting one from residing in the sukka when rain falls on Sukkot, adding that such a situation is analogous to a case of a master who receives a drink from his servant and throws it back at him.  Meaning, rainfall during Sukkot signifies the Almighty’s disinterest in our performance of the mitzva, since as a result of inclement weather we cannot fulfill the sukka obligation.

 

            The Rambam, in his commentary to this Mishna, writes, “Rainfall at the beginning of Sukkot alludes to the fact that God does not willingly accept their [the Jewish people’s] deeds.”  Surprisingly, the Rambam imposes a very significant qualification on the Mishna’s comment, limiting it to rainfall at the onset of Sukkot.  It appears that according to the Rambam, we need not be distressed over rainfall that disrupts our observance of this mitzva some other time during the festival.  Only rain at the beginning of Sukkot should be interpreted as an indication of God’s displeasure with us.  Why should there be such a distinction?

 

            One fairly simple answer, cited in the name of Rav Yaakov Chayim Zelig of Warsaw, suggests that if we had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva of sukka at the beginning of the festival, then clearly the Almighty is interested, so-to-speak, in our performance of mitzvot.  Only rainfall that prevents us from observing the mitzva in the first place should be seen as a negative indication, as it bars us from the initial performance of the mitzva of sukka.

 

            A more satisfying answer, perhaps, is cited in the name of Rav Chayim Berlin, who associates this Mishna with the majority opinion cited in an earlier Mishna (27a), that strictly speaking, one must conduct a meal in the sukka only on the first night of Sukkot.  According to this view, which is indeed accepted as the final halakha, one generally bears an obligation to eat in the sukka only if he wishes to eat a meal; if he prefers to subsist on light snacks, he need not eat in the sukka.  On the first night, however, the Torah requires that one conduct a meal in the sukka.  If so, then we can perhaps understand why the Rambam views rainfall as an ominous indication of God’s displeasure only if it occurs at the beginning of Sukkot.  Rain on the first night indeed prevents us from observing a mitzva; on the rest of Sukkot, one in any event will not necessarily bear an obligation to eat in the sukka, and thus rainfall should not be seen as a “cup of water” thrown to us by our Master.

 

            Of course, this explanation presumes that rainfall suspends the sukka obligation even on the first night of Sukkot.  This issue is subject to a dispute among the Rishonim, as documented by the Beit Yosef (O.C. 639), with some Rishonim maintaining that the unique obligation to eat in the sukka on the first night of the festival is unaffected by rainfall.  According to Rav Chayim Berlin’s approach to the Rambam’s comments, the Rambam held that one in fact cannot fulfill the mitzva of sukka in the rain even on the first night.

 

            Rav Chayim Berlin’s explanation may help resolve another difficulty with the Rambam’s comments, namely, that they appear to directly contradict the first Mishna in Masekhet Ta’anit.  That Mishna cites Rabbi Yehoshua as arguing that we should not begin inserting mashiv ha-ru’ach u-morid ha-geshem – the reference to God’s rain-producing powers – in our prayer service until Shemini Atzeret, and not during Sukkot, since “rains are only a sign of curse during Sukkot.”  Seemingly, this would indicate that the inauspicious omen of rainfall holds true throughout the entirety of the festival, and not merely at the beginning, as the Rambam asserts.  According to Rav Chayim Berlin’s explanation, however, this difficulty is easily resolved.  In that Mishna in Masekhet Ta’anit, Rabbi Yehoshua debates this point with Rabbi Eliezer, who held that one indeed recites mashiv ha-ru’ach during the festival of Sukkot.  Now in Masekhet Sukka (27a), Rabbi Eliezer is recorded as maintaining that one must eat two meals in the sukka on each day of Sukkot – not only on the first night.  According to Rav Chayim Berlin’s theory, it follows that for Rabbi Eliezer, rainfall at any point during Sukkot reflects divine displeasure, as it disrupts our performance of the mitzva.  Rabbi Yehoshua, therefore, in arguing against Rabbi Eliezer’s position, understandably points to the siman kelala (“sign of curse”) represented by rainfall anytime during Sukkot, which, in his view, warrants delaying the recitation of mashiv ha-ru’ach until Shemini Atzeret.

 

            Interestingly, it would emerge from this discussion that Rabbi Yehoshua himself would not view rainfall as a siman kelala after the first night of Sukkot.  He must therefore have had some other reason to argue against beginning the mashiv ha-ru’ach insertion before Shemini Atzeret.  This issue, of course, requires a separate discussion.

