Mishnah Sukkot

Summarized and Explained by
Jonathan Wolf

Chapter 1

     
      
       

The Mishnah is the core of traditional rabbinic Judaism. It was compiled in the second century BCE by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) and represents a series of legal decisions by the Sages on matters of Jewish law and society. Together with the "gemara" (which means completion in aramaic), we have the Talmud.

-Jonathan Wolf

Mishnah Sukkot deals with the laws pertaining to the holiday known in English as "The Feast of Tabernacles". The source for this yom tov, the third of the shalosh regalim, (three pilgrimage festivals) comes at the time of harvest in the Land of Israel. The Torah states in Sefer Vayikra (23:39-43):

"On the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei), when you have gathered the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take to you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. And you shall keep it a feast unto the Lord seven days in the year; it is a statute forever in your generations; you shall keep it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God."

On Sukkot, we are asked to leave our homes made of wood, concrete and steel, and to dwell in fragile structures subject to the elements and forces of nature. In this sense, we are asked to demonstrate the trait known in Hebrew as bitachon; a profound faith in God that he will guide us and protect us just as He did those thousands of years ago to the generation that left Egypt. We thank God for the produce He has provided us during the past growing season.

At the Pesach seder, we are asked to picture ourselves as though we ourselves had been brought forth from Egypt. On Sukkot, we are specifically commanded to "rejoice before the Lord." On no other holiday are we so commanded. Why this distinction? What are "the fruits of goodly trees"? What are the specifications for the design and building of a sukkah? The Torah is silent on these issues.

It is interesting to note that the Pesach seder takes place in the comfort of one’s home (or that of a guest). While the youngest is prompted to ask "Mah nistanah ha’leilah hazeh, mikol ha’leilot?, we might also wonder why such a statement is not made with regard to the sukkah? On the first night of Sukkot, the child is thrust out of the comforts of home and asked to eat in a hut subject destructive forces that engineers had long ago mastered, to a large degree, in the area of home design. In some families, people sleep in their sukkah. If the eating of certain foods and performing some rituals in one’s home prompts a child to wonder "Mah nishtanah ha’leila ha’zeh…", how much more so should the child’s sense of awe and wonder extend to the festival of Sukkot?

This first chapter deals with the laws pertaining to the sukkah. What should be its proper size? What should be its location? What should it be made of? These and many other questions form the nucleus of our mishnah. As in the other volumes, the mishnah will be stated followed by a commentary taken from the works of the Sages as well as some thoughts of my own.


 

Chapter 1

Mishnah 1:

If a sukkah is above twenty cubits in height, it is invalid, but Rabbi Yehudah declares it valid; and if it is not (at least) ten handbreadths in height or has not three sides or if its unshaded part is more than its shaded part, it is invalid. In the case of an "old" sukkah, the School of Shammai declare it invalid but the School of Hillel declare it valid. And what is considered an "old sukkah"? Any which was constructed thirty days before the Festival of Tabernacles; but if it were made expressly for the Festival of Tabernacles, even at the beginning of the year, it is valid.

Commentary:

This first mishnah sets forth the basic laws of the construction of the sukkah. A cubit is approximately 22.08 inches. Thus a sukkah taller than twenty cubits (amah) is of necessity very strong and violates the mitzvah that the sukkah be a temporary and fragile dwelling. It should be noted that the view of Rabbi Yehudah is rejected as halachah.

A handbreadth (tefach) is approximately 3.65 inches and as such, a sukkah must, of necessity, be tall enough to accommodate a person comfortably. The requirement that the sukkah must have three sides is accepted as halacha l’moshe misinai, a law given to Moses on Sinai and is not subject to debate. Finally, the view of the School of Hillel, that one may build a sukkah before the festival, provided that it is done so expressly for the festival is valid.

Mishnah 2:

If one makes his sukkah under a tree, it is as though he had constructed it inside his house. If one sukkah were above another sukkah, the upper one is valid and the lower one is invalid. Rabbi Yehudah says, If there are no occupants in the upper one, the lower one is valid.

