What is a ‘succa’?

A succa is a structure, albeit temporary, but nevertheless a structure and not just a tent and certainly not a cloud.

Succa painting (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Succa painting
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
When discussing the festivals, the Torah says clearly that there shall be a festival of Succot (Tabernacles), when we Israelites shall dwell in succot “because I made the Children of Israel to dwell in succot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). The official translation of “succot” is “booths,” so what exactly is the succa (the singular) or booth in which we are commanded to dwell? As usual, there is a difference of opinion in the Talmud.
Rabbi Akiva takes it literally, to mean that the Children of Israel dwelt in some kind of huts during their 40 years in the wilderness, but his colleague Rabbi Eliezer says it means the annanei hakavod, the Clouds of Glory, the clouds that protected the wanderers during their 40 years of hardship in the wilderness (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Succa 11B).
The opinion of Rabbi Akiva seems straightforward enough. A succa is a structure, albeit temporary, but nevertheless a structure and not just a tent and certainly not a cloud. But what does the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer mean? How can the heirs of the wandering Israelites keep the festival in later days by reconstructing the Clouds of Glory and dwelling in them? It seems that Rabbi Eliezer saw that the Israelites were not in a position to be constantly erecting and re-erecting their succa structures as they wandered from site to site in the desert, nor were they in a position to keep transporting such structures, however temporary their nature. He felt that their shelter would have been of a spiritual nature, one that God was providing to protect them on their travels, and one that they did not have to physically take down and re-erect every time they went on their long, drawn-out marches. But if the Clouds of Glory were spiritual and not physical structures, how were the later Israelites to commemorate this and turn the concept into a practical construction? There was one structure of a spiritual nature that accompanied the Children of Israel throughout all their journeyings, and that was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, that symbolized and represented the dwelling of God in their midst. They had brought it out of Egypt and the especially dedicated Levites carried it with them and erected it wherever they wandered. It was their spiritual center and when they halted the Israelites camped around it. It represented the presence of God and it was the shrine where He communicated with Moses, their leader.
The focus of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was the inner chamber, the Holy of Holies. It had three walls and was open on the entry side to the main chamber of the Mishkan, and divided from it by just a few pillars and a curtain. Its roof was made of colored curtains of green, blue and reddish-brown and its furniture consisted of only the Ark of the Covenant, surmounted by the two protective figures of the golden Cherubim. It was this chamber that accompanied them and indicated that God was marching with them in their midst and would guide them and protect them wherever they went. It was, in physical form and poetic terms, their Clouds of Glory.
We can take it therefore that Rabbi Eliezer had this in mind when he described the succa as the Clouds of Glory.
There was no need for the Children of Israel to erect and constantly to re-erect tents or physical structures as they wandered, as the Clouds of Glory, the Mishkan, traveled with them and protected them in a miraculous way, in the same way as did all the other miracles that accompanied them, like the manna and like the water that spurted from the rock.
This is what Rabbi Eliezer must have had in mind and the manifestation of this concept, in the form of the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies, is what should perhaps dictate the form of the present-day succa.
The halacha (the strict practical law) says that the modern succa only needs three walls. It can be open on the fourth side, which makes it like the Holy of Holies. The roof must be openwork greenery with the sky partly visible. As such it would have the colors of green and red-brown, from the fresh leaves and the reddish autumn ones, with touches of blue where the sky is visible through the leaves. The furniture is optional but it should include a dining table, as meals must be eaten in the succa, and the participants are to be the members of the family, the adults and their children, where there are already children in the young family.
The essence of the family is the mother and father, and they are equivalent to the two Cherubim. It appears that when the Roman general Pompey forced his way into the Temple’s Holy of Holies he was amazed and shocked to find that the two Cherubim were embracing, as they were in fact male and female. So that is the essence: the succa shall provide for a senior female and a senior male, a mother and father around a table set out for purposes of family eating, and such activity would have been a physical continuation of the spiritual ideal of the Ark of the Covenant surmounted by the two immaculate Cherubim.
That was the concept of Rabbi Eliezer’s Clouds of Glory in physical terms. He makes his point in spiritual terms, as that was the purpose of the Mishkan in the Wilderness of Sinai. But when translated into present-day terms, it can be illustrated in the form of the Holy of Holies, of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
And that is how the Clouds of Glory could be reproduced in today’s festival of Succot, or Tabernacles, in the succa in which we are commanded to dwell, according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, of the second century of the Common Era.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the W. F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.