Masechet Sukkah 2a-5b

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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

Sukkah 2a-b

The first Mishnah in Masechet Sukkah opens with some basic rules about how a sukkah should be erected. If the walls are too tall – over 20 amot (cubits) high – the Tanna Kamma rules that the sukkah cannot be used, a ruling disputed by Rabbi Yehuda.

One of the proof-texts that Rabbi Yehuda brings to support his position is a story about Heleni ha-Malkah, whose sukkah was taller than 20 amot high, yet the Sages who came to visit her never commented that there was any problem with her sukkah. In response to a potential argument that, as a woman, Queen Heleni was not obligated in the commandment of dwelling in a sukkah, Rabbi Yehuda points out that she had seven sons – at least one of whom would be obligated on an educational level at the very least – and we know that she always followed the regulations of the Sages.

Heleni was the queen of Adiabene, a small kingdom in the north of Syria on the banks of the Euphrates. In the generation prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, Heleni, together with her sons Monbaz and Izates, began to study Torah with Jews who traveled through their kingdom, and eventually converted to Judaism. It appears that other members of the ruling elite did so as well. Heleni visited Jerusalem a number of times and made donations both to the Temple and to the destitute people living in Israel. Her children followed in her footsteps, and even sent troops to support the Jewish uprising during the Great Revolt.

It appears that she and other members of her royal family are buried in some of the ornate burial chambers in Jerusalem. As is mentioned in several places in the Talmud, Heleni was a giyoret tzedek – a sincere convert to Judaism – who accepted upon herself the constraints of halakha as taught by the Sages.

Sukkah 3a-b

Aside from the discussion in the Mishnah with regard to the height of a sukkah, there is also a need to define the minimum size of a sukkah. The Gemara on our daf presents a discussion between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, in which they agree that it must be large enough to fit a person’s head and the majority of his body (rosho ve-rubo), but they disagree on whether there is cause for concern that he will lean out of the sukkah if the table is placed outside. According to Bet Hillel this is not something that we fear will happen; so as long as rosho ve-rubo fit, the sukkah is fine. Bet Shamai rules that this is a concern, so we must make the sukkah large enough to contain the table, as well.

Another opinion quoted is that ofRabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, who believes that the sukkah must be four cubits by four cubits.

This discussion leads the Gemara to quote a baraita that limits the significance of buildings smaller than four by four amot (cubits). Among other things, such a structure would not need a mezuzah, nor could it be used to house the eruv that permits carrying between houses or courtyards, or to connect two nearby cities to one another for the purposes of permitting travel between the two on Shabbat (eruv chatzerot). In this way, the Gemara points out that such a small building does not even have the status of burganin.

Burganin are booths used by watchmen on the roads. Some of them were well constructed and were used as defensive positions for the military. The guards lived in these structures, guarded the fields and delivered reports and messages to the government. Other burganin were poorly made and were no more than shacks on the side of the road. The source for the word burganin may be Greek in origin, but it is likely from the German “Burg” meaning “fortress” or “small settlement.” The term was carried on the lips of Roman soldiers who were stationed on the border with Germany throughout the Roman Empire – even to the language of the Talmudic Sages.

The significance of these structures for Jewish law relates to the fact that, on Shabbat, a person is limited in his ability to travel more than 2000 amot outside of his city. When deciding where the edge of the city lies, however, if they are close enough (about 70 amot) to the city, buildings like these can be considered part of the city, thus allowing one to walk significantly further away from the city limits on Shabbat.

Sukkah 4a-b

The first Mishnah in the perek, or chapter, (see 2a) taught that a sukkah whose walls are more than 20 amot (cubits) high is not a valid sukkah. The Gemara on our daf teaches that if the walls are too high, it can be rectified by building a platform, extending from one wall to the next, that is, by itself, large enough to be a valid sukkah. By doing this, we effectively lower the walls of the sukkah to less than 20 amot (see diagram 1).

The Gemara follows this ruling with three other examples of cases where a sukkah whose walls are not the right height can be fixed by manipulating the height of the floor:

  1. When a platform is built on one side of a sukkah that has three walls taller than 20 amot (see diagram 2). In this case, the platform must reach to within four amot of the opposite wall so that that wall will be considered part of the sukkah.
  2. When a platform is built in the middle of such a sukkah (see diagram 3). In this case there must be less than four amot between the platform and the walls on both sides so that those walls will be considered part of the sukkah.
  3. When the sukkah is too short (i.e. less than 10 tefachim, or handbreadths, high) and an area is dug out so that there is enough room for the appropriate height to be reached (see diagram 4). In this case the hole in the floor must be within three tefachim of the walls.

The operating principle behind these rulings is dofen akumah – a crooked wall. The exact definition of this term is unclear. Some of the rishonim, including Rashi, the Me’iri, the Ritva and others, explain that when the valid sukkah reaches close enough to the wall, we consider it as though the wall continues horizontally at the top, perceiving the schach as part of the wall. Another explanation is that we consider the wall to have moved from its place, as though it reached the skhakh at the point where the sukkah was valid (according to this understanding, some of the schach will be viewed as being on the “other side” of the wall).

In any case, dofen akumah is one of many legal fictions that are permitted by the Sages in creating valid walls for a sukkah

Sukkah 5a-b

In a midrashic analysis of the source for the minimum acceptable height of a sukkah (ten tefachim), the Gemara looks to the height of the aron – the ark containing the luhot ha-berit (the tablets of the covenant) – which was ten tefachim high. It is clear from the Biblical description that the aron was nine tefahim high; the additional tefah was the height of the kaporet that covered the aron.

Our Gemara seeks to find a source for the fact that the kaporet was one tefach high, which it derives from a comparison of the kaporet – which does not have a specific size mentioned in the Torah – to other utensils used in the Mishkan.

One of the High Priest’s accoutrements in the Temple was the tzitz, the golden plate worn as part of his bigdei kehunah (priestly garments), but the Gemara says that it cannot be used as a source for the size of the kaporet because, as part of the kohen gadol‘s uniform, it was not one considered to be one of the utensils of the Mishkan.

We know details about the appearance of the tzitz thanks to Rabbi Elazar b’Rabbi Yossi, who testified that he had the opportunity to examine it during a visit to Rome.  He describes it as having the words Kodesh la-Shem on a single line, as opposed to the opinions in the baraita that describes it as having the word Kodesh on the bottom and la-Shem on the top.

Rabbi Elazar was the son of the tanna Rabbi Yossi ben Chalafta and lived in the last generation before the redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi (for more on the compilation of the Mishnah, see Chapter 6 of the new Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s The Essential Talmud). Rabbi Elazar was, apparently, the greatest of Rabbi Yossi’s five sons and, already during his father’s lifetime, he was recognized and honored by his generation.

During a difficult period for the Jews, Rabbi Elazar was, along with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, part of a delegation to Rome that tried to get decrees against the Jews rescinded. While in Rome they were miraculously given the opportunity to heal the Caesar’s daughter, who had fallen ill. After successfully healing her, they were offered the change to examine the Caesar’s coffers, which included the spoils of the Roman victory and sacking of the Land of Israel and the Temple. Rabbi Elazar’s examination of the Temple remains allowed him to return to the Sages with information about a number of the utensils from the mikdash, including the parokhet, the tzitz, etc.

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.