Chanuka Lights and the Sukka

In prior columns we have discussed many parallels between Chanuka and the holiday of Sukkot. Among the many similarities:

1. Both are holidays of eight days; the book of Maccabees states explicitly that the eight days of the holiday are a “make-up” for the eight days of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret that the fighters were unable to keep in wartime conditions. (Mentioned in Arukh HaShulchan)

2. The opinion of Beit Shammai that we start with eight candles and reduce one by one to a single candle is based on a parallel to the Sukkot offerings which begin with thirteen bulls and dwindle day by day to seven (Shabbat 21b).

3. Sukkot is the holiday of the harvest, but the harvest is complete only at Chanuka when the last olives are gathered. (See mishnah Bikkurim 1:6)
There is yet another parallel: between the mitzva of the Chanuka lights and the mitzva of the Sukka itself. We find such a parallel in at least two sources. The first parallel regards the necessity of seeing the mitzva. The gemara in Shabbat (22a) states that the Chanuka light must be no higher than 20 amot, just like the sukka. The reason for the Chanukah light is that above this height the lamp is not noticeable, so there is no publicization of the miracle (Rashi). This is also the reason Rabbah gives for this limitation regarding the sukka; seeing the thatch fulfills the mitzva of (Vayikra 23:43) “in order that you generations should know that I sat the children of Israel in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Sukka 2a).

The second parallel regards temporary presence in the public thoroughfare. The mishna in Bava Kama states that if a merchant lights a lamp in the public way and it ignites the load on a beast, the merchant is liable for damage. Rebbe Yehuda rules that if the lamp is a Chanuka, light the merchant is exempt, since he has permission, but halakha is according to the Sages, who hold that even though he has permission, he must supervise his lamp (Rambam Nizkei Mamon 14:13).

The Tosefta there adds that even if the beast is harmed by a sukka that extends into the public way, the merchant is still liable. (Tosefta Bava Kamma 6:28, also mentioned in Yerushalmi on this mishna.) Some commentaries explain that this teaches according to the Sages, even a Torah mitzva doesn’t exempt the merchant from liability (Marei HaPanim on the Yerushalmi).

In both cases it seems as though Chanuka is coming to reveal the hidden side of the Sukkot holiday. Sukkot seems to be a private mitzva; each individual leaves his permanent dwelling and enters a temporary one. Indeed, the more accepted explanation for the 20-ama restriction is that of Rava, who states that a very high sukka can not qualify as a temporary dwelling (See SA OC 633:1 and Mishnah Berura). And many Rishonim state that the public thoroughfare is an inappropriate place to build a sukka (See Rema OC 637:3). Technically, there is no need for the mitzvah to be conspicuous and public. (Indeed, several Rishonim consider it a difficulty that the gemara likens the 20 amot of the Chanuka lights to that of sukka.)

Yet there does seem to be an important public dimension in the mitzva. Among the hints mentioned in a previous column: the verse stating that “every citizen” should dwell in the sukka (Vayikra 23:42), from which the Sages inferred that “all Israel are fitted to sit in a single sukka” (Sukkah 27b), and the commentary of the Malbim which explains that the special rejoicing in the mitzva of sukka recorded in the time of Ezra (Nechemia 8:17) was due to the fact that they made public sukkot in public areas (as explained in Moadei Rayah).

Perhaps the parallel drawn by the gemara and Tosefta is meant to indicate that the sukka too has a latent aspect of “pirsumei nisa”. Certainly practically speaking it is a very conspicuous mitzva. And the gemara in Avoda Zara suggests that at the time of the final redemption and judgment, a prominent sanctification of God’s name by the Jewish people in the eyes of the nations will be our fulfillment of the mitzva of sukka, showing our trust in His protection (Avoda Zara 3a,b). While ostensibly the mitzva of sukka is a private one, we should be aware of its potential for “publicizing the miracle” of the Clouds of Glory in the desert.