Sukka 11a-17b

Sukka 11a-b – Roofing for one’s sukka

The Mishnah on our daf (page) teaches the basic rule about s’khakh. The “roof” of the sukka must be made from something that grows from the ground and is in its original form – i.e. is has not been made into a serviceable item (a keli) which is subject to ritual defilement. Nevertheless, the s’khakh must be detached from the ground. If a person were to cover his sukka with a growing grapevine, gourd or kissos, the sukka could not be used, unless there was more kosher s’khakh than growing vines, or if the vines are cut.

Rabbeinu Yehonatan explains that these particular plants are mentioned because they are climbing plants that offers a lot of shade, which makes them ideal, in theory, to put on top of a sukka.

The kissos mentioned in the Mishnah is a climbing plant from the family of Araliaceae. In Israel the most common form of the plant is the Hedera helix, a green ivy whose leaves are similar to grape leaves. The ivy climbs on walls, fences and trees with the assistance of grasping roots that grow from its leaves.

Rashi points out that the general principle limiting s’khakh to things that grow from the ground is not as clear as would initially appear. There are areas of halakhah, for example, that consider living animals as “growing from the ground,” since their sustenance comes from eating plants.

When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said that Rabbi Yohanan said that the verse states: “You shall prepare for you the festival of Sukkot (Devarim 16:13).  The expression “festival of Sukkot” likens sukka to the Festival peace-offering [hagiga].  Just as the Festival peace-offering is an item not susceptible to ritual impurity, and its growth is from the ground, as animals draw nourishment from vegetation, so too, the roofing of the sukka must be a substance that is not susceptible to ritual impurity and its growth is from the ground.

The Gemara on the next daf  points out that this would seem to include animals as being appropriate to use as s’khakh, but Ravin quotes Rabbi Yohanan as pointing to that same passage (Devarim 16:13), which defines the holiday of Sukkot as taking place during the harvest season, which is understood to connect the sukka and the s’kakh to crops or plants.

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Sukka 12a-b – Roofing for one’s sukka – II

The Gemara on our daf (page) discusses a variety of plants, some of which cannot be used as s’khakh once they have begun to be processed. Flax, for example, is fine for s’khakh as long as it has not begun the process turning it into linen. Once that process has begun it is no longer raw material and becomes unfit for use on the sukka.

Flax – Linum usitatissimum. It is an erect annual plant growing between 30 and 100 cm tall, with slender stems. The flowers are pure pale blue, 1.5-2.5 cm diameter, with five petals. The fruit is a round, dry capsule from which oils are derived. Flax is one of the oldest cultivated crops on record; its growth is mentioned in ancient Egypt. Today it is cultivated mainly in tropical areas.

The main product of flax is the fibers from which linen is made. Flax fiber is extracted from the bast or skin of the stem of flax plant. Flax fiber is soft, lustrous and flexible. It is stronger than cotton fiber but less elastic. It is removed via a lengthy process whereby the plant is dried out and then soaked until almost rotten. At that point they are once again dried out and the fibers combed out.

While all agree that shushei can be used on the sukka, there is a disagreement between Rav Yehuda and Abaye regarding shvatzrei, as Abaye is concerned that the strong smell will drive people from the sukka.

Shushei is, apparently, from the glycyrrhiza family, whose sweet roots are the source of licorice today. These are short, annual plants with leaves and bluish flowers. This plant grows in Israel and Babylonia in wet areas and is used both in medicines and confectionaries.

Shvatzrei has been identified as artemisia – wormwood – which are shrubs that have small, hair-like leaves that are a whitish-grey color. The wormwood has a bitter taste and a strong smell. It is used in medicines, as well as being an ingredient in certain types of wine. It can be easily understood how the smell of this plant could cause discomfort to people sitting in a sukka that has it as s’khakh.

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Sukka 13a-b – Thorny plants for roofing the sukka

The Mishnah (12a) taught that not all types of natural growth can be used as s’khakh for the sukka. Straw or branches that are tied into bundles are examples of growth that cannot be used unless they are untied.