Commentary:

The ruling of Rabbi Yehudah is rejected as halacha. The word used to describe the roof covering is s’chach. As we shall see, the material for the s’chach should not be subject to tumah or ritual impurity. This material is usually of plant origin, detached from the ground. Branches, bamboo poles, or narrow wooden slats can be used. The s’chach must shade the majority of the area of the sukkah. It should, however, not be dense enough to provide total protection from a heavy rain. Additionally, the pieces of the s’chach should be separated so that the stars are visible from inside the sukkah.

According to the Sages, there must not be a gap of three or more tefochim between the pieces of the s’chach or between the s’chach and the walls. S’chach that is wider than four tefochim (14 inches) should not be used for the sukkah since it takes on the appearance of a permanent roof.

Mishnah 3:

If anyone spread a sheet over it because of the sun, or beneath it because of the dropping, or if he spread it over a four poster bed, it is invalid; but he may spread it over a two poster bed.

Mishnah 4:

If one trained over it a vine or a gourd or an ivy and covered such over, it is invalid. But if the roofing were more than them, or if he cut them, it is valid. This is the general principle: Whatever is susceptible to uncleanness and does not grow from the soil may not be covered therewith; but whatever is not susceptible to uncleanness and its growth is from the soil may be covered with it.

Commentary:

In mishnah 3, the concern is spreading a sheet which is susceptible to tumah. The goal is to make it shadier or to catch falling leaves or twigs by spreading the sheet over the s’chach. However, if the material is not susceptible to tumah, then you can cover the s’chach to block out the rain. The four post bed with a sheet over it would consitute a "tent within a tent" and is therefore prohibited. In mishnah 4, the vines cannot be used for the s’chach if they are still attached to the ground.

Mishnah 5:

They may not cover (the s’chach) with bundles of straw or bundles of wood or bundles of young green shoots, but if they are untied, they are valid. But all these are valid for the sides.

Mishnah 6:

They may roof with boards; this is the view of Rabbi Yehudah, but Rabbi Meir forbids it. If one put over it a board that is four handbreadths wide, it is valid provided one does not sleep under it.

Commentary:

In mishnah 5, the concern is that if tied bundles are used, then their purpose may be for drying and not for the expressed use of the sukkah. In mishnah 6, the view of Rabbi Meir is rejected. The boards, according to the gemara, must be narrower than four handbreadths.

Mishnah 6:

They may roof with boards, this is the view of Rabbi Yehudah, but Rabbi Meir forbids it. If one put over it a board that is four handbreadths wide, it is valid provided that one does not sleep under it.

Mishnah 7:

If there be a board-roofing with no plaster over it, Rabbi Yehudah says, The School of Shammai say one loosens them and one is removed between over two, but the School of Hillel say one either loosens them or removes one between each two. Rabbi Meir says, One takes out every alternate one but does not loosen them.

Mishnah 8:

If one roofed over his sukkah with spits or with long side pieces of a bed, if there be between them a space equal to themselves, it is valid. If one hollowed out a space in a stack of grain to make a sukkah, this is no sukkah at all.

Commentary:

In all of these cases, the views of the School of Shammai and Rabbi Meir are rejected. In mishnah 6, the dispute between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Meir concerns boards that are four handbreadths wide. In the gemara (tractate sukkah 14b), the Sage Rav states that Rabbi Meir’s concern is a preventative one, against the possible use of ordinary roofing material. Rabbi Yehudah disregards this possibility and both agree that boards less than four handbreadths wide are valid. Support for this is brought from a baraita (an external mishnah not included in the final edited version of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi) which states, "If he covered the sukkah with planks of cedar which are not four handbreadths wide it is valid according to all. If they have four handbreadths, Rabbi Meir declares it invalid and Rabbi Yehudah declares it valid. Rabbi Yehudah said, It once happened in a time of peril that we brought planks over which were four handbreadths wide and we laid them over a balcony and sat under them. They said to him, Is this a proof? A time of peril is no proof?"

The Sage Samuel, however, differs and states that Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Meir disagree as follows: the dispute concerns planks which are less than four handbreadths wide but so much less that they resemble sticks. The gemara fails to resolve the issue of the nature of the dispute and the particulars of the rest of the discussion would take us too far away.

