The Succah in Time, Space, and Soul
By Mendel Weinberger
We sit in the succah to remind us how our forefathers dwelt in booths in the desert after they left Egypt. The sages tell us that these succot were not really physical structures, rather they were the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Children of Israel as they sojourned through the desert. These clouds served to protect the Jews from the heat of the day and the cold at night. They made the way level beneath their feet and cleaned and pressed the clothes on their backs. They also protected the tribes from the spears and arrows of the Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds. But more than anything else, these clouds of glory were testimony to G-d's loving Presence during their difficult journey through the desert.
The Mishnah, in discussing the requirements for a kosher succah, states that the roof of the Succah must be no higher that twenty amot (approximately thirty feet) from the ground. The Talmud asks for the Biblical source for this law and answers that there are three different opinions.
Raba says that the reason a succah cannot be over twenty amot is because a person must have awareness that he is sitting in a succah. This opinion is based on a verse in the Torah, "In order that your generation will know that the Children of Israel dwelt in succot when I took them out from the land of Egypt". (Leviticus 23, verse 53). According to the sage Raba, awareness depends on sight. A person must see the roof of the succah in order to know he is sitting in one. The limit of the eyes natural field of vision is twenty amot. If the roof is higher than that, he won't see it.
Rabbi Zera's opinion is that the shade inside the succah must come from the sun shining on the branches that make up the roof. If a succah is higher that twenty amot, the shade will come from the sun shining on the walls of the succah, not the roof. This opinion is base on the verse from the prophesy of Isaiah, "The succot will be for shade from the heat of the day."(Isaiah 4, 6)
The third opinion of the source for the prohibition of building a succah higher than twenty amot is from Rava. He states that a succah must be a temporary structure, not a permanent one based on the verse, "In succot you will dwell for seven days every citizen of Israel".(Leviticus 23: 42) He maintains that up to twenty amot, it is possible to build the walls of the succah in a way that it will be temporary. But higher that twenty amot, one must put foundations in the ground and the structure can no longer be called temporary.
To summarize the main points of the three opinion's: Raba holds that a person must be aware that he is sitting in a succah, Rabbi Zera that there must be shade in the succah from the sckach (the branches on the roof), not from the walls, and Rava holds that the succah must be a temporary dwelling.
The Ba'al Shem Tov taught that there are three ways we experience life. They are hinted at in the Hebrew word ashan which means smoke. The word is spelled . The ayin stands for olam (world), the shin represents shana (year or time), and the nun stands for nefesh (soul). To put that into contemporary language, when we experience the physical world around us, we experience our sense of self and relate to others, and we feel the passage of time. The three opinions of what constitutes a proper succah can be divided into these three categories. Rabbi Zera's opinion about the importance of the shade coming from the schach corresponds to our awareness of the physical world. Rava's opinion that the succah must be a temporary dwelling corresponds to the awareness of time. And Raba's idea that one must be know that he is sitting in a succah corresponds to our awareness of our own souls.
As was mentioned previously, the succah is a physical representation of the clouds of glory that surrounded the Nation of Israel in the desert after we left Egypt. As we sit in the succah this year, we have the opportunity to re-experience that awareness of G-d's Presence in all three realms: In the outer physical world, the world of nature where all creatures live in harmony with the earth; In the inner spiritual world where we feel our personal connection to godliness; And in our awareness of the passage of time and the impermanence of life.
The Code of Jewish Law cites the opinion of Rava, that the succah cannot be higher than twenty amot because it must be a temporary dwelling. This means the sages agreed that the awareness of G-d in time is the most important on Succot. We are keenly aware of how temporary our lives are and how time passes in spite of our efforts to build permanent structures in our lives. It is there, in that very awareness of the impermanence of life, we feel G-d's loving Presence radiating from the branches over our heads. And that Presence is always with us, every day of the year.
from the September 2010 High Holyday Edition of the Jewish Magazine