Sukkos 5778

Finding joy in exile[1]

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים כל-האזרח בישראל ישבו בסוכות: למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את- בני ישראל בהוצאתי אותם מארץ מצרים וגו’
You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days; every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkos. [This is] in order for your generations to know that I placed the Children of Israel in sukkos when I took them out of the land of Egypt…[2]

During the festival of Sukkos, Jews are obligated to leave their permanent dwelling place and to live for seven days in sukkos[3]. The Torah tells us[4] that this is so we will remember that Hashem placed our ancestors in sukkos when He took us out of Egypt. There’s a tannaic dispute[5] as to the meaning behind the word sukkos in this verse. In general, the word sukkos refers to a temporary booth, usually made of wood[6], with a roof made from the waste from the harvest[7]. Rabbi Akiva holds that Hashem placed the Jews in literal booths when he took them out of Egypt[8]. However, Rabbi Eliezer holds that the verse refers to the Clouds of Glory which Hashem provided them in the wilderness, as a sort of protection from the elements. We are then commanded to make literal sukkos to represent the metaphorical sukkos of the past. The halacha, Jewish law, follows Rabbi Eliezer[9].

There’s another halacha that mitzta’er patur min hasukkah, someone who is in pain is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah[10]. The gemarra says this is true even if it’s just flies which are bothersome, or the person has an eye ache or headache. The reason is because the Torah says to dwell in sukkos, meaning dwell as one normally would[11]. A person wouldn’t dwell in a place that causes them pain, so the sukkah should be no different[12]. In fact, if a person strains themself to fulfill the mitzvah despite their pain, they are considered an imbecile[13]. While the Torah does command to dwell as one normally would, why is it formulated this way? Any other mitzvah, even if it’s hard, is still obligatory. In fact, the more difficult it is to fulfill, the more reward[14]. What makes sukkah different than every other mitzvah?

We find two seemingly contradictory aspects to the mitzvah of sukkah. On the one hand, it connotes exile. Some explain[15] this is the rationale for why the mitzvah of sukkah is juxtaposed to Yom Kippur. Just like Yom Kippur atones for a person’s sins, so does exile. A person should atone for their sins by exiling themself to their sukkah. In fact, if G-d forbid a person was decreed with exile due to their sins, they can “fulfill” this decree by exiling themself to their sukkah[16]. We even see this in the halachos of sukkah itself. If a person lives all year in a sukkah, they can’t fulfill their mitzvah by living there during the festival of Sukkos[17]. They must leave this structure and enter a different sukkah. We see there is an aspect of exile associated with the mitzvah of sukkah. This idea strengthens the above question. Why is a person exempt from the mitzvah if they are in pain? If anything, staying there would be a greater manifestation of the aspect of exile associated with the mitzvah of sukkah.

On the other hand, the mitzvah of sukkah expresses joy and pleasure. The Midrash[18] points out that the Torah mentions no idea of joy with the festival of Pesach, only once mentions it[19] with the festival of Shavuos, yet mentions it three times[20] with the festival of Sukkos[21]. This is because we are overjoyed after Yom Kippur that our sins have been atoned. As well, Sukkos coincides with the harvest season, where a person is overjoyed at the bounty they have received from Hashem. Many authorities[22] even hold that the physical pleasure one receives from dwelling in the sukkah is the essence of the mitzvah and not just a tangential aspect. This seemingly contradicts the idea that a sukkah connotes exile, which is associated with pain and discomfort.

However, these two ideas are not contradictory at all. In fact, they are one in the same, with the same intent and manifestation. The Torah wants us to be exiled from our permanent dwelling places and to dwell in the sukkah. Yet we are obligated to experience great joy living in the sukkah, enjoying the physical pleasure it provides. All of this is to remind us of the great chesed that Hashem did for us when He took us out of Egypt. In essence, the Jews were exiled from their then homeland of Egypt. Usually when a nation is exiled from one land to another, their experiences are full of pain and suffering. They are starving, dehydrated, their clothing becomes ragged, they can’t sleep, etc. This wasn’t so when they Jews were taken out of Egypt. Hashem surrounded them with the Clouds of Glory, which protected them from the elements of the wilderness. They were given the mun, the manna from Heaven to eat. They were given water from the well of Miriam. The Clouds of Glory even cleaned their clothing that they were wearing[23]. They lacked nothing, as if they were living in paradise and not in the wilderness. To remember all of these miracles, we were commanded to dwell in sukkos. There, we are able to experience the seemingly contradictory ideas of exile and joy.

