Masechet Sukkah 48a-54b

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16 Oct 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 48a-b

The Mishnah describes the nisukh ha-mayim – the water libation on Sukkot – which was done together with the daily tamid (“perpetual” communal sacrifice) in the morning. Water was brought from the Shiloah spring up to the Temple with great fanfare. The kohen would take the jug of water, walk up the ramp to the altar and turn left, where there were two bowls – sefalim – that drained into the foundation of the Temple. The bowls were for the nisukh ha-mayim on Sukkot and for the nisukh ha-yayin, the wine libation that accompanied many of the sacrifices. The kohen was instructed to raise up his hand so it would be clear that he was doing the avodah (service) properly. This was instituted because a kohen once poured the water on his feet instead of on the altar, and the enraged crowd pelted him with the etrogim that they were holding in their hands.

The background to this story involves the different sects that lived during the second Temple period and their approaches to the Oral Law taught by the Sages. Many of the kohanim were tzedukim, who did not accept the traditions of the Sages. Unlike nisukh ha-yayin – the wine libation – which is clearly written in the Torah, the nisukh ha-mayim – the water libation – was a tradition handed down from Moshe on Mount Sinai, and it was not accepted by the tzedukim.

The particular story referred to in our Gemara is described at great length by Josephus. According to him, the individual who poured the water on his feet rather than on the altar was the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai, who rejected the teaching of the Sages. After the people – who supported the interpretation of the Sages – pelted him with etrogim, the king summoned the non-Jewish guard, and they killed many of the people who were on the Temple grounds.

Sukkah 49a-b

On the previous daf , we learned about the two bowls – sefalim – that drained into the foundation of the Temple. Rabbah bar bar Hannah quotes Rabbi Yochanan as interpreting a passage in Shir HaShirim (7:2) as teaching that these drains – shittin – existed from the time of creation.

The Rishonim and Acharonim point out that it is difficult to reconcile Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching that the shittin are part of God’s creation with a statement made by him later on in the Gemara that describes King David as having them dug. Many answers are given to this question – e.g. that they were closed up at some point and that King David reopened them, or that Rabbi Yohanan is presenting the opinions of two different tannaim. The Maharsha explains simply that the term shittin refers to different things. In our discussion they are the pipes through which the wine and water that are spilled on the altar drain down into the Kidron Valley; in the later statement the shittin (or shattot) are the foundation of the altar itself.

Rabbi Yossi interprets a passage in Sefer Yeshayahu (5:1-2) as meaning that these passages led down into the depths of the earth. The Ge’onim quote a tradition that the shittin were an amah in width and 600 amot deep.

Rabbi Elazar bar Zadok is quoted in a baraita on our daf as describing an opening in the Temple floor through which young kohanim were sent down once every seventy years to clean out the congealed wine, after which it was burned in the Temple (based on Bamidbar 28:7). The Meiri explains this to mean that the kohanim did not actually go down to the very bottom, but that they would clean as deep as they could using implements that were available to them.

Sukkah 50a-b

Although there is a mitzvah of simcha – joyous celebration – on all of the pilgrimage holidays – the shalosh regalim – there is a unique emphasis on this aspect of the holiday on Sukkot. In order to fulfill this mitzvah, a number of special activities were instituted in the Temple: more music was played, a system of unusual torches was lit up, and the physical set-up of the grounds of the mikdash was changed to accommodate the large number of revelers in a safe and protected manner. The fifth perek of Masechet Sukkah, which begins on our daf, focuses on these matters.

The first Mishnah teaches the rule of the chalil – the flute played during these festivities – which could not be used as part of the celebrations on Shabbat or Yom Tov. (Although the Mishnah mentions the halil specifically, there was an entire orchestra of instruments. The halil is focused on because, according to the Rambam, it was the most important instrument, or because, according to the Bartenura, it was the one that was heard most clearly.)

Rav Nahman is quoted in the Gemara as teaching that the mitzvah of simcha on Sukkot is so important – according to some, the reading of the Mishnah is not Simchat bet ha-sho’evah (the joyousness of the water libation ceremony), but rather Simchat bayit hashuvah (the important joyousness of the Temple) – because its source lies in the six days of creation. This difficult statement is explained by Rashi as referring to the shittin, which, as we learned on the last daf, are thought to have existed since the time of creation. Others suggest that this is connected with a midrash that describes how disturbed the lower waters were when they were separated from the upper waters on the second day of creation (see Bereshit 1:6-8). According to the midrash, God promises them that they will be raised up to similar heights through the water libation, which is why nisukh ha-mayim is related to the creation of the world.

Sukkah 51a-b

The Mishnah on our daf states: Anyone who has not seen the simhat bet ha-sho’evah – the joyousness of the water libation ceremony – has not seen true joy in their lifetime. The Mishnah describes how the Sages would sing songs and juggle torches, accompanied by an orchestra of levi’im, all to the light of large candelabra, which were large bowls of oil lit by the young kohanim who climbed ladders to do so.

Another impressive sight described by the baraita was the great synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, which held double 600,000 people (the number 600,000 is significant because it was the number of people who left Egypt to come to Israel). The synagogue was so large that someone was appointed by the congregants to stand on a wooden platform in the middle and wave a flag so that everyone would know when it was time to respond “Amen” to the chazzan. Furthermore, every guild had its own section in the synagogue so that when a stranger would come, he could find his fellow tradesmen who would help support him and his family.

