July 22, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
July 22, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An Analysis of Two Essential Sukkah Stories

The message of a Mishnah that relates a story is often more powerful and memorable than a Mishnah that teaches only pure halakha. The Mishnah’s story is even more powerful when the characters are great sages whose words we regularly study and now have the opportunity to learn from their actions in addition to their words. In this essay we shall analyze two stories that are presented in the Mishnah towards the end of the second chapter of Masechet Sukkah. An analysis of these stories will greatly enhance our appreciation of the Mitzvah of Sukkah.

Eating a Snack Outside the Sukkah

The Mishnah (Sukkah 25a) teaches that one is permitted to eat a snack (“Achilat Arai”) outside the Sukkah. The subsequent Mishnah (Sukkah 26b) relates that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was given a small quantity of food to taste and that he asked that the food be brought to the Sukkah for him to eat. Similarly, Rabban Gamliel was offered two dates to eat and some water to drink and he requested that these items be brought to the Sukkah for him to eat. On the other hand, when Rabi Tzadok was offered a snack to eat on Sukkot he chose to eat it outside the Sukkah in accordance with the rule articulated in the previous Mishnah.

The Gemara (Sukkah 26b-27a) explains that the stories in the Mishnah teach that one has options regarding snacking outside the Sukkah. One option is to follow the baseline Halakha and eat snacks outside the Sukkah. Another legitimate and halakhically meaningful action is to be machmir (strict) and refrain from consuming even small amounts of food outside the Sukkah. The Rambam (Hilchot Sukkah 6:6) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 639:2) codify these both approaches as entirely legitimate halakhic options.

It is important to note that the halakha presents both obligatory activities and optional tasks. This is important to note as the chumash presents two models regarding mitzvot. One model is Moshe Rabbeinu relaying to us Hashem’s command us to observe various mitzvot. The second model is the avot voluntarily observing mitzvot. Rav Kook refers to these phenomena respectively as Torat Moshe and Torat Avraham.

Rav Yehuda Amital once stated that the halakha presents us with these two models within many mitzvot that we observe. For example, we must keep Shabbat from sunset on Friday evening until nightfall on Saturday evening. However, the halakha also requires that we supplement Shabbat by adding Tosefet Shabbat. Although there are some basic parameters regarding the requirement of Tosefet Shabbat, every individual is essentially given the option to decide how much he should add to Shabbat. Similarly, in regards to the mitzvah of Sukkah, there are both non-negotiable obligations and areas of options for each person to decide what is appropriate for him.

The Mishnah’s Connection to Churban Bayit Sheini

When studying this Mishnah at TABC, my students and I noticed that the characters in this Mishnah are central rabbinic characters involved in the stories surrounding the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (see Gittin 55b-56b). What is the connection between the issue of eating snacks outside the Sukkah and Churban Bayit Sheini?

Perhaps this Mishnah implicitly presents a remedy to the spiritual malaise that was responsible for Churban Bayit Sheini. Chazal (Yoma 9b) state that the sin of Sinat Chinnam (baseless hatred) caused the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash. The Netziv in his introduction to Sefer Bereishit elaborates on this point. He writes that the Jews of the time were very pious and assiduously studied Torah. However, they regarded anyone who differed from them in their style of Yirat Shamayim as a heretic. Our Mishnah presents a remedy to this spiritual malady as it presents two equally legitimate and viable options in the manner in which one may observe the Mitzvah of Sukkah. We do not regard either option as “too frum” (Mechzei k’yuhara”) or “too liberal” or “too modern.”

Joshua Strobel, suggested another approach to this Mishnah. He noted that the aforementioned Gemara in Gittin records that Rabi Tzadok fasted for 40 years before the Churban in an effort to convince Hashem to relent and not destroy the Beit HaMikdash. He also noted that Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai did not fast in the manner of Rabi Tzadok. The Mishnah in Sukkah, on the other hand, presents a contrasting situation where RabbanGamliel and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai were strict about a matter of eating and Rabi Tzadok was lenient about a matter of eating.

The Mishnah might be teaching a lesson regarding balancing our actions and emotions. Rav Yosef Adler cites Rav Yosef Soloveitchik’s explanation of the Shvil Hazahav (moderate path) that the Rambam vigorously advocates in Hilchot Deot. The Rav explains that the Shvil Hazahav is not achieved by being moderate about every issue. Rather one is considered a moderate if the sum total of his actions represents a moderate path. In other words, even a moderate is sometimes aggressive and sometimes passive. One achieves the desired status of a moderate if the aggregate of his actions represents a balanced approach to life’s challenges.

Our Mishnah presents such a model of moderation as Rabi Tzadok who was strict in the context of fasting before Churban Bayit Sheini was lenient regarding eating a snack outside the Sukkah. On the other hand, Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who were lenient regarding fasting before the Churban, were strict regarding eating a snack outside the Sukkah.

The Story of Shamai
and his Grandson

The Mishnah (Sukkah 28a) relates a story that when Shamai’s daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy, Shamai would remove part of the roof of the room of the newborn and placed Schach on the opening so that the infant would be in a Sukkah. Many Rishonim and Acharonim wonder what Shamai sought to accomplish by doing this. What could the newborn child derive from the fact that he technically was “sitting” in a Sukkah? Recall that a minor is not obligated in Mitzvot. Rather, the parents are obligated to train the child to lead a life of Torah and mitzvot after his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Accordingly, it is difficult to determine what Shamai was seeking to impart to his infant grandson. See the Otzar Meforshei HaTalmud (Sukkah 1:973) for a list of authorities who grapple with this problem and a summary of many of their approaches.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Reshimot Shiurim to Masechet Sukkah p. 104) cites the ceremony of Hakhel as a precedent for Shamai. The Torah (D’varim 31:12-13) commands all Jews to congregate in the Beit HaMikdash for the Hakhel ceremony during Sukkot of the post-Shemittah year. The Torah specifically commands men, women, and children to attend this magnificent event. The Ramban (ibid) understands the Gemara (Chagigah 3a) as teaching that even infants should be brought to Hakhel in order to “bring merit to those who bring them.” The Rav suggests that the newborn did not benefit from his being in a Sukkah. Shamai, however, did benefit from his constructing a Sukkah for his newborn grandchild.