 

(Based on Rav Yisrael Stein’s Sukat Gedolei Yisrael)

 

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            Yesterday, we discussed the analogy drawn in the Mishna (Sukka 28b) between rainfall on Sukkot and a master who throws his drink served by his butler back onto the butler.  The occurrence of rain on Sukkot, which prevents us from fulfilling this mitzva, reflects the Almighty’s disinterest in our service, similar to a master who rejects his servant’s gesture.

 

            The question arises as to the practical implication of this analogy.  When rain indeed falls on Sukkot, how are we to respond to this “omen”?  Why did the Mishna find it important to inform us that in such a case God is displeased with us?  The question is confounded by the fact that both the Rif and the Rosh include this passage in their respective halakhic works on Masekhet Sukka.  Anyone who has studied these works knows that the Rif and Rosh generally cite the bottom-line, practically relevant passages from the discussion in the Talmud, dwelling on specific points that they feel require elaboration.  Aggadic discussions or other sections that do not yield practical, halakhic instruction rarely make their way into the works of the Rif and the Rosh.  Their inclusion of this Mishna appears to indicate that some practical guideline is embedded within this remark.

 

            What more, the Rif and Rosh cite not only this Mishna, but also the Gemara’s brief discussion regarding the “spilled cup.”  The Gemara initially wonders whether in the case described in the Mishna the servant spills the cup on the master, or the master spills it on the servant.  Rashi explains that if the servant spilled the water on his master, then the Mishna is referring to our inadequacy in our service of God, on account of which He has lost interest in our observance of the mitzva of sukka.  As Rashi points out, the end result of the Mishna remains the same according to either interpretation: rainfall during Sukkot reflects the Almighty’s displeasure with Benei Yisrael.  Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that it is the master who spills the cup on the servant, and thus the rain symbolizes the Almighty’s “throwing the cup” at us, as it were, refusing to accept our mitzva.  In any event, of what practical relevance is this entire discussion, that it has earned entry into the very discretionary works of the Rif and the Rosh?

 

            The Korban Netanel (a commentary to the Rosh) suggests an explanation based on the Maharshal’s approach to the aforementioned exchange in the Gemara (in his Chokhmat Shlomo, printed underneath the Maharsha).  The Maharshal claims that had the Mishna referred to a situation where the servant spills water on the master, then it would have spoken of an entirely different issue.  The image of the servant scorning his master would correspond to the Jew leaving his sukka to escape the rain.  Meaning, according to this interpretation of the Mishna – which the Gemara ultimately rejects – the Mishna condemns relying on the rainfall exemption.  One should instead brave the elements and continue eating in the sukka despite the uncomfortable conditions and the technical exemption from this mitzva.  If so, then this discussion is indeed of utmost practical importance.  If the Mishna describes a servant throwing water at his master, a scene that corresponds to the Jew running inside to escape the rain, then we are encouraged to remain in the sukka even in harsh weather conditions.  If, however, the scene involves a master who rejects his servant’s gesture, symbolic of God’s disinterest in our performance of this mitzva, then to the contrary, we are actually barred from the sukka when rain falls, as the inclement weather signifies the Almighty’s objection to our service.  Understandably, then, the Rif and Rosh cite the Gemara’s discussion, as it results in the conclusion that one should not endeavor to sit in the sukka in the rain.  (As we briefly mentioned yesterday, some view require eating in the sukka on the first night of Sukkot even in the event of rain.)

 

            The Mishna’s metaphor may yield other practical ramifications, as well.  Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Musar Ha-mishna, mentions that some commentators deduced from this Mishna that when rain falls on Sukkot, one must enter his home sadly, given the indication of divine displeasure.  He further suggests that this perspective on rainfall during Sukkot perhaps grants one permission to pray for the rain’s cessation.  The Mishna in Masekhet Ta’anit (3:8) establishes that prayers are recited for any type of crisis situation, with the exception of abundant rainfall.  Since rain essentially constitutes a blessing, even when it falls excessively we should not petition God for its cessation.  In light of the Mishna in Sukkot, however, we might perhaps conclude that one may beseech God to stop rain on Sukkot.  Since, as the Mishna establishes, rain on Sukkot reflects anger, rather than a divine blessing, it would seem appropriate to pray for it to end.

 

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            The Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (28b) establishes the famous halakha known as teishvu ke-ein taduru – meaning, that one’s residence in his sukka must resemble his residence in his home.  The Torah writes, “Ba-sukkot teishvu” (“You shall dwell in sukkot” – Vayikra 23:42), suggesting that one must “dwell” in his sukka in the same manner as he dwells in his permanent home.  Specifically, the Gemara explains, “If one has beautiful utensils, he brings them to the sukka; beautiful couches – he brings them to the sukka…”  The Gemara then specifies that one must perform in his sukka all activities he would normally do at home.

