What Is a Sukkah, Really?

| Sukkot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 30, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Holidays Israel

During the festival of Sukkot in 1974, while on sabbatical in Israel, the Schorsch family took a trip to Sharm El Sheikh on the Straits of Tiran. I remember being struck at how much less hospitable to human habitation the Sinai is than the Negev. Unlike the Negev, the landscape of the Sinai, showed no vegetation; neither trees nor shrubs. How I wondered, could the throng of ancient Israelites fleeing Egypt have survived for even a year, let alone forty, in this forbidding terrain? Driving south along the Gulf of Eilat, we stopped at Di-zahab to spend the night. The wind blew ferociously and we had to struggle mightily to put up our tents. Miraculously, they stayed up throughout the night, though the fury of the wind stole most of our sleep. On the way down, it even had the temerity to sweep a suitcase off the roof of our car as we drove.

The Israelites stayed in the Sinai longer than the Schorsch family. Sukkot, for all its joy, commemorates their ordeal, particularly the fragile shelter which protected them against the inclemency of the wilderness. Our dwelling in huts for seven days at this time of the year, is a ritual of empathy and thanksgiving. According to Leviticus, where the commandment appears, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:42-43).

But since my adventure, I have grown skeptical about what exactly a booth can do for one in the wilderness. The booth that Jonah built for himself to await the fate of Nineveh, gave little cover without the gourd that sprouted overnight to shade them both (Ibid, 4:5-9). A quaint rabbinic dispute turns on the meaning of the word “booths.” Rabbi Eliezer insisted that we are to take the word literally, “actual booths,” whereas his more mystically inclined student, Rabbi Akiva, understood it figuratively as “clouds of God’s presence” (Sifra, Emor 17:11). My preference, like that of Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah (23:43), is the view of Rabbi Akiva. The mystic disposition comes closer to capturing the phenomenon of God’s grace.

Rabbi Eliezer’s bluntness is prosaic in a saga that calls for poetry. To focus on actual booths is to constrict our imagination with practical questions. Whence the materials, especially the vegetation, to build the booths? How could they withstand the elements? And what shielded the Israelites when they traveled? Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, abandons the effort to scrutinize the inexplicable. The word sukkot is not intended to depict the instrument of salvation but rather the felt experience. Detached from its literal meaning, the word suggests an envelope of divine proximity. As God had redeemed Israel from Egypt and rescued it at the Sea of Reeds and revealed God’s will at Mount Sinai, so would God accompany Israel into the wilderness. No trace of intermediaries. Booths are but a concrete object to allude to a divine canopy that protected Israel whether at rest or in motion, a kind of ozone layer to temper the fierceness of the desert sun. The metaphor is marshaled to conjure up for us the impact rather than a description of what happened.

Both the Bible and rabbinic literature are circumspect in speaking of God’s persona. A God who is transcendent, unbounded and imageless far exceeds the power of human language. Only allusions can point to the reality of God’s nearness and compassion. Thus each morning as we wrap our prayer shawl (the tallit) around our head before davening, we recite the following evocative words from Psalm 36:

How precious is Your constant love, O God. Mortals take shelter under Your wings. They feast on the abundance of Your house; You give them drink from Your stream of delights. With you is the fountain of life; in Your light we are bathed in light. Maintain Your constant love for those who acknowledge You, and Your beneficence for those who are honorable (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, 62).

To regard any of these depictions of God literally would be a travesty. Both for the psalmist and for us the images describe an inner and not an outer state. Immersed in the darkness of our warm woolen tallit, we feel God’s enveloping presence. No picture comes to mind.

Similarly, in the case of converts to Judaism, the Rabbis spoke of them as coming “under the wings of the Shekhinah (God’s presence)”, that is, making the world-to-come accessible to them. The famous three candidates for conversion who were rejected by Shammai for their insolent questions but accepted by Hillel, and then enlightened by him, spoke of Shammai’s austereness as denying them access to the world-to-come; whereas Hillel’s mild and modest manner brought them “under the wings of the Shekhinah” (BT Shabbat 31a). Again, a literal impulse would wreak havoc with a delicate image that means no more than finding a spiritual haven. Indeed, the Rabbis invented the noun Shekhinah for God’s indwelling presence, to avoid the presumption of speaking about God directly. At best, it is only God’s manifestations that we can glimpse and grasp. The phrase, therefore, to come “under the wing of the Shekhinah” is really an image within an image.

In the end, our religious language, whether verbal or ritual is symbolic. It points beyond itself. For Rabbi Akiva, our sukkot remind us of the divine haven in which Israel found refuge during its sojourn in the wilderness. No human hands could ever construct a booth, a citadel or a skyscraper, of such sacred and secure dimensions. As we move into our own modest booths for the seven-day festival of Sukkot, temporarily rid of the excess of implements and distractions that clutter our lives daily, we pray fervently, as we do at the end of the Hoshana Rabba service, that “You [God] might see fit to remove the iron wall that separates us from You” (Sim Shalom, 212, trans. my own).

Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Sukkot 5765 are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.