Rav Soloveitchik’s insight teaches at least two vital lessons in Torah Hashkafa (outlook). First is that Chinuch of children (and others) has the potential to benefit not only the child but also the parent. Indeed, one communal Rav stated in a talk that he delivered at the 5762 convention of the Rabbinical Council of America that the introduction of “Kiruv programs” in his Shul attracted previously non-observant Jews to live Torah lives and also breathed life into many peoples’ otherwise moribund spiritual lives. Those who engaged in the outreach benefited as much and if not more than the people they were seeking to impact. Chazal (Makkot 10a) express this point by recording Rabi Yehuda HaNasi’s observation that “I have learned much from my Rebbeim, and even more from my colleagues, but I learned the most from my students.”

Etan Ehrenfeld added that this Mishnah also highlights the role of a grandfather in the chinuch of his grandchildren. Rav Soloveitchik emphasized numerous times the role of a grandfather in the chinuch of his grandchildren and the Rav fulfilled this teaching with his grandchildren, as he stated publicly. The Rav quoted in this context the title that the Rambam (Hilchot Kriat Sh’ma 1:4) gave Yaakov Avinu – “the grandfather.” I have heard the Rav quoted as saying that the Jewish people are known as B’nai Yisrael and not B’nai Avraham or B’nai Yitzchak because Yaakov Avinu is the only one of the avot whom we find in the chumash who engaged in the chinuch of his grandchildren. I believe that I once heard that the Rav explains that Yaakov Avinu is awarded the title “the grandfather” for this reason as well.

David Ginsberg, though, questioned Rav Soloveitchik’s explanation of Shamai’s actions. The Rambam (Hilchot Chagigah 3:6) compares the Hakhel ceremony to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (see Rav Menachem Leibtag’ sShiur to Parashat Vayeilech, www. tanach. org, where he fully develops this point). Thus, it is appropriate to summon infants to Hakhel because Hakhel parallels the Mount Sinai experience when the entire nation, including infants, gathered to receive the Torah. Accordingly, it does not seem appropriate to extrapolate from the Hakhel experience that one should involve an infant in any other mitzvah. One might answer that since the mitzvah of the Sukkah commemorates Am Yisrael’s residing in Sukkot during our forty-year sojourn in the desert, it is appropriate to involve an infant in the mitzvah of Sukkah since infants also resided in Sukkot during our years in the Midbar.

Other Explanations of Shamai

The Rashash (Sukkah 28a) cites the Maharshal’s explanation of Shamai’s actions. He explains that Shamai did not make the Sukkah for his infant grandson. Rather, Shamai had a grandson who was of an age that he could appreciate the significance of a Sukkah. This little boy, however, was still highly emotionally attached to his mother who had just given birth to another child and remained with his mother in the room when she tended to her newborn infant. Shamai made the Sukkah for the older child who was in the same room as the infant, not for the infant who could not yet appreciate the Mitzvah of Sukkah. The Rashash finds textual support in our version of the Mishnah that does not state that Shamai’s daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy. Instead, it merely states that she gave birth, lending credence to the Maharshal’s claim that the older sibling was in the house simply because he wished to be with his mother who was confined to the house tending to her newborn. The sex of the newborn was irrelevant because even if it were a girl (recall that women are excused from the mitzvah of Sukkah) Shamai would have made the Sukkah for the older sibling.

My talmidim were somewhat less than satisfied with this explanation since “Ikkar Chaser Min HaSefer”—there is not much direct evidence in the Mishnah for this seemingly speculative interpretation. EtanEhrenfeld responded, though, that the Gemara (Sukkah 28b) specifically states in connection with the Shamai story “Chisurei Mechsara,” that something is missing in the text of the Mishnah that we are left to infer independently. Etan suggests that perhaps the Maharshal felt that there is “Chisurei Mechsara” about other aspects of the Shamai story that the Mishnah leaves us to infer independently.

Finally, the talmidim noted that there is no conclusive “rational” explanation for Shamai’s actions. Accordingly, there is much room left for a “Chassidic” or mystical explanation that there is something so special about being in a Sukkah that even a newborn can be spiritually nurtured in that unique environment.


In matters of secular law only the technical arguments made by judges and legal scholars are relevant. The scholars’ and judges’ personal behavior has no impact in the determination of the law. Thus, for example, if the nine Supreme Court justices were to sell Cuban cigars on the steps of the Supreme Court Building in Washington one afternoon, selling the cigars would not thereby be rendered a legal activity. However, seeing Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik drinking “non-Chalav Yisrael” milk in the Yeshiva University cafeteria, or scrupulously adhering to the Rambam’s ruling that one wash his hands before engaging in Tefillah, or teaching women Gemara at Yeshiva University’s Stern College does establish a precedent for his Talmidim regarding these matters. Similarly, the stories told about our great sages from all generations teach us volumes on how to think and conduct ourselves as Torah Jews.

by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles