For more teachings on Sukkot, see my blog: http://hitzeiyehonatan.blogspot.com/.
It often seems to me that Sukkot is a kind of intellectual step-child among the festivals. There are not the great Shabbat Hagadol or Shabbat Shuvah lectures which help people to prepare, respectively, for the festivals of Pesah or for the Days of Awe; nor are there the talks and classes that make Shavuot into one long learning feast, with Tikkunim on nearly every street corner and under every leafy tree. Even though Sukkot is theoretically subject to the rule that “thirty days before the holiday one asks about and expounds the laws of the festival,” in practice until after Yom Kippur people are pretty much engrossed in thoughts relating to that day, while during the four intervening days they are far too busy building sukkot and buying lulav and Etrog —not to mention the shopping and cooking and baking and what not that precede every holiday—to stop so as to study and read and learn about the spiritual meaning of the holiday.
As this year [written in 2006]those engaged in study of the Daf Yomi (the daily page of Talmud) began studying Masekhet Sukkah just about a month ago, and have to date completed the first two chapters of this tractate, those dealing with the sukkah per se. Hence, it seems an ideal time to concentrate on this colorful and joyful, but intellectually neglected, holiday, in a kind of hadran or synthetic summary of those two chapters (my apologies for the belated nature of this study). I set myself a simple question: What is a sukkah? Specifically, what is the meaning of all the varied cases, including quite a few rather bizarre and improbable ones, that the first two chapters examine? To be more precise: is it possible, on the basis of the numerous detailed halakhot in these chapters to inductively construct an image of the ideal sukkah, and to extrapolate from it some sort of underlying theological-philosophical concepts?
But we shall begin with the etymology of the name sukkah. The word is derived from the root סכך (skk), the hard kaf in the middle letter deriving from the dagesh forte used to indicate the doubling of the letter khaf—the same root as used for the word sekhakh, the thatching, made of branches and other vegetation, used to cover the sukkah. The root itself has two interrelated meanings: to protect, cover, hover over, like the wings of the cherubim in the Temple that protected the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:20); or in contrary mood, as in Lamentations 3:44, where God covers Himself (סכתה בענן לך; sakota be-anan lakh) with a cloud “lest prayer should pass through” (itself a strange concept). The second meaning is: to weave or thatch together, or a covering made of woven or thatch-work—like the sekakh used to cover the sukkah. The loom on which threads are woven together is called a masekehet; by extension, so is a densely-constructed book or tractate, the written or cultural counterpart of a thickly-woven cloth (Hence, one could argue that the title Masekhet Sukkah is strictly speaking a kind of tautology.)
Another root belonging to the same semantic field is the root חפף (hff), also meaning to hover over or protect, from which is derived the word huppah, marriage canopy. I first became aware of this when I saw a custom-made huppah in the home of neighbors, made for the weddings of their children, embroidered with the verse כי על כל כבוד חופה, “and over all the glory shall hang a canopy,” from Isaiah 4:5—the only appearance of this word in the Bible. There, it appears as part of an eschatological vision, and immediately precedes a verse that speaks of the sukkah as protecting by day from intense heat, and as a hiding place from water and rain.
Halakhically, the sukkah is defined by two main parameters: the walls or defanot, and the thatching, or skhakh, which function as its roof or covering. The walls serve to define or delimit the actual space of the sukkah. There must be at least three walls, with no particular requirement as to the material; moreover, the third wall may be only partial, provided it is adjacent to one of the other walls, and is seen as a full wall using the principle of lavud—i.e., drawing an imaginary line to “complete” the missing section. Given that the walls need not fully enclose the space, and provide neither privacy nor safety from intruders or passers-by, one must conclude that their main function is to define or delimit a certain space in a formal sense. It also provides the framework for placing the skhakh, whose location is defined in relation to the walls: it cannot be too far away, either vertically or laterally, from the defanot. In addition, the walls must be arranged in such a way as to leave an aperture in which to place the skhakh: it cannot be a lean-to against a wall, nor can it be like a typee, which comes to a point without any space for skhakh.
The second component of the sukkah, the skhakh or thatch-work roof, is the defining feature of the sukkah, as its very name implies. To sit in the sukkah means to dwell in the shade of the skhakh. צילו מרובה מחמתו: “Its shade is greater than its sunlit area.” The basic rules defining skhakh are that it be made from vegetable matter (gidulo min hakarka) and that it not “receive impurity”—i.e., not be made of earthenware, metal, animal skins, etc., and that it not be, e.g., fruits per se. It also may not be “attached” to the earth, but must have been harvested or cut down.