 

            From this presentation it would appear that the reason for beautifying one’s sukka is the principle of teishvu ke-ein taduru, requiring that one treat his sukka like his home.  Instinctively, one might have thought that the requirement to ensure a comely décor in one’s sukka evolves from the broader concept of hiddur mitzva – requiring that high aesthetic standards be maintained in performing mitzvot.  True, the berayta in Masekhet Shabbat (133b) that articulates the principle of hiddur mitzva indeed mentions, “sukka na’a” – that one must endeavor to build a beautiful sukka.  One might argue, however, that this applies only to the sukka itself.  The furnishings and accoutrements in the sukka are not an integral part of the sukka itself, and might therefore not fall under this category.  Nevertheless, even these must be aesthetically pleasing due to a separate factor – the concept of teishvu ke-ein taduru.  Just as one decorates and furnishes his home tastefully, so must he decorate and furnish his sukka.


            Rav Soloveitchik (Reshimot Shiurim to Masekhet Sukka, p. 105) proved this point from a discussion later in Masekhet Sukka (48a), concerning the procedure of leaving one’s sukka on the afternoon of Hoshana Rabba, the final day of Sukkot.  The Mishna requires removing one’s utensils and furniture from the sukka and bringing them inside in preparation for Shemini Atzeret.  (This applies only to those in Eretz Yisrael, who do not eat in the sukka on Shemini Atzeret.)  The Gemara then addresses the case of a person who has nowhere to bring his belongings, and requires that he perform some action that demonstratively renders the sukka unfit for use.  As Rashi explains, since this individual will, by necessity, remain in his sukka even after Sukkot, he must somehow invalidate the sukka to avoid appearing as extending the sukka obligation beyond its timeframe.  One means by which this is accomplished, the Gemara states, is by bringing dirty dishes into the sukka – something which one may not do during Sukkot (Sukka 29a).  It emerges, then, that bringing soiled utensils into the sukka undermines the mitzva of sukka – or, more precisely, undermines the possibility of dwelling in the sukka as required by Halakha.  Rav Soloveitchik noted that this halakha can be understood only if a comely appearance is required by virtue of teishvu ke-ein taduru.  If this requirement stems only from the broader concept of hiddur mitzva, bringing soiled utensils into the sukka would not affect the performance of the sukka obligation per se; it would rather violate the generic obligation demanding respectable aesthetic standards with regard to mitzva objects.  If the presence of filthy items indeed demonstrates that one does not remain in his sukka for mitzva purposes, then we must conclude that beautifying a sukka is required as an integral part of the sukka obligation itself, and not due to the overarching value of hiddur mitzva.

 

            In theory, this perspective on the requirement to beautify one’s sukka should affect the type of decorations one places in his sukka.  In my experience, the decorations commonly sold and used differ significantly from the materials used to decorate modern homes.  According to what we have seen, one might question this practice, since decorating a sukka is required as part of the concept of teishvu ke-ein taduru, the obligation to treat a sukka as a home.  Most likely, the structure of the sukka, not to mention the elements of the outdoors, simply cannot accommodate standard, household furnishings and decorations, and for this reason people traditionally decorate the sukka with considerably simpler and less lavish decorations.

 

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            In introducing the mitzva of arba minim (the four species), the Torah (Vayikra 23:43) refers to the etrog with the term “peri etz hadar” – literally, “a beautiful fruit of a tree.”  The Gemara (Sukka 35a) brings two explanations as to how this description corresponds with the traditional identification of this fruit as the etrog.  The first focuses on the term peri etz – “fruit of a tree” – which might suggest some degree of parity between the fruit and the tree.  Hence, this view suggests reading the verse as referring to a fruit “she-ta’am etzo u-firyo shaveh” – whose bark has some taste, just like the fruit itself.  The second view cited in the Gemara advances a homiletic interpretation of the word hadar (beautiful), suggesting that it alludes to the phrase, “ha-dar ba-ilano mi-shana le-shana” – “it lives on its tree all year round.”  Thus, the Torah – ever so subtly – alludes to these two qualities of the etrog fruit.