The Gemara on our daf (page) quotes a baraita which says that thorny plants can be used for s’khakh, even though they grow twisted together and might appear to be bundles. As we will see, growing as a bundle will not be an impediment for use as s’khakh, although there might be other problems with such plants.

Rav Hanan bar Rava teaches that the thorny plants hizmei and higei are both appropriate for use as s’khakh on Sukkot. Abaye disagrees with the ruling regarding higei, explaining that its leaves fall off easily and will disturb the people eating in the sukka, likely inducing them to leave.

Hizmei can be identified with Ononis antiquorum L. of the Papilinaceae family. It is a thorny plant that grows to about 75 centimeters (2.5 feet), which is found growing wild in fields and valleys.

The scientific name for Higei is Alhagi maurorum Medik. It, too, is a thorny plant with smooth, non-serrated leaves. Ordinarily it grows to a height of 30 centimeters (1 foot), although it occasionally grows as high as one meter (3 feet).

Another plant discussed on our daf is the eizov. The Sages did not come to a clear conclusion about the identification of this plant, which is mentioned not only in the Talmud, but in the Torah, as well (see, for example, Bamidbar 19:6 where it is translated as hyssop). From the descriptions given it appears that the eizov is likely Majorana syriaca (L.) Fein, a fragrant shrub that rises to a height of about 50-100 centimeters.

The plant is commonly found throughout Israel and in neighboring countries. Its dried leaves are a primary ingredient in the popular local spice mixture za’atar.

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Sukka 14a-b – Overturning grain and anger

In the context of discussing whether the stems of vegetables are significant with regard to the laws of ritual purity (see the mishnayot in Massekhet Yadayim which deal with this question at length), the Gemara on our daf (page) mentions a farm implement called an eter – a type of shovel or pitchfork whose purpose is to turn over the grain in the fields. This pitchfork succeeds in turning over the grain with the help of the stems, indicating that they are still an important part of the plant.

This discussion leads the Gemara to bring a Midrashic homily about this tool.

Rabbi Elazar taught: Why are the prayers of the righteous compared to an eter (see Bereishit 25:21, where Yitzhak‘s prayer that Rivka should have a child is described using the term vayetar)?  To teach you that just as a pitchfork turns the grain from place to place, so the prayers of the righteous turn God’s dispensations from His attribute of anger (midat ahzariyut) to mercy (midat rahmanut).

Generally speaking, when the Talmud describes God’s attribute of anger, it refers to midat ha-din, whose connotation is that God demands justice – the letter of the law – rather than offering compassion. The commentaries note the use of the term ahzariyut in our Gemara, which is unusual, as it implies a level of cruelty and mercilessness that goes well beyond justice.

One approach suggested (see R. Hayyim ben Attar‘s Rishon Le-Tzion and R. Yehiel Michel ben Uziel‘s Nezer ha-Kodesh, a commentary on Midrash Rabbah) is that the particular situation of Yitzhak and Rivka appears to go beyond midat ha-din. According to the strict letter of the law, there was no reason that Yitzhak and Rivka had to be childless. Thus the midrash searches for a more powerful term, one that expresses the suffering – the yissurin shel ahavah – that played a role in this particular situation. Based on this, the midrash teaches that even in a situation as difficult as this one, the will of God can be changed through the means of the prayers of the righteous.

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Sukka 15a-b – Moving the boards

The first Mishnah on our daf (page) discusses the case of a house with a plain wooden roof that has no tar or other kind of covering. All of the tanna’im agree that some type of preparation must be made in order for the house to be used as a sukka. They disagree on what needs to be done:

In the case of a roof made of boards that are four handbreadths wide upon which there is no coat of plaster, Rabbi Yehuda says that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree with regard to the manner in which to render it fit.  Beit Shammai say: One moves each board, and then it is considered as though he placed the board there for the sake for the mitzva of sukka, and one then removes one board from among the boards and replaces it with fit roofing.  Beit Hillel say: One need not perform both actions; rather, one must either move the boards or remove one from among them. Rabbi Meir says: One only removes one from among them and does not move the others.

