Introduction to Masechet Sukkah

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31 Aug 2006

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

Introduction to Masechet Sukkah

The month of Tishrei is ha-hodesh ha-shevi’i, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar which, according to the Sages (Vayikra Rabbah 29), can be read ha-hodesh he-sevi’i – a month that is fully saturated, with mitzvot. In particular, the holiday of Sukkot contains many, many mitzvot. Only a portion of these mitzvot can be found in the many Biblical passages that discuss the holiday.  Additionally, the mitzvot that are unique to Sukkot and are a tradition – halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai (given to Moses on Mt. Sinai) – give the holiday its distinctive hue.

Sukkot does not focus on one central theme, but rather it is multi-faceted – something that makes it stand out from the other festivals. Aside from the standard holiday laws (enumerated in Masechet Beitzah) and mitzvot connected with the pilgrimage to the Temple (discussed in Masechet Hagigah), this holiday includes its own unique commandments regarding:

Unlike the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, which commemorate particular historical events (redemption from Egypt and receiving the Torah) and celebrate crucial moments in the agricultural cycle (the Omer brought on Pesach and Shtei ha-lehem [two loaves of breads] brought on Shavuot celebrate grain harvests), Sukkot stands alone. It is the holiday that concludes and brings to a close the cycle of annual holidays. As such, it not only sums up the events of the year, but acts as a bridge to the upcoming year, offering prayers and hope for a new beginning, a new year.

As noted, Sukkot does not commemorate a single event, but rather the entirety of the experience of the Jews in the desert as a nation with no land and no stability. This commemoration includes celebration of the miracles of the redemption from slavery in Egypt and connects that stage in history and the establishment of a Jewish homeland with its emphasis on agriculture. The arba’at ha-minim – the four species that are taken on Sukkot – are carried both as a parade of celebration for past successes and a prayer for next year’s rainfall and successful harvest.

But Sukkot is not only the domain of the Jewish people – it is the Jewish holiday that emphasizes our concern for the larger community. Prayers for rain and bountiful harvests are universal ideas, as all humankind will derive benefit from them. The Sages point to the special Mussaf sacrifices – the 70 bulls – as representing the 70 nations of the world. Moreover, the prophet Zechariah (14:16) teaches that Sukkot is the holiday that will draw all people from around the world to come on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Other unique aspects of the holiday include a special emphasis on simcha – joyousness – to the extent that, of all the festivals, Sukkot is the one that is repeatedly referred to in our prayers as Z’man Simhatainu – “the time of our rejoicing.” Connected with this are the mitzvot handed down halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai, like Nisukh ha-mayim – a water libation on the altar, which was the centerpiece of the Temple celebration

All of these are symbolic prayers for the success of the new year, but, as appropriate for Sukkot, are not penitential entreaties or even prayers in an overt sense; rather they are oblique references to the needs of the Jewish people and the world at large within the context of joyous celebration.

While there are many passages in the Torah that deal with the commandments of the holiday, much of Masechet Sukkah focuses on interpreting those pesukim based on halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai and oral traditions. Many Talmudic tractates deal with clarifying minor aspects of the commandments or filling in details of cases that are not clearly dealt with, but our Masechet deals with larger conceptual issues. Such questions as “what is a sukkah?” or “what are the arba’ah minim?” need to be answered from their basic classifications and then go on to the question of their size, structure and construction technique. The answer to most of these questions lies in the tradition mentioned above. In the areas that are not grounded in the Biblical text, these traditions take on even greater weight and importance, something emphasized by the Sages as they defended these traditions against the attacks of the sects (like the Tzedukim and Bitusim) who rejected them.

Finally, Masechet Sukkah grapples with another issue of halakha – the loss of the Temple and the mitzvot associated with it. While some of the commandments were independent of the mikdash (the mitzvah of sukkah, for example) and others clearly could no longer be kept (e.g. the Musaf sacrifices) there are some mitzvot that are performed independently, but are connected to the Temple, like the arba’at ha-minim. Such commandments took on special significance after the destruction of the Temple, and the Sages were careful to make use of them as a zekher le-mikdash – a way of remembering and commemorating the Temple – by adding many halakhot to their performance.

These and other issues will be taken up in detail in Masechet Sukkah.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.