The Structure of the Sukkah Sugya (Sukkah 2a)

There are sugyot in the Gemara that lift themselves off the page to become physical edifices with a tertiary structure that mimics the primary structure of the rabbinic arguments they comprise. Quite appropriately (and perhaps not surprisingly), this happens on the first daf of sukkah, at the beginning of a perek that takes as its subject the very issue of physical structure.

The rabbis are discussing the rule introduced in the first line of the first mishnah of Masechet Sukkah: A sukkah that is higher than twenty amot is pasul. In other words, a sukkah may not exceed a maximum height of twenty amot in order to be a kosher sukkah. The mishnah goes on to list other rules that apply to the physical structure of the sukkah, including the fact that it must be comprised of at least three walls.

M’na haney milay? Where are these words from? With this question, the Gemara seeks out the source of the rule that the sukkah may not be higher than twenty amot. Three possible answers are presented, each attributed to a different Talmudic sage:

1. Rabbah holds that the source of the maximum-height rule is a verse in the Torah: “In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). As Rabbah explains, a person needs to be COGNIZANT of the nature of the structure in which he is sitting. If the structure is taller than 20 amot, it would be impossible for a person to dwell therein with the requisite awareness.

2. Rabbi Zeyrah cites a verse from Isaiah as the source of the maximum-height rule: “And it shall serve as a sukkah for shade from heat by day and as a shelter from protection against torrents and rain” (Isaiah 4:6). R. Zeyrah concludes that it is the CANOPY of the sukkah that needs to do the sheltering; however, if a sukkah is taller than twenty amot, then effectively it will be the walls and not the canopy that is providing the shade.

3. Ravah cites the verse immediately preceding the one cited by Rabbah as evidence for the maximum-height rule: “In Sukkot you must dwell for seven days.” As he sees it, the emphasis is on the TEMPORARY nature of the structure: Any structure that is less than twenty amot may be considered temporary; but once it exceeds this height, it becomes something permanent.

The answers provided by Rabbah, R. Zeyrah, and Ravah serve as the three walls holding up the edifice of the sugya. Yet each of these three walls is then delivered a blow. The Gemara states that it is impossible to achieve a universal consensus regarding any of these three opinions:

1. Everyone will not hold like Rabbah because there are those who hold that the idea of being cognizant of dwelling in the sukkah exists for “future generations,” and not for those actually dwelling in the sukkah at this time.

2. Everyone will not hold like R. Zeyrah because if the shade provided by the canopy is the critical factor, then Isaiah should have used the term chuppah (a structure whose canopy is its primary feature) rather than sukkah (a structure whose canopy is secondary to its walls).

3. Everyone will not hold like Ravah because of a problem raised by Abayey: If indeed it is most important that the sukkah be temporary, then shouldn’t a sukkah made of iron be considered unkosher – since iron is a permanent material? And yet a sukkah with iron walls is indeed kosher!

What is the source of the maximum height rule? None of the three answers provided by the Gemara is fully satisfactory. No one answer holds on its own, just as no one wall can hold up a sukkah. At the sugya’s conclusion, each of the three walls is still tottering. For this reason, all three are necessary to uphold the sugya-sukkah, that flimsy structure that we must inhabit, albeit temporarily and uneasily, throughout the seven days of Sukkot.

2 thoughts on “The Structure of the Sukkah Sugya (Sukkah 2a)

  1. BZ says:

    Awesome!!!I have a thing like that for the oven of Achnai; I’ll post it sometime.(Also, this first sugya manages to establish the major themes of the whole holiday and the whole masechet on the very first amud, like an overture.)


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