Meaning in Measurements

Nomi Berman

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“Meaning in Measurements”

by Nomi Berman

Jerusalem Post Sukkot Supplement –  7/10/2014

At times, the first chapter of Masechet Succa reads like a geometry text book. There are dimensions, diagrams, formulae, and even pi makes a guest appearance.

But, already in the opening sugya, or passage, the gemara reminds us that in the halachic worldview, even the most mundane of details is laden with significance.

In the first Mishna, we learn that the maximum height of a succa is 20 amot (approximately 30 feet or 9 meters).

Various amoraim – Talmudic scholars – suggest the source for this law: “Rabba answered: Scripture says, ‘That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths (Leviticus 23).’ [With a booth] up to 20 cubits [high] a man ‘knows’ he is dwelling in a booth, but with one higher than 20 cubits he does not ‘know’ that he is dwelling in a booth, since his eye does not descry it.

“Rav Zeira replied: From the following verse, ‘And there shall be a booth for a shadow in the daytime from the heat (Isaiah 4).’ [With a booth] up to 20 cubits [high] a man sits in the shade of the booth; but with one higher than 20 cubits he sits, not in the shade of the booth but in the shade of its walls…

“Rabba replied: [It is derived] from the following verse, ‘Ye shall dwell in booths seven days (Leviticus 23).’ The Torah declared: ‘For the whole seven days leave thy permanent abode and dwell in a temporary abode. [With a booth] up to 20 cubits [high] a man makes his abode a temporary one; [in one] higher than 20 cubits, a man does not make his abode temporary, but permanent.”

Rabba points out that the mitzva of succa is presented in the Torah with an unusual stipulation of intent. The goal of dwelling in the succa, as the Torah presents it, is to create a cognitive experience, that our “generations may know” the historical significance of the holiday. Without the visual awareness of the succa, that cognition would be absent.

Rav Zeira and Rabba, on the other hand, focus more on the experiential rather than the cognitive component of the mitzva. Rav Zeira adduces a proof text from Isaiah that describes the succa as a booth that provides shade. It is essential, according to Rav Zeira, that the s’chach , which is the defining element of the succa, provide the shade. In a succa that surpasses the maximum of 20 amot, the walls would supply the shade and not the s’chach.

Rabba returns our attention to the original commandment to dwell in the succa in Leviticus. From his meticulous reading of the text, Rabba proves that the succa must be essentially a temporary structure. The command to dwell in the succa for seven days does not merely describe the duration of the mitzva, but also the nature of it. The succa must be a “seven-day structure,” no less but also no more.

It should be a structure, which is by its very construction appropriate only for temporary use.

The common denominator between Rav Zeira and Rabba is that they agree that the height requirement of the succa is designed to promote a sensory reaction. Historical consciousness, as Rabba demands, is insufficient. The succa is not merely about recalling a period in history, but also about conjuring up our own contemporary associations.

At first glance, however, the experiences they describe are surprisingly at odds with one another. Rav Zeira believes, based on the verse in Isaiah, that the defining characteristic of the succa is that it provides security. The succa as described by Isaiah is a place one might enter to find protection from the elements. Rabba, on the other hand, seems to specifically highlight the insecurity of the succa, the lack of permanence. There is no contradiction here, as a temporary structure may indeed provide relief from sun or rain. But nonetheless, it would seem that Rav Zeira and Rabba are trying to evoke conflicting emotions.

This paradox brings us to the crux of the succa experience.

The responses of the amoraim must be read in tandem. The Torah invites us to reflect upon Am Yisrael ’s sojourn in the desert, as Rabba suggests. Historically, the Jewish people lived the Rav Zeira/Rabba paradox at the very outset. The objective situation was precarious, as the temporary walls of the succa remind us. But the shade of the s’chach tells the story of the security and protection that God provided, despite the odds.

This combined lesson of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira resonates.

It is only when we are fully conscious of our vulnerability that we can appreciate our security. Succot 5775, in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, comes with a deep awareness of our vulnerability. We know Rosh Hashana could have brought war and didn’t. And that makes us all the more capable of appreciating the miraculous nature of our security, perhaps unprecedented since biblical times.

It’s an oft-quoted debate: Are we celebrating the protection of the literal succot that housed the Jewish people in the desert, or the miraculous protection provided by the “clouds of glory?” Indeed, God’s protection has come in the natural and the supernatural mode at different points in history. This summer, the metaphorical succa came in the form of the Iron Dome.

This year, as I sit in my succa, I will recall the tumultuous birth of the Jewish people, as the Torah instructs. But I will contemplate the circumstances of the rebirth of Am Yisrael as well. We’ve been here before: challenging living conditions, surrounded by enemies, protected by God.

History repeats itself. That is my fervent prayer.

(Click here to read this article on the Jerusalem Post website)

Nomi Berman is associate director of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program. She completed her BA at Stern College and studied in the Talmud department at Bar-Ilan University and at the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She and her husband Rabbi Todd Berman pioneered the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at Brandeis University. Today the Bermans live in Efrat with their eight children.

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