Meaning of the Mitzvah of Succoth


Meaning of the Mitzvah of Succoth


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By Avi Lazerson

Succoth is one of the most beloved of the Jewish holidays. For seven days the Jews are commanded to leave the comfort of their homes in order to live under the shelter of a temporary cover. Although the succah is delight to sit in, there are deep concepts about the succah for us to understand.

The chief reason for this mitzvah is that when G-d took us out of Egypt and we marched through the hot dessert, he provided us with shade in the form of special clouds. These clouds were called the 'Clouds of Glory'. Although this was in the spring, G-d has commanded us to remember it in the fall. Therefore when we sit in our succahs we must remember these 'Clouds of Glory' that our forefathers dwelled in when they left Egypt.

In the first page of the Talmud tractate Succoth there is an attempt by three rabbis to understand the reason for a succah being limited to only 20 cubits (approximately 30 feet) in height. The height limitation is a ruling from Moses and the rabbis are trying to understand the rationale:

The first rabbi, Rabah, bases his answer on the passage in the Torah, "In order that the successive generation may know that I (G-d) caused the Children of Israel to dwell in succoths when I took them out from Egypt." (Leviticus 23:43) Although when the Jews left Egypt, they did not dwell in succoths like the ones that we build; they were covered by the "Clouds of Glory" which protected them from the elements. Rabah understands that the purpose of the Succoth is connected with awareness and knowledge. Above 30 feet, a person is no longer aware that he is sitting in a Succoth.

Rabbi Zera has a different opinion. He quotes Isaiah who spoke about the future Succoth of the Messiah, "the succah shall be for shade" and says that the reason for the height limitation is for shade. The concept of a succah is that one must sit under the shade of the succah. When the succah is above thirty feet a person is not sitting in the shade of the succah, but rather in the shade of the walls. Therefore to Rabbi Zera, the succah covering is for shade, not for awareness.

The third opinion is that of Rova. He understands the source of the thirty feet comes from the fact that we are commanded to dwell in the succah for seven days. Therefore he understands the succah as being a temporary dwelling. Up until thirty feet, a dwelling place may be temporary, but above thirty feet a more permanent structure is required.

Each of these great sages saw in the Succah something that relates to our own realm of living. We may say that they really correspond to three modes of relating to the world in terms of how to get through life with the minimum damage to our spirituality.

We may understand Rabah who said that the succah is a concept requiring knowledge, as telling us that everything is dependent upon knowledge of G-d. In order to keep oneself whole and not sin, one should focus upon G-d. Proper spirituality is the key to life in this world. Only with the proper connection to G-d will we succeed in living sin-free in this world and attaining our reward in the next world.

Rabbi Zera focuses upon the worldly side of life. Just like the succah is a protection from the sun, so too, a person must protect himself in this world from the various negative elements that abound in the world and seek to destroy goodness. Only by being watchful and careful as we live in the world can we protect ourselves and succeed in reaching the next world.

Rava emphasizes the temporary nature of the succah. So too in life we must view our existence as merely momentary. This world is merely a vestibule in which we are placed until we may come to the ultimate reward of the next world. As long as we understand that this world is just a passing abode and the next world is the true existence, then we will not become overwhelmed with the trials and tribulations of this world. Rather we will possess the fortitude to stand up to the obstacles in our lives.

Which of these three sages is correct? In truth, all three possess valid points to integrate into our lives. Only when we integrate these three ways of relating to the world will we be successful in achieving the next world.


from the October 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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