A common feature of all these halakhot is that the skhakh must be in a certain sense simple or straightforward. For example, a ”sukkah made under a sukkah”—that is, one covered by two separate levels of skhakh separated from one another by a significant distance—is unfit. In theory, the upstairs family may have a sukkah, whose floor serves as the roof or skhakh of the one underneath. But such an arrangement is improper; even if the space is unoccupied, so long as there is a gap (some say a tefah or handbreadth, others 3 or 10 tefahim) between the two layers of skhakh, it is unfit. Within the sukkah itself, one must sit or sleep directly beneath the skhakh itself, and not under another covering—e.g., sleeping in a four-poster canopied bed, or underneath the bed itself (!), if it is high enough to constitute a “tent.” Similarly, bundles of sticks or straws that are tied together may not be used, unless they are loosened. Likewise, finished lumber, even if the boards are distinct from one another, may not be used, because it looks too much like regular roofing. Again, if one has a roof made of beams that are not fastened together by some sort of adhesive material, rent, one may lift and replace each piece, thereby making it “anew” for the festival. Climbing vines or branches overhanging from a tree may not be used unless they have been cut from the roots or, in the case of branches, pushed down place in such a way that they mingle naturally with the “regular,” detached skhakh—and then only as “filling,” after the 50% minimum of shade has been provided by regular skhakh.
These case laws all seem expressions of a more general principle: תעשה אותו ולא מן העשוי—“you shall make it, and not from that which is already made.” That is, unlike the walls of the sukkah, which may be preexistent (some people make their sukkah in a special room in their homes with a retractable roof, where they then place the skhakh), the skhakh must be placed down specifically for the purpose of this mitzvah, and not made out of something which happens to grow in the area, or a fixed roof.
What are we to make of all these laws? It seems to me that the sukkah exists in a certain tension between dirat ara’i & dirat keva: between being a temporary dwelling or a permanent one. Most of the laws relating to the shkhakh—for example, the requirements for the materials used therein, or the idea that it must be made specifically for the holiday—reflect a sense of transience, of the temporary nature of this dwelling. On the other hand, there are certain comments in the sugyot to suggest that the sukkah must meet certain minimum requirements is similar to that which one has in ones permanent home. More important, the manner in which one dwells in the sukkah is “as you dwell in your home”: one eats, drinks, “hangs out” with ones friends, studies, serves meals using one’s finest tableware, decorates it, and even sleeps in the sukkah. Thus, the widespread practice of taking one’s major meals only in the sukkah is a minimalist one. There is thus a clear tension between permanence and transience or, to phrase it differently, between protection and exposure. In the sukkah one is “protected”; indeed, in the Zohar and mystical sources one is seen as “taking refuge in the shadow of the Holy One blessed be He.”
Turning to the symbolic meaning of the sukkah: this is the only one of the three pilgrimage holidays that does not commemorate a specific historical event. We are only told in a general way that they are ”because I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths (sukkot) when I took them out of the land of Egypt” [Lev 23:43]. Why, of all the events of the post-Sinai, desert years, did the Torah focus on these rude huts and the sense of being protected by God for commemoration in such a way? It would appear that the idea of ongoing Divine protection, as a central theme of the desert years and of Jewish (and human) existence in general, is a topic of great importance; that security comes from trust in God, rather than from man’s own efforts.
There is a rather interesting discussion on the symbolic meaning of the sukkah, mingling both halakhic and aggadic elements. When the Torah speaks of the Israelites dwelling in Sukkot during the course of the Exodus from Egypt, does this refer to real, literal Sukkot, or to “clouds of glory” (ענני כבוד)? Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva debate this point (interestingly, in the two places where this appears, in the Talmud at Sukkah 11b and the ancient halakhic midrash Sifra, the positions as to which one says what are reversed). About what do they disagree? Actual sukkot (sukkot mamash) represent human endeavor, huts built by human beings from whatever came to hand in the desert; God’s role in “causing them to dwell“ in sukkot is thus an indirect one, providing them with the materials to do so and the wisdom to figure out to how to use them to protect themselves. If the sukkot are seen as “clouds of glory,” as a kind of supernatural dwelling place, the Exodus and what happened there are likewise seen in miraculous, transcendent terms, utterly unlike anything known to us from our own experience. The lessons to be drawn, in terms of the old debate about quietistic reliance upon Divine intervention and human activism, is clear.