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A Sukka of Peace

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The sukka that serves as our home for the seven days of the Sukkot festival – what does it come to commemorate?


The Torah states:


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 dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Vayikra 23:42-43)


            What "booths" is Scripture referring to? The Tannaim disagree:


They were clouds of glory; these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They made themselves actual booths. (Sukka 11b)


            The biblical commentators disagree about the plain meaning of the text as well. Whereas Rashi and the Ramban both understand "booths" as clouds of glory ["'clouds of glory' – thus says Rashi, and I see this as correct according to the plain meaning of the text"; Ramban, ad loc.), the Rashbam and Ibn Ezra understand that according to the simple sense of the verse,  "booths" refers to actual booths.

             At first glance, this seems to be a theoretical question dealing with the distant past and having no relevance to the present, and thus deciding between the two positions should be unnecessary.[1] We find, nevertheless, that the posekim issued a ruling on the matter:

 The "booths" in which, according to Scripture, God made us dwell were clouds of glory that surrounded them so that they should not be smitten by the heat or the sun. (Tur and Shulchan Arukh, 625)

            It stands to reason that this ruling has practical import, as the Bach explains: 

… He maintains that since it says "that they may know…," a person does not fulfill the mitzva in perfect manner if he does not know the purpose of the mitzva of sukka in its plain sense. Therefore, he explains, according to the plain meaning, that the primary purpose of dwelling in a sukka is that one should remember the exodus from Egypt… for one must have in mind when dwelling in the sukka the intended purpose of the mitzva.


            If indeed it is necessary to decide the matter, why should we decide in favor of Rabbi Eliezer? Surely the rule is that when he disagrees with Rabbi Akiva, the law follows Rabbi Akiva?[2] It seems that the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh must have relied on the reading of the Torat Kohanim, which reverses the opinions: According to Rabbi Eliezer, actual booths, and according to Rabbi Akiva, clouds of glory.[3]

            The paytanim also tended to the position that understands the booths as clouds of glory:

"The dew of clouds I remember; in every generation I will mention it." (Yotzer, first day of Sukkot)

"With beautiful clouds did you cover the redeemed; a canopy of Your glory did you spread out over them." (Ma'arvit, second day of Sukkot)

"He covered those who bear His burden with clouds like a tent, because I made the children of Israel dwell in booths." (Yotzer, second day of Sukkot)




In addition to the practical ramification mentioned above,[4] there is also a two-fold conceptual difference between the two views: 

1)         Actual booths grant protection against the natural elements, but do not provide positive content. They involve protection, but not providence. Clouds of glory, besides their protective value, also have positive value; they give expression to God's special providence over His people. 

2)         Actual booths involve the establishment of walls around individual families. Each family has its own sukka. The clouds of glory, on the other hand, encompass the entire people. 

According to this, it might be possible to suggest that both opinions, that of Rabbi Akiva and that of Rabbi Eliezer, are the words of the living God[5]: The booths in the wilderness were actual booths for each family,[6] and one all-embracing sukka – clouds of glory – for all of Israel.


iii.       Aharon's Life-work

Another difference: Actual booths are the handiwork of man, whereas clouds of glory are sent from heaven. The truth, however, is that even the latter are connected to human action. For the clouds of glory only encircled the people after they had established peace and harmony among themselves. When an aggregate of individuals turned into a single, unified nation, the clouds of glory came and protected that unity and encompassed that friendship. This is what Chazal mean when they say in several places that it was by the merit of Aharon that the clouds of glory encompassed the camp of Israel: 

As long as Aharon was alive, the pillar of cloud led Israel (Tosefta, Sota, 11:1)


"The Canaanite, the king of Arad, heard" (Bamidbar 21:1) – what did he hear? He heard that Aharon had died and that the clouds of glory disappeared. (Rosh Hashana 3a)


