Adrift at Dover Beach (Sukkah 23a)

Tonight is the first night of Sukkot. In just a few hours, I will be eating dinner in the sukkah of my friend Yael, who lives on Rehov Yordei HaSirah. The name of this street literally means “those who disembarked from the ship,” and refers to the TK. I am excited for the meal, because I think it is the closest I will come to eating in a sukkah built atop a ship, as described in a tannaitic passage on Sukkah 23a:

One who builds a sukkah on top of a ship: Rabban Gamliel says it is not kosher, but Rabbi Akiva says it is fine. There is a story about Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva who were once sailing aboard a ship. Rabbi Akiva stood up and built his sukkah on the ship. The next day, a wind blew and overturned it. Rabban Gamliel said to him, “Hey Akiva, where’s your sukkah now, eh?”

Rabban Gamliel disagrees with Rabbi Akiva’s decision to build a sukkah aboard a ship, presumably on the grounds that such a sukkah is inherently unstable. When Akiva’s sukkah indeed collapses, Rabban Gamliel says “I told you so,” knocking the wind out of Akiva’s sails. The subsequent amoraic analysis deconstructs the nature of the disagreement between the two tannaitic sages:

Abayey said: Everyone agrees that if a sukkah is unable to withstand regular land winds, it is surely not kosher. And everyone also agrees that if a sukkah can withstand even raging sea winds, then it is surely kosher. But there is disagreement about a sukkah that can withstand land winds, but cannot withstand raging sea winds. Rabban Gamliel maintains that a sukkah must be a permanent structure, and thus it must be able to withstand even those winds that are not generally found on land. But Rabbi Akiva holds that a sukkah is intended to be a temporary structure, and thus so long as it can withstand a regular land wind, it is a kosher sukkah.

I have been thinking a lot about this disagreement between R. Gamliel and R. Akiva. At first, I did not quite understand R. Gamliel’s position. What does he mean by saying that a sukkah is a permanent structure? After all, isn’t the whole idea behind the holiday of Sukkot that we are supposed to live in temporary booths to remember the time when we were traveling from Egypt to Canaan, lacking any sort of permanent dwelling place? The state of being in the wilderness is inherently one of instability and uncertainty. And so of course a sukkah is a temporary structure and not a permanent one; how could R. Gamliel possibly think otherwise?

But then I looked more carefully at Rabban Gamliel’s words. He says that a sukkah must be able to withstand “even those winds that are not generally found on land.” Essentially, then, R. Gamliel is asserting that a sukkah must be capable of more than it is likely to have to confront. Even though raging winds are unlikely on land, a sukkah must be strong enough such that if such winds were to blow, the sukkah would still remain standing. Otherwise, according to R. Gamliel, all is just futility and pursuit of wind. R. Akiva, in contrast, holds that a sukkah need only be strong enough to withstand the everyday winds that are likely to blow in the immediate vicinity. So long as a sukkah does in fact remain standing, it is kosher – regardless of any hypothetical situations we might conjure in eye of the mind-storm.

We all go through phases in our lives when we would much rather hold like R. Akiva than like R. Gamliel. For all of us, there are times when we wander through our own wildernesses, not sure exactly where we are heading.Why are we in our current jobs?

Why do we live where we do? Why do we find ourselves so close to some people and so far from others? We cannot exactly say. But we also know that we cannot go back to college or to our childhood bedrooms or to any of the worlds we once knew. Where does that leave us? In a sense, we are like Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey, “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved.” We are in that protracted period of in-between-ness which is, as I see it, the essence of Sukkot.

In my own protracted period of Sukkot, I relate very much to the machloket between R. Gamliel and R. Akivah. It is one I play out in my head all the time. “OK, Ilana, you are managing your life right now; but what if your chevruta were to suddenly pack up and leave? What if you suddenly had to give up the job you are enjoying so much? What if something terrible were to happen to someone you love, and you had to put aside this life you have constructed for yourself?” I realize just how shaky that life is; how flimsy are the foundations on which I have constructed this routine that seems to be working for the time being; and how utterly devastating things could become if the rug were to be suddenly pulled out from beneath. Again and again I say to myself, “OK, Ilana, you are in a place where you can withstand the little breezes that destabilize you every so often – but what if another gale were to blew? Where would your sukkah be then, eh?” These are the questions that haunt me on Yom Kippur, and when I lie awake late at night, and when I cannot, for whatever reason, get up in the morning.

When it comes down to it, though, I still agree with R. Akiva. It is OK, I think, if we are in a place in life where we can withstand only those winds that are blowing right here and right now. Perhaps there are stronger winds that would knock us over – perhaps they have knocked us over in the past, and we know that were they to blow again, we’d be flat on our backs flailing helplessly. And yet they are not blowing now. We are not giving up in the face of the storm and saying, “Lift me up and cast me overboard.” We are past that dark period of being swallowed in the darkness of the belly of the whale. We have been spit out; we have built our sukkah; perhaps we even have some gourds to keep us occupied.

If the gales were to swirl again, we would surely say, like Jonah, “My death would be better than this life.” The rough and raging sea winds would surely sweep up everything we know “with confused alarms of struggle and flight.” And yet for now, we are still standing. “The sea is calm tonight. / The tide is full, the moon lies fair / Upon the straits.” This is reason enough, I daresay, to declare “the time of our rejoicing.” This is the sukkah that we have built. Let us rejoice and celebrate in it.

2 thoughts on “Adrift at Dover Beach (Sukkah 23a)

  1. Salome says:

    When your life is in as good a place as it is right now, you shouldn’t be waiting for it to all fall apart, but making the most of the happiness and calm you’ve worked for. And when you are swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, you know you are never alone — there are so many people (like me, for example!) who love you & will support you no matter what happens. Come, my love, let us be true to one another! Chag sameach. I miss you.


  2. Chas says:

    Ilana,beautiful post. As you know I am not Jewish but I this seems to me a wonderful holiday.It is a reminder that we cannot make a fortress of our lives and retain the mobility of spirit that lets us remain responsive to life.No matter how we build our shelters there can always come a stronger wind, but no wind is stronger than love or hope or faith.Peace, Chas.


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