Until relatively recently, people’s homes reflected the environments they lived in. Prehistoric humans lived in caves, or tents made from animal skins. Ancient Egyptians lived in mud structures with flat roofs, designed to protect from them from the desert heat. Aztec homes were made of brick, with thatched roofs and few windows. Greek houses had tiled roofs; their windows were holes in the walls, with wooden shutters to protect their occupants from the sun. American Indians used materials such as ice, snow, wood, mud, and animal pelts, depending on the resources they had and the climate they lived in.
For each one of these peoples, a home was simply a place to find shelter from the elements. Today, however, one is more likely to find a greater degree of variance in the appearance – both externally and internally – of houses within the same region, city or even neighborhood. A home in our modern times has become much more than just protection from storms and sunshine.
To a certain degree, this gives us a feeling of self-reliance, something Judaism in general and the holiday of Succot specifically, attempt to address.
The first section in Tractate Succa records a ruling that a succa that is more than 20 cubits high is invalid. The Talmud cites a three-way dispute between the sages Raba, Rabbi Zera and Rava as to what the reasoning for this prohibition is, with each sage referencing a different scriptural source.
The first opinion states that this law is derived from Leviticus 23:42-43, which states: “And you shall live in booths [succot] seven days… so that it will be known for your generations that I housed the children of Israel in booths when I took them out of Egypt.”
According to this opinion, there is a level of cognition necessary for dwelling in the succa.
A succa that is too high will have a roof above eye-level, thus preventing its occupants from noticing the s’chach, the roof of the succa generally made from tree branches, and thereby internalizing the eternal lesson mentioned in the verse and represented by the outdoor dwelling place.
The second opinion relies upon a verse in Isaiah (4:6) which states: “And there shall be a booth [succa] for shade from heat and for protection from downpours and rain.”
According to this opinion, should the succa walls be too high, protection from the elements would be provided by the height of the walls themselves and not by the roof.
The third opinion returns to Leviticus 23:42, arguing that the key words in the verse are “seven days.” The succa is to be deliberately constructed as a temporary structure. Were it to rise above 20 cubits, its status would become that of a permanent structure, rather than a temporary one, thus by definition ceasing to be a succa.
Beyond delineating the legal limitations of succa construction, these opinions can teach us a deeper lesson about the holiday of Succot. The first two opinions are similar in their focus on the s’chach as the critical element of the succa. Indeed, while there are surprisingly flexible guidelines regarding what the walls may be made of, the requirements for the roof are the strictest aspect of building a succa. From the first two opinions mentioned, we see an emphasis on awareness of the roof, as well as the requirement that it be capable of providing the shade for the structure’s inhabitants. The third opinion, in contrast, stresses the temporary nature of the succa as a clearly impermanent dwelling place.
The succa, including the defining element of the s’chach, is linked to God’s protection of the Jewish people in times of need. The verses in Leviticus quoted above refer to the protection of the Jewish people during the Exodus from Egypt, and include the missive that future generations be taught that God will protect them. This can be seen in the words and the underlying message of the succa.
Typically, when one is in need of aid from another party, they will recognize the assistance provided and feel a sense of gratitude. If support is given surreptitiously, then the recipient may come to feel complacent and nonchalant about the situation, especially as time progresses. This is human nature – we grow accustomed and tend not to appreciate things until we are deprived of them. We become entitled and begin to expect that we deserve what we have been given.
Such has been the experience of the Jewish people throughout much of our history. Indeed, the Tanach – the Torah along with the works codified in the Prophets and Writings books – is replete with stories of a nation becoming complacent, sinning, being reproached and punished, repenting and receiving blessings of prosperity and success, only to return to complacency once again, forgetting the debt to God and continuing the cycle.
Succot is a time when we can break out of this cycle, and the succa is representative of this opportunity. On Succot, we leave the comfort and stability of our homes, and the roofs over our heads that shield but also conceal us from the wider world – obscuring our recognition of the gifts given to us by God.
We enter a structure that is fundamentally temporary and unstable, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the elements. We construct the succa in such a way that we are bound to notice our own deficiencies and our reliance on divine protection. The s’chach, which must come from a natural source and cannot be artificially made, therefore represents God’s eternal, continuous protection of us.
Jewish theology teaches that God maintains the world constantly, that nothing exists without God. Yet all too often, we may find ourselves assuming credit for what we have accomplished, or perhaps more often, assigning blame for the “errors” and “failings” of others, while forgetting God’s role. Certainly the High Holy Days that immediately precede Succot, when we pray to be “inscribed in the book of life and blessings,” emphasizes that everything stems from God.
But Succot brings this to a tangible, perceptible level, calling on us to leave the comforts of our permanent homes and enter a succa, where we are confronted with the realization that we are indebted to God for our very sustenance. After a week of living in the succa, we can return to our homes rejuvenated with the understanding that the permanent structures we live in and the daily routines we engage in are similarly of divine origin, albeit in a more mundane and concealed fashion.
Succot holds many lessons for us beyond just its laws. The succa offers the opportunity to reconnect with God and to reevaluate our relationship with God by removing some of the barriers that cloud our day-to-day life. This year, we should make sure to take that lesson back inside our homes.
Shmuel Aiello is an alumnus of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim, New York University and the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. He currently teaches part-time at the Upper Valley Jewish Center in Hanover, New Hampshire, and works as a freelance editor for American Journal Experts. He will return to Israel in January, at which point he will be drafted into the IDF.