            Aharon's love of peace, his love for all men, and his efforts to make peace between them are themselves internal clouds of glory. Mirroring them from heaven, external clouds of glory encompassed Israel and protected them.[7] Thus we learn that deciding the law in favor of the view that the sukkot were clouds of glory has implications regarding the entire nature of the sukka, turning the sukka into a sukka of peace that unites all of Israel.


iv.       Hak'hel on Sukkot

Once in seven years one additional mitzva was added to the mitzvot of Sukkot:

 At the end of every seven years, in the time of the year of release, in the feast of Sukkot, when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear… (Devarim 31:10-12)

             Why specifically on Sukkot? Surely also on Pesach and Shavuot all of Israel gather in Jerusalem! It stands to reason that we are dealing here with some kind of a summation of the entire sabbatical year. It is very possible, however, that this mitzva, the substance of which is the gathering of all of Israel, adults and children, is most appropriate for the festival of Sukkot. Once every few years the people of Israel encircle themselves again with the clouds of glory and assemble together to read the Torah.


v.        THe difference between pesach and sukkot 

Regarding the korban Pesach, the Torah emphasizes: "They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for the house" (Shemot 12:3). Fundamentally, the korban Pesach is a family offering. Regarding the sukka, on the other hand, the Torah states: "All that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths" (Vayikra 23:42). From here the Gemara learns: "This teaches that all of Israel are fit to sit in a single sukka" (Sukka 27b). (See Magen Avraham, 639, no. 20, who understood this statement literally.[8])

When the people of Israel first left slavery, it was important to reinforce the family unit, the aspect of "the Torah of your mother." Later, after the Torah was given, first on Shavuot and then even more so on Yom Kippur, there was room to remove the individual and family barriers, all of Israel being fit to sit in a single sukka.[9]


vi.       THe Blessing recited over the lulav after the Oseh ha-Shalom ("Maker of Peace") blessing

The issue of unity also finds expression in another one of the mitzvot of sukkot, taking the lulav. This was already pointed out by the Sages in various ways:

The four species of the lulav… each is indispensable for the other. … The four species of the lulav – two of them yield fruit, and two of them do not yield fruit. Those that yield fruit need those that do not yield [fruit], and those that do not yield fruit need those that yield [fruit]. And a person does not fulfill his obligation unless they are all united together. And so too Israel do not achieve appeasement unless they are all united together. (Menachot 27a)


            Now the words of the Geonim assume new meaning:

As for your question, what is the reason that [the Sages] established the blessing over the lulav after the "Oseh Ha-shalom" ("Maker of peace") blessing? Thus said our Rabbis, the Geonim, of blessed memory: Because in the "Oseh Ha-shalom" blessing there is the Priestly Benediction. Just as the Priestly Benediction makes peace between Israel and their Father in heaven, so too the four species of the lulav make peace between Israel and their Father in heaven. (Otzar Ha-geonim, Sukka, p. 54)


            The Priestly Benediction, concluding with "May He grant you peace," is followed by the blessing of peace. And once this blessing is recited, it is time to take the lulav and the other three species and join them all together.




A sukka of peace, but nevertheless a sukka; clouds of glory cover and unite, but they still set apart. If they cover and unite, then whom do they set apart? The answer seems to be: the nations of the world. Indeed, the verse emphasizes: "All that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths." This, however, is all for the time being. For in the future, all of the nations will be called upon to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. A Jew sitting in a sukka of peace must prepare himself for the tidings of peace among all nations, and so we read to him the words of the prophet Zekharya: 

And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations who came against Jerusalem, shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of Sukkot (Zekharya 14:16)


            The Egyptians, in particular, are asked to participate in this festival, for it contains a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and the festival might have been interpreted as commemorating division and separation, or at the very least division and separation between the Egyptians and Israel. Thus the family of Egypt is asked to celebrate the festival (verse 18). This is a vision for the future, but already in the present we find expression given to the universal and unifying nature of the festival. It is the only festival upon which sacrifices are offered even for the nations of the world: 

Rabbi Elazar said: The seventy bulls – to what do they correspond? They correspond to the seventy nations… Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the heathens who have lost out, but know not what they have lost. During the time of the Temple, the altar atoned for them, but now what atones for them? (Sukka 55b)


            If in the wilderness the clouds of glory separated between Israel and the nations of the world, in the future these clouds will expand and encompass all men, so that they will constitute a single family finding cover in the shadow of Heaven.