With this grand introduction, the Gemara concludes by quoting Abayye, who says that this entire community was destroyed by Alexander Mokdon because of their disregard for the passage forbidding Jews to return to Egypt (see Devarim 17:16).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is quoted as saying that the prohibition against returning to Egypt appears three times in the Torah, and when Jews returned for the third time, their fate was sealed. The Maharsha connects this with the story at the end of Sefer Yirmiyahu, where the prophet not only forbids the people from leaving Israel and going to Egypt, but also tells them that if they choose to return they will be killed by sword, starvation and disease (Yirmiyahu 42:17).

It should be noted that Alexander Mokdon cannot possibly be the general who wiped out the Jewish community in Alexandria, something already pointed out by the rishonim. The story apparently refers to the Roman Caesar Turranius, who put down a Jewish rebellion against Rome about 60 years after the destruction of the second Temple.

Sukkah 52a-b

Most of today’s daf focuses on the yetzer ha-ra – the evil inclination.

Rav Avira expounds: There are seven names given to the yetzer ha-ra:

  1. God called it ra – evil (see Bereshit 8:21)
  2. Moshe called it arel – uncircumcised (see Devarim 10:16)
  3. King David called it tameh – defiled (see Tehillim 51:12)
  4. King Solomon called it soneh – hated (see Mishle 25:21-22)
  5. Yeshayahu called it mikhshol – a stumbling block (see Yeshayahu 57:14)
  6. Yehezkel called it even – a stone (see Yehezkel 36:26)
  7. Yo’el called it tzefoni – the hidden one (see Yo’el 2:20)

One explanation for the different names is that they express different levels of evil, ranging from the latent evil that exists in every person (ra), to the ability of the yetzer ha-ra to hide the good from a person (arel), to act as an enemy by encouraging evil behaviors. Furthermore, even someone who tries to avoid it by casting it aside will find himself stumbling over it (mikhshol) in the form of a difficult to remove (even) temptation that is hard to even locate in order to avoid it, since it is hidden (tzafun) deeply in one’s heart.

The Gemara also introduces us to a passage in Zechariah (12:12) that describes a eulogy that is attended by all the people of the land. According to one opinion, this is the funeral of the yetzer ha-ra in the next world. At that time it will appear before the righteous as a huge mountain, which leads them to lament, “how could we have overcome this great mountain,” and before the sinners as a strand of hair, leading them to lament, “it would have been so easy to overcome this thin strand of hair.”

Why does the yetzer ha-ra appear differently to different groups of people? The Ri”f suggests that, as time passes, the yetzer ha-ra grows larger and larger. The sinners who trip up right away cannot comprehend how they were felled by something so small. The righteous, who withstand temptation, see it as a huge obstacle that they still managed to overcome.

Sukkah 53a-b

As we learned in the Mishnah at the beginning of the perek (chapter – see 50a), the Sages and other members of the community would dance and sing as part of the simchat bet ha-sho’evah (joyous water libation) procession. The Gemara on our daf quotes a baraita that recorded some of the songs. According to the baraita, those dancers who grew up devoted to Torah would sing praise for the fact that their youth did not embarrass their old age. The ba’alei teshuva – those who became committed to keeping the Torah only later in life – sang in praise of their old age, which made up for the sins of their youth. All sang together, praising those who did not sin and encouraging those who did to repent.

Hillel HaZaken lived during the second Temple period and participated in these processions. While dancing, he sang, “If I am here, everyone is here. If I am not here, then who is here?” This unusual comment is interpreted by Rashi to refer to God – i.e., Hillel is speaking on behalf of God, that when His presence is in a given place, then everything is there, but if His presence is missing, then there is nothing of value in that place.

Some explain that Hillel was speaking on behalf of the community at large, and was simply including himself among them.

The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that Hillel’s statement reflected what he saw going on in the crowd. If the people were dancing for their own pleasure and not for the joy of the holiday, then he would sing that if the community were not gathered for the appropriate purpose, then who was there? Does God need crowds of people in the Temple? Does He not have an infinite number of angels who praise him? On the other hand, if Hillel saw that the people were dancing with the proper intent in praise of God, he would sing out that since the community is here, God desires the Jewish People more than anything else and it is as though everything is here.

Sukkah 54a-b

Our Gemara discusses the timing of Sukkot and comments that the first day cannot fall out on a Friday. If the new moon of the month of Tishrei appears on a Friday, which would cause the 15th of the month (the first day of Sukkot) to fall out on Friday, as well, we push off the first day of the month – Rosh HaShanah – to Shabbat. The Gemara explains that this reconfiguration of the lunar calendar is necessary because we want to avoid having Yom Kippur, which is on the tenth day of Tishrei fall out on a Sunday.

The discussion in the Gemara is based on the contemporary lunar calendar which is a set calendar and is not based on testimony from witnesses who come to the Sanhedrin to report on their seeing the new moon. According to our calendar, Rosh HaShanah can never fall out on Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday, so Sukkot, which is exactly two weeks later on the 15th of the month, cannot fall on those days either. This arrangement is made in order to avoid having Yom Kippur fall on either Friday or Sunday, since two days in a row (including Shabbat) on which all work – even cooking – is forbidden, would be difficult for people.

According to some sources, it appears that even when the calendar was based on witnesses who came to testify that they saw the new moon, various methods were employed to insure that Yom Kippur would not fall out immediately before or after Shabbat. Nevertheless, it is likely that, on occasion, it would be impossible to shift the day, since a month cannot be less than 29 days long (according to our present-day calendar, Rosh HaShanah is sometimes pushed off from the actual new moon by two full days to accommodate the needs of these holidays) and Yom Kippur would fall out on Friday or Sunday.

According to the Rambam, the shift in the calendar serves another purpose, as well. He believes that pushing off Rosh HaShanah allows for a more precise correlation between the solar calendar and the lunar months, correcting minor discrepancies that exist even when the leap year is added at the correct time.

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.