The concept of mefakpek – moving the boards on the roof – is to remove the Rabbinic prohibition called gezeirat tikra, a concern that someone will sit under a real roof. By moving the boards around, the person indicates his awareness of the fact that he cannot fulfill the commandment of sukka by sitting in a house under a real roof. In so doing, he succeeds in removing the gezeirat tikra. (See further discussion of this issue in the Ramban, Rif, Ritva and Me’iri.)

The word mefakpek means to move something from its place by shaking it. In modern Hebrew the term has been “borrowed” to refer to conceptual issues, as well, where it means to question an accepted idea. According to the Rambam, what is accomplished by shaking the boards is the removal of the nails that are holding them in place in the roof. Other rishonim (like Rabbi Natan Av HaYeshiva and the Peirush Kadmon on Sukka) say that shaking the boards shifts them around, leaving room for additional s’khakh to be added.

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Sukka 16a-b – A sukka in a stack of grain

One of the cases that the Mishnah (15a) rules is not a good sukka is when someone hollows out a stack of grain to create a space for sleeping or eating. Even though the roof is made out of materials that ordinarily can be used for s’khakh, a sukka cannot be made this way.

The Gemara on our daf (page) quotes a baraita that seems, however, to teach the opposite. According to the baraita, someone who burrows into a stack of grain and creates an area large enough for a sukka can succeed in establishing a kosher sukka.

To solve this apparent contradiction, Rav Huna distinguishes between a situation where there was an already existing space within the mound that was a tefah high and seven tefahim in width and length, and one where no such space existed. In the event that there was an already existing space, it can be enlarged to create a sukka. The teaching in our Mishnah was that in a case where the mound was solid, a person cannot dig out the space for a sukka.

The logic behind Rav Huna’s distinction is that, in the case where there was already an existing space of appropriate size, even if it could not be a sukka, it still had the halakhic designation of an ohel – an enclosed area. All that needs to be done is to widen the space – that is already acknowledged as being significant in the eyes of the halakhah – so that it will be appropriate for use as a sukka. If there is no existing space, however, the sukka is not seen as having been made properly since the s’khakh is in place even before the ohel inside exists – referred to as ta’eseh ve-lo min ha-asuy, meaning that the s’khakh must be actively “made” and cannot just passively “happen.”

The rishonim discuss whether the direction in which one digs will make a difference in Rav Huna’s case. The Tosafot Ri”D and the Rosh, for example, argue that when enlarging the existing space so that it will be big enough for a sukka, one can only dig downwards, since all of the grain above the existing space has been established as the s’khakh over the existing ohel. From the Ran, however, it appears that one can extend upwards, as well; because we have perceived it as s’khakh all along, we view this as simply thinning it out rather than turning it into s’khakh.

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Sukka 17a-b – A curved wall in a sukka

The Gemara on our daf (page) discusses the concept of dofen akuma – a curved wall. In cases where the s’khakh does not reach all the way to the walls of the sukka, if the distance between the walls and the s’khakh is less than four amot, we apply the rule of dofen akuma and perceive the wall as reaching the s’khakh. Two cases that make use of this rule are mentioned in the Mishnah: the case of a house whose roof has been breached  in the middle and is replaced by s’khakh for the holiday, and the case of a courtyard that is surrounded by an akhsadra – a portico or covered area, with an space left in the middle that is used as a sukka.

Several explanations are given to explain the mechanism behind the workings of dofen akuma. Rav Nissim Gaon explains that halakhah simply perceives the wall as moving to a position where it abuts the s’khakh.  Most rishonim (Rashi, the Me’iri and the Ran) understand that we consider the roofed-in area to be part of the wall, recognizing that it is a part of the wall that runs horizontally to the point that it reaches the s’khakh, rather than vertically as we usually expect walls to be. The Peri Megadim suggests that halakhah perceives the wall as rising at an angle to meet the s’khakh.

One of the practical differences that arises from this argument is how to rule in a case where the s’khakh is higher than the top of the walls. In that case, according to the accepted opinion that the ceiling is seen as a horizontal wall that reaches the s’khakh, here it does not reach the s’khakh and it is likely that we will not be able to apply the rule of dofen akuma.