[1] The Rambam has already taught us: "Any controversy between the Sages that has no practical ramifications… there is no room to decide the law in accordance with one of them" (Commentary to the Mishna, Sanhedrin 10:3, and elsewhere).


[2] For this rule and its sources, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, IX, p. 294.


[3] Variant readings are also found in the Mekhilta, on the verse "And the children of Israel journeyed from Ra'amses to Sukkot" (Shemot 12:37). Whereas according to the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Eliezer maintains actual booths and Rabbi Akiva clouds of glory, according to the Mekhilta de-Rashbi, Rabbi Akiva says actual booths and Rabbi Eliezer clouds of glory.


[4] See Taz, 625, who sharpens the difference. According to the view of actual booths, the essence of the mitzva is remembering the exodus from Egypt, whereas according to the view of clouds of glory, the essence of the mitzva is remembering the miracle of Israel being encompassed by the clouds of glory, and the matter of the exodus is merely a secondary matter found in many mitzvot, e.g., the mitzva of tzitzit.


[5] See Chayyei Adam, beginning of section 146, who proposes that indeed there were "two kinds of booths, booths of the clouds of glory, and actual booths when they laid siege during the wars against Sichon and Og." This, however, raises a certain difficulty, because the two views regarding the booths relate to a verse in Parashat Emor, which was stated prior to the wars with Sichon and Og.


[6] This might help us understand the position of Rabbi Eliezer that one is not to go from one sukka to the next and that one does not fulfill his obligation with another person's sukka (Sukka 27b). The sukka serves as a remembrance of the family sukkot in the wilderness, each family having its own sukka.


[7] Another connection between the clouds of glory and human action is suggested by the Vilna Gaon in his commentary to Shir Ha-shirim (1:4), through which he also answers the famous question, why is Sukkot celebrated in Tishrei? Surely it should have been established in Nisan, when the clouds of glory first began to encompass Israel! "It seems, that when the people made the [golden] calf, the clouds disappeared, and then did not return until they began to make the Mishkan. Moshe came down [from Mount Sinai] on Yom Kippur, and on the day after Yom Kippur, "Moshe gathered [all the congregation]," and commanded about the construction of the Mishkan. This was the eleventh of Tishrei. And it says: "And they brought yet to him free will offerings in the morning and in the morning" (Shemot 36:3) – two days, bringing us to the thirteenth of Tishrei. And on the fourteenth of Tishrei every man wise of heart took gold from Moshe, and on the fifteenth began to work. It was then that the clouds of glory returned, and therefore we celebrate Sukkot on the fifteenth of Tishrei." Twice did the clouds encircle Israel; the first time it was a totally heavenly act, but the second time, the actions of Israel caused the clouds to appear. And indeed no factor unifies Israel more than the Mishkan and the service performed therein.


[8] And he raised the question: Surely such a sukka is not fit for a married couple, for all of Israel is sleeping there! See Torah Temima, note 171, who proposed an alternative understanding which removes the Magen Avraham's question.


[9] We find a similar idea regarding Pesach: "'And the congregation of Israel shall kill it' (Shemot 12:6). From where do you say that if Israel has only one korban Pesach, that they all fulfill their obligation with it? Therefore the verse states: 'And they shall slaughter'" (Mekhilta Bo, parasha 5; see also Kiddushin 42a). The Or Sameach explains that this means that on Pesach there is also a communal obligation, which may be fulfilled even if there is only a single korban Pesach. On Sukkot, however, the sukka of the individual is in fact the sukka of the collective.

(Translated by David Strauss)

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