 

            As some writers have suggested, this Gemara perhaps expresses the two primary themes underlying the symbolic meaning of the etrog.  A famous Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Emor) establishes a correspondence between the four species and four groups among Am Yisrael: those who excel in Torah and the performance of mitzvot; those who excel in Torah but not mitzvot; those who excel in mitzvot but not Torah; and those who excel in neither.  The etrog, which is both fragrant and tasty, represents the complete tzadik, who has to his credit both scholarship and many righteous acts.  Accordingly, the two central qualities of the etrog – the taste of its bark, and its continuous presence on the tree – could perhaps allude to the primary qualities embodied by the perfect tzadik.  The similar taste of the bark and fruit, according to the Chemdat Yehoshua (cited in Likutei Batar Likutei to Masekhet Sukka), represents sincerity, the parity between the interior and exterior, between heart and deed.  The true tzadik is pious both internally and externally; he serves his Creator sincerely, out of love and devotion, rather than for self-serving and self-aggrandizing interests.  This sincerity naturally yields the second quality – consistency.  One who serves the Almighty sincerely will do so under all circumstances and without condition.  Like the etrog, he remains devoted and loyal “all year round,” in all seasons, regardless of the setting or situation.  Torah observance for him is not a matter of convenience or satisfaction, but a lifelong commitment and obligation.

 

            The Tishrei festivals, taken as a whole, are often perceived as a challenge to the Jew to express his devotion to the Almighty under differing circumstances.  Some people may find it easier to serve God in the somber and intimidating atmosphere of the High Holidays, while for others, the more relaxed, joyous tenor of Sukkot and Simchat Torah provides a far more comfortable environment for religious experience and expression.  Of course, these festivals demand that we serve God unwaveringly under both kinds of circumstances – the awe and dread of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the exuberant joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.  We thereby demonstrate our consistent loyalty to God, ha-dar ba-ilano mi-shana le-shana – which remains constant and consistent all year round, in every season and under all circumstances.

 

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            Yesterday, we discussed the expression peri etz hadar – literally, “a beautiful fruit of a tree” – with which the Torah refers to the etrog (Vayikra 23:43).  As we saw, the Gemara (Sukka 35a) cites a view that reads the word hadar in this verse as alluding to the phrase, “ha-dar ba-ilano mi-shana le-shana” – “that resides on its tree all year round.”  The Torah thus very subtly hints to the unique quality of etrog fruits (and, from what I’ve been told, all citrus fruits) that they can be found on their trees throughout the year, regardless of the season.

 

            The question arises, is there any connection between this homiletic reading of the word hadar and its plain meaning – “beautiful”?  Does the Gemara impose an entirely new reading onto this word, that bears no relation whatsoever to the straightforward reading, or is there perhaps some association between the plain and Midrashic interpretations of this word?

 

            Rav Joshua Shmidman zt”l, in an article entitled “Jewish Beauty and the Beauty of Jewishness” (www.ou.org/publications/ja/5758/spring98/beauty.htm), suggested that the Gemara here gives us some insight into the Jewish concept of “beauty.”  The hadar quality of the etrog, its “beautiful” nature and essence, lay specifically in its constancy, in its endurance, in this property of ha-dar be-ilano mi-shana le-shana.  In Jewish thought, Rav Shmidman explains, beauty “means the indomitable power of life, the determination to live on despite all difficulties, the affirmation of the victory of life over death, the drive for eternity.”  An object that can live continuously and endure under even the harshest of circumstances is “beautiful” in the Jewish sense of the term.

 

            In this vein Rav Shmidman explains the famous command introduced earlier in Sefer Vayikra (19:32), “ve-hadarta penei zakein,” which is commonly translated as, “you shall honor the presence of the elderly.”  In light of the more accurate translation of hadar as “beauty,” we should perhaps read this clause to mean, “you shall ascribe beauty to an old face.”  Quite contrary to the contemporary conception of beauty, which renders it almost synonymous with youth, Judaism finds beauty specifically in the penei zakein – in the face of an elderly person.  The Talmud (Kiddushin 33a) records that Rabbi Yochanan would rise in the presence of even the non-Jewish elderly, explaining, “How many troubles have they experienced!”  The power to endure many long years, to overcome life’s obstacles and withstand its many hardships, defines a person as “beautiful.”

 

            In Aramaic, the verb h.d.r. means to return.  Upon the completion of a Talmudic tractate, for example, the student traditionally exclaims, “Hadran alakh” – “We will return to you.”  This word, too, likely bears a conceptual connection to the Hebrew word hadar: something that is not lost, that endures forever, that does not slip away, is beautiful.

 

            If contemporary culture defines “beauty” in terms of instantaneous, but fleeting, charm and appeal, Judaism teaches that beauty lies in eternity, in the power of timelessness, in that which is everlasting.

 
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