Masechet Sukkah 13a-19b

hero image
13 Sep 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

Sukkah 13a-b

The Mishnah (12a) taught that not all types of natural growth can be used as sechach for the sukkah. 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 quotes a baraita which says that thorny plants can be used for sechach, 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 sechach, although there might be other problems with such plants.

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

Hizmei can be identified with Ononis antiquorum L. of the Papilionaceae 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 Higi 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 used as a popular local spice – za’atar.

Sukkah 14a-b

In the context of discussing whether the stems of vegetables are significant with regard to the laws of ritual purity (see the mishnayot in Masechet Yadayim which deal with this question at length), the Gemara on our daf 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 Eliezer taught: Why are the prayers of the righteous compared to an eter (see Bereshit 25:21, where Yitzhak‘s prayer that Rivka should have a child is described using the term va-ye’etar)? 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.

Sukkah 15a-b

The first Mishnah on our daf 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 sukkah. They disagree on what needs to be done:

The concept of mefakpek – shaking 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 sukkah 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 ha-Yeshiva and the Perush Kadmon on Sukkah) say that shaking the boards shifts them around, leaving room for additional sechach to be added.

Sukkah 16a-b

One of the cases that the Mishnah (15a) rules is not a good sukkah 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 sechach, a sukkah cannot be made this way.

The Gemara on our daf 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 sukkah can succeed in establishing a kosher sukkah.

To solve this apparent contradiction, Rav Huna distinguishes between a situation where there was an already existing space within the mound that was a tefach high and seven tefachim 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 sukkah. The teaching in our Mishnah was that in a case where the mound was solid, a person cannot dig out the space for a sukkah.

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 sukkah, 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 halakha – so that it will be appropriate for use as a sukkah. If there is no existing space, however, the sukkah is not seen as having been made properly since the sechach is in place even before the ohel inside exists – referred to as ta’eseh ve-lo min ha-asuy, meaning that the sechach 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 sukkah, one can only dig downwards, since all of the grain above the existing space has been established as the sechach over the existing ohel. From the Ran, however, it appears that one can extend upwards, as well; because we have perceived it as sechach all along, we view this as simply thinning it out rather than turning it into sechach.

Sukkah 17a-b

The Gemara on our daf introduces the concept of dofen akuma – a crooked wall. In cases where the sechach does not reach all the way to the walls of the sukkah, if the distance between the walls and the sechach is less than four amot, we apply the rule of dofen akuma and perceive the wall as reaching the sechach. Two cases that make use of this rule are mentioned in the Mishnah: the case of a house whose roof has collapsed in the middle and is replaced by sechach for the holiday, and the case of a courtyard that is surrounded by an akhsadra – a covered area, with an space left in the middle that is used as a sukkah.

Several explanations are given to explain the mechanism behind the workings of dofen akuma. Rav Nissim Gaon explains that halakha simply perceives the wall as moving to a position where it abuts the sechach.  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 sechach, rather than vertically as we usually expect walls to be. The Pri Megadim suggests that halakha perceives the wall as rising at an angle to meet the sechach.

One of the practical differences that arises from this argument is how to rule in a case where the sechach 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 sechach, here it does not reach the sechach and it is likely that we will not be able to apply the rule of dofen akuma.

Sukkah 18a-b

The Mishnah (17a) taught that if the roof of a house fell in, the empty area can be filled with sechach/ and will be a kosher sukkah if the distance between the walls of the house and the sechach is less than four amot (based on the concept of dofen akuma as discussed on yesterday’s daf, or page).

Our Gemara relates that when this halakha was presented by Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, he simply taught “a house whose roof fell in can have sechach placed on it and it will be a kosher sukkah.” Upon hearing this teaching, Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi cried out “Rabbi, clarify your statement! For my father taught that this is only true if the distance from the walls to the sechach is less than four amot. If there are more than four amot between them, the sukkah will be invalid.”

This story is followed in the Gemara by a second, similar one. In this story Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai taught that avroma – a type of fish commonly found in the Nile – can be eaten. Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi cried out “Rabbi, clarify your statement! For my father taught that this is only true in specific places, but in other places the fish is forbidden.” Rashi explains that in some places, sheratzim – small non-kosher worms or other creatures – thrive and they cannot be separated from the fish, but in other places there are no such sheratzim.

Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, in his Aruch la-Ner, asks why, in fact, Rabbi Yehuda did not fully explain his statements. He suggests that with regard to the avroma, Rabbi Yehuda may simply have been relating the situation in the place where he lived, where sheratzim were not found. With regard to the case of sukkah, this may be connected with Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion that a normal house is up to eight amot in size. Thus, in order for a sukkah that is large enough to be the appropriate size and yet fit under the fallen roof, there cannot possibly be more than four amot between the walls of the house and the sechach.

Sukkah 19a-b

Can a sukkah be made without any roof at all?

This is the question debated in the Mishnah on our daf. According to the Mishnah, the Chachamim allow a sukkah that is built like a tzrif – a triangular shack, or one that is built leaning against a wall. Rabbi Eliezer rules that such sukkot are no good because they have no roof.

The Gemara explains the position of the Chachamim as stemming from their belief that the slanted wall of a tent is considered to be a roof – that is to say that a separate, clearly delineated roof is not necessary.

The Gemara relates that Abayye visited Rav Yosef in his sukkah and found him sleeping under a kilat chatanim, a tent-like structure with a blanket or sheet draped over a single pole. It appeared to Abayye that, according to the opinion of the  Chachamim in our Mishnah who recognize the slanted wall of a tent as a roof, sleeping beneath this kilah should be considered a separation from the sukkah (compare this to the beds described earlier on daf 10) and should be forbidden. He asked Rav Yosef why he would choose to follow the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer rather than the opinion of the Chachamim. Rav Yosef responded that, according to the baraita, the opinions as they appear in our Mishnah should be reversed (i.e. Rabbi Eliezer permits  sukkot without roofs, the Chachamim forbid them).

To Abayye’s challenge that the Mishnah should be given more credence than a baraita, Rav Yosef answers that our Mishnah is yechida’a – a version accepted only by one redactor.

When redacting the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi collected and edited the oral traditions that were available to them and established a single, reliable formulation that we use as a basic text to this day. Generally speaking, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi included in the Mishnah his own rulings, which he indicated by stating one opinion without attribution or as the opinion of the Sages generally – chachamim omerim.

(For more on the compilation of the Mishnah, see Chapter 6 of the new Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s The Essential Talmud.)

  1. Moshe Bezalel Luria explains in his Emek Sukkot that, regarding our Mishnah, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi received an oral tradition from Rabbi Natan and chose to insert it into his edited mishnayot, even though he did not agree with its conclusion. Rav Yosef was aware of this, and chose, therefore, to follow the opinion that he knew to be Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s as preserved in the baraita.

In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 631:10) rules this way, as well.

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.