This also explains why a person who is in pain is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah. If a person is in pain and stays in the sukkah, they are going against the intention behind the mitzvah. They are also considered an imbecile, since they in fact missed the point behind the festival of Sukkos. They should have had great pleasure in the sukkah and been filled with joy. Through this they would have remembered all the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jews when they left Egypt. They would have then fulfilled the verse “in order for your generations to know that I placed the Children of Israel in sukkos when I took them out of the land of Egypt”[24].

May we be אך שמח, only joyful[25] this Sukkos. Chag sameach!

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Leviticus 23:42-43

[2] Leviticus loc. cit.

[3] Sukkah 2a

[4] Leviticus loc. cit.

[5] Sukkah 11b

[6] Technically a sukkah can be made of a more fortified material, even steel (Sukkah 2a)

[7] Rashi to Deuteronomy 16:13 (from Sukkah 12a)

[8] See Be’er Yosef loc. cit. § 3 what’s so significant about placing the Jews in literal booths such that it would merit its own festival. Cf. Aruch HaShulchan 625:3

[9] Tur Orach Chaim § 625. The Bach ad. loc. explains why the halacha should care about the reason behind the mitzvah. The Torah indicates that the mitzvah is to remember what happened to the Jews when they left Egypt. This dictates the intent we should have in mind when we fulfill the mitzvah. Having the correct intent, that the sukkos in the wilderness was the Clouds of Glory, would therefore be required

[10] Sukkah 26a; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 640:4

[11] Tosafos ad. loc.

[12] Therefore Rashi ad. loc., Rosh 3:7, and others explain that a person is exempt only if leaving the sukkah would alleviate the pain. However, if the person’s home is no different, they are still obligated in sukkah

[13] Literally: commoner (Rema 639:7)

[14] Avos 5:23

[15] Maharil Hilchos Sukkos § 2, 4

[16] It also says this in the Yalkut Shimoni Emor § 653 and Zohar parshas Emor 103a

[17] See Tosafos to Sukkah 2a, Sukkah 8a with Rashi, Rashi to Sukkah 14a, and Shulchan Aruch 636:2

[18] Yalkut Shimoni Emor § 654

[19] Deuteronomy 16:11

[20] Leviticus 23:40, Deuteronomy 16:14,15

[21] The Rambam Hilchos Lulav 8:12 and Zohar parshas Emor 103b (see the commentary of Mikdash Melech ad. loc.) also express that Sukkos has more joy associated with it than any other festival

[22] The gemarra in Nedarim 16b says if a person forbids from themself the pleasure of dwelling in a sukkah (by making a neder), they are still allowed to dwell in their sukkah during Sukkos. The gemarra says this is because of the rule that mitzvos were not given for physical pleasure. The Machaneh Ephraim Hilchos Nedarim § 25 asks based on Tosafos in Rosh Hashanah 28a (who say even without the mitzvah of sukkah there’s physical pleasure dwelling there), the pleasure would seem to be tangential to the mitzvah. Therefore, the rule that mitzvos were not given for physical pleasure shouldn’t apply, since that’s only when the mitzvah itself gives the pleasure (Ran to Nedarim 15b). Why then are they permitted to dwell in the sukkah? The Oneg Yom Tov Orach Chaim § 50, Shu”t Chemdas Shlomo Orach Chaim § 23, and Shu”t Rabbi Akiva Eiger Mahadura Tinyana § 138 explain that this is only when the pleasure is distinct from the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Not true for the mitzvah of sukkah, where the pleasure of dwelling there is the mitzvah itself. Therefore, it would be permitted to dwell in the sukkah despite the pleasure they receive from it, since mitzvos weren’t given for pleasure (although I don’t understand how we can apply this rule, since according to them the mitzvah of sukkah was in fact given for personal pleasure; perhaps there’s a difference between mitzvos being given for pleasure and mitzvos obligating pleasure)

[23] Rashi to Deuteronomy 8:7

[24] Leviticus 23:43

[25] Deuteronomy 16:15

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