In mishnah 7, the concern is over a room which one desires to turn into a sukkah by removing boards that do not have plaster over them (which would imply a permanent structure). The School of Hillel reason that since the Torah states "Thou shalt make", an expressed action is required. The expression "thou shalt make" implies not from that which has already been made. Thus either loosening or removing is required to provide the intention of making.

The gemara (sukkah 16a) brings up a contradiction from another baraita which teaches that if he hollows out a haystack to make himself a sukkah it is a valid sukkah. Rav Huna points out that in the baraita, it is referring to a hollow of a handbreadth extending to seven handbreadths whereas in our mishnah, there is no such hollow. Thus if the piling of hay was done expressly for the building of a sukkah, with the appropriate space left in it, the gemara declares it valid.

Mishnah 9:

If one constructed the sides (suspended the walls) from above downwards and they are three handbreadths from the ground, it is not valid; but if from below upwards and ten handbreadths above the ground, it is valid. Rabbi Yose says, Just as from below upwards there need be but ten handbreadths, so from above downwards there need be only ten handbreadths. If one made the roofing three handbreadths distant from the sides, it is invalid.

Mishnah 10:

If a room (house) were damaged and one covered it over, and if there were four cubits space from the wall to the sukkah roofing, it is invalid. And so likewise with a courtyard surrounded by a portico. If a large sukkah were surrounded with material which is not to be used as sukkah roofing, and if there were beneath it a space of four cubits, it is invalid.

Mishnah 11:

If one made his sukkah like a cone shaped hut, or propped it up against a wall, Rabbi Eliezer declares it invalid since it has no roof, but the Sages declare it valid. A large reed mat made for lying on is susceptible to impurity and may not be used for sukkah roofing; for sukkah roofing, it may be used for sukkah roofing and is not susceptible to impurity. Rabbi Eliezer says, Whether small or large, if it were made for lying upon it is susceptible to uncleanness and they may not use it for sukkah roofing; if for sukkah roofing, they may use it for sukkah roofing and it is not susceptible to impurity.

Commentary:

In mishnah 9, the view of Rabbi Yose is rejected. Note that the s’chach must be in contact with the walls of the sukkah. In mishnah 10, one cannot extend the s’chach from the sukkah to one’s house to help cover a breach it the roof. The "portico" referred to in the mishnah is explained in the commentaries to be a "peristyle" or "exedra" which is a covered place in front of the house. A roof projects from the sides of the courtyard in front of the houses that surround it while the center of the courtyard is exposed. If this center has been covered with the proper materials, the courtyard is subject to the same laws as the house mentioned above.

The gemara (sukkah, 19a) has an interesting discussion on this subject:

"In Pumbeditha they taught, If a man placed a sukkah covering over an exedra which ahs no door frames, it is invalid according to all. If it has door frames, Abaye declares it valid while Rava declares it invalid…Rav Ashi found Rav Kahana placing a sukkah covering over an exedra which had no door frames. He said to him, Does not the Master hold the opinion which Rava stated, that if it has door frames, it is valid, but if it has no door frames it is invalid? He showed him that a door frame was visible within , though level on the outside, or visible from within, though level from within, for it has been stated, If it is visible from without and level from within, it is regarded as a valid side post, and a side post is in this respect like door frames."

In other words, the exedra had a door frame no less than a handbreadth wide which began at the corner of the sukkah and extended outside the sukkah, being visible only from without. The side post must be fixed to the edge of an alley to enable one to carry objects to the sukkah on the Sabbath.

In mishnah 11, modern authorities do not allow a cone shaped sukkah. In spite of what the mishnah states, these later sages adopted the view that it was Rabbi Eliezer who validated the cone shape which was then rejected by the Sages of the Talmud. The reason for this is that in this "teepee" shape, there is no real distinction between the walls and the roof and thus invalidates the structure as a sukkah. The confusing language in the last clause of the mishnah refers to a reed mat used expressly for sleeping versus one made expressly for use as s’chach. These mishnayot show applications of the "law of lavud." The word lavud means "joined" or "connected". It is a law given to Moses at Sinai but not explicitly mentioned in the Torah and states that two solid surfaces are considered as connected if there is a gap of less than three handbreadths between them.