This shiur is dedicated in memory of Avi Mori, Yehoshua ben Azriel HaKohen,
on the occasion of his 33rd Yahrtzeit
Sukkot begins this year on Sunday evening, so we will devote this week’s shiur to the mitzva of sitting in the Sukka.
This mitzva, which appears in Sefer VaYikra, (23:42-43), is one of only a handful of mitzvot for which the Torah explains the reason for the command. “So that all future generations will know that I made Bnei Yisrael dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of Mitzrayim” (23:43). Based on this passuk, the Tur Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim siman 625) begins his explanation of the laws of Sukkot by explaining the rationale behind the mitzva. According to the Tur, the purpose of the mitzva is to remind us of Hashem’s intimate interaction with our world by referencing Yiziat Mitzrayim, which attests to Hashem’s involvement in the world and which Bnei Yisrael personally witnessed. This idea is similar to Ramban’s explanation as to why in the recording of the Asseret HaDibrot in Parshat VeEtchanan (Devarim 5:14) the reason given for Shabbat is to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim as opposed to remembering Creation, which is the reason given for observing Shabbat in Parshat Yitro (Shemot 19:11). The fundamental idea behind the mitzva of Shabbat is to demonstrate that Hashem created the world and controls events in the world, and this is the reason that is given in the first recording of Asseret HaDibrot. When the Torah repeats the Asseret HaDibrot in Sefer Devarim Yetziat Mitzrayim is given as the reason, since this was the event where we saw Hashem’s involvement in the world demonstrated before our very eyes. Similarly, our dwelling in Sukkot reminds us of how Hashem intervened in the natural order of the world when we left Mitzrayim, which we ourselves saw.
In his commentary on the Tur, the Bayit Chadash (Ba”ch) notes that generally the Tur limits himself to delineating Halacha and custom, and he highlights how uncommon it is for the Tur to explain the rationale for a mitzva, and not just tell us how to fulfill the mitzva. The Ba”ch explains that since the Torah itself delineated the reason for the mitzva, the Tur also explains the mitzva in order to stress that to properly fulfill the mitzva one must have in mind that this is the reason that we are sitting in the sukka. From the language of the Ba”ch it appears that having this intention is necessary in order to fulfill the mitzva. The Bechorai Yaakov (quoted by Rav Yehuda Mirsky in Hegyonai Halacha Volume 1, p. 188) adopts the position of the Ba”ch, and actually suggests that if an individual did not have the idea in mind that they are sitting in the Sukka to remember the sukkot that Hashem had us dwell in after we left Egypt, they have failed to fulfill the mitzva. As a result, at least on the first night of Chag, that person would be required to eat another kzayit of food in the Sukka with the mitzva in mind in order to fulfill the obligation. While this is a minority opinion and the Mishna Berura (625:s”k 1) clearly rules that you have fulfilled the mitzva even if you did not have this in mind, the very fact that there are those who rule more stringently demonstrates how important it is to have the reason for the mitzva in mind when fulfilling the command.
But what is it that we are remembering? The Gemara (Sukka 11b) quotes a well known machloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva as to what was the nature of the sukkot that Bnai Yisrael dwelled in while in the Midbar. Rabbi Eliezer says that the sukkot were actually anninei kavod, “Clouds of Glory”. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, posits that they were regular sukkot. The Tur (as well as many other Rishonim, including Rashi) accept the position of Rabbi Eliezer. This understanding fits in well with the Ba’ch’s position that in order to fulfill the mitzva of Sukka one must remember how Hashem took us out of Egypt and had us dwell in sukkot. Certainly, the fact that Hashem cared for Bnei Yisrael in a miraculous manner is worth recollecting. Rabbi Akiva’s position, on the other hand, is much more mundane. Obviously, Bnei Yisrael needed to be housed somehow during their sojourn in the desert, so the fact that we dwelled in booths hardly seems to be noteworthy. If that is the case, what is it that we are in fact being asked to remember when fulfilling the mitzva?
Rashbam, as we might expect, disagrees with his grandfather (and the Tur), and asserts that the pshat of the pasuk follows the opinion of Rabbi Akiva and that the sukkot that Am Yisrael were housed in during their sojourn in the wilderness were in fact just regular sukkot. So what was so special about these sukkot that Hashem wants us to remember that we dwelled in them when we left Mitzrayim? For Rashbam, the answer is that we have in fact misunderstood what it was that Hashem wanted us to remember. We are not remembering the actual Sukkot or that Hashem housed us in them. Rather we are remembering that while we were in the wilderness we dwelt in sukkot, and we are meant to contrast this with the wealth and good fortune that we achieved afterwards in Eretz Yisrael. It would be very easy, says Rashbam, to forget how Hashem looked after us in the desert once we were settled in Eretz Yisrael. At that point our natural tendency would be to attribute any success and good fortune to our own efforts, “B’kochi u’botzem yadi asah et hachayil ha’ze!”- It was my own hard work, toil and ingenuity which were responsible for my success. Precisely to guard against this type of complacency we are commanded to go out into our Sukkot, and to remember how Hashem is responsible for our good fortune. We are reminded of the hard times, when we wandered and had no permanent abode, and we thank Hashem for having brought us to this new reality.
According to Rashbam, this also explains why we celebrate Chag HaSukkot in the middle of Tishrei. It is at this time of year that we have just finished gathering the harvest and storing it for the winter (hence the alternate Hebrew name for Chag HaSukkot – Chag HaAsif, the Harvest Festival). This is the time of year that we feel most secure and most content, and we therefore tend to ascribe our success to ourselves. It is precisely now that we leave our secure and comfortable homes and return to the sukka, and to get a reality check. It is Hashem who provides for us in our permanent homes no less than He did in the wilderness.
The contrast of this approach to that of the Tur, who followed the opinion of Rabbi Eiezer, is now deepened. The Tur, when explaining why we celebrate Chag HaSukkot in the beginning of the autumn rather than in Nissan when we actually left Mitzrayim, is because it is common practice to leave one’s home and sit in booths when the weather begins to warm up. We are therefore commanded, suggests the Tur, to celebrate Chag HaSukkot in the beginning of the autumn, when even the most casual observer would not expect someone to leave his home for an outdoor booth. Hence performance of the mitzva is delayed until Tishrei (yes, the Tur is the source for this “famous” explanation of the timing of the mitzva).
Rashbam’s explanation is much more compelling. For Rashbam, the timing is an integral part of the mitzva, not a secondary consideration. By forsaking our homes at this time of year we are making an active decision to reaffirm Hashem as an ongoing partner in our lives.
Something to think about in our Sukka this year!