Sunday, September 30, 2012

Uncovering the Meaning of Sekhakh -- Sukkot 5773

In the past week or so, I’ve been thinking quite a bit, as you might imagine, about sukkah construction - what makes it a sukkah, what makes it kosher, what makes it acceptable for fulfilling the mitzvah of “leshev basukkah,” dwelling in the sukkah, one of the principle mitzvot unique to the festival of Sukkot.  Curiously, all of the relevant literature explained the textual basis for the halakhic specifications for the sukkah, but nowhere could I find good reasons for the intent behind said halakhah.  There is a lot of “what” and “how”, but not so much “why”.  (Not that this is so unusual in Judaism, but I have found that the “why” is a much more powerful motivator than the “how.”)

Specifically, I was looking for something about the roof of the sukkah.  You may know that the covering, known in Hebrew as sekhakh (a word which comes from the same shoresh / root as sukkah) must be made from materials that grow from the ground, but why?  I checked many, many sources, and could not find anything so satisfactory.

We’re going to take a look at some of those sources for a bit, and then I would like to propose a reason for it -- that is, a reason beyond, “because it says so in the Talmud.”  


Here are the traditional sources, with one modern one.  Sorry for not putting up all the Hebrew -- I ran out of time before Yom Tov.  Skip to the bottom to see the conclusions.

1.  Genesis 2:6
וְאֵד, יַעֲלֶה מִן-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִשְׁקָה, אֶת-כָּל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
...but a mist would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth.

2.  Leviticus 23:43 order that future generations may know that I [God] made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

3.  Deuteronomy 16:13

You shall hold the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, at the ingathering from your threshing and your wine-press.

4.  Nehemiah 8:14-15 (6th century BCE)

They found written in the Teaching [Torah] that the Lord had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows: “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.”

5.  Mishnah Sukkah 1:4 (2nd century CE)

If one trained over [the sukkah] a vine or a gourd or an ivy and covered it over [with sekhakh], it is invalid.  But if the sekhakh were more than these, or they were cut, it is valid.
This is the general principle: Whatever is susceptible to ritual impurity and does not grow from the earth may not be used to cover the sukkah; but whatever is not susceptible to ritual impurity and grows from the earth may be used as sekhakh.

6.  Babylonian Talmud, Massekhet Sukkah 11b (5th century CE)

THIS IS THE GENERAL RULE: WHATEVER IS SUSCEPTIBLE TO RITUAL IMPURITY etc. How do we know this? Resh Lakish said: Scripture says, “But there went up a mist from the earth” (Gen. 2:6); just as a mist is a thing that is not susceptible to ritual impurity and originates from the soil, so must the sekhakh be a thing that is not susceptible to ritual impurity, and grow from the soil. That is satisfactory according to the authority who says that [the booths of the wilderness were] clouds of glory... For it has been taught: “‘For I made the children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot’ (Lev. 23:43). These were clouds of glory, so says R. Eliezer.” ...

7.  Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shofar veSukkah veLulav 5:1 (12th century CE)

The sekhakh may not be appropriate if made from any item.  One may only cover the sukkah with those things that have grown from the earth and that have been uprooted from the earth, and that are not susceptible to uncleanness, and that have no bad odor and do not shed and are not always wilting.

8.  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from (20th century CE)
The primary halakhic element of the sukkah is the sekhakh covering, made of branches. The covering takes on the holiness of the sukkah, and even after the holiday ends, it is forbidden to use the sekhakh for any mundane purpose. The sekhakh thus represents the act of transforming a physical part of the universe into something holy, from which the sacredness does not depart. This is the entire purpose of the Holy Temple, to take elements of the physical world and make them into an everlasting dwelling for God.

Sukkot is a holiday that directly follows Yom Kippur, just after having (ideally) achieved our repentance from all that we have done wrong in the past year, our having been cleansed of our sins.  There is a sense of rebirth that surrounds Sukkot.  We call it “zeman simhateinu,” the time of our happiness.  This is a festival of pure, unadulterated joy in the wake of the hard work that we put into seeking teshuvah just a few days earlier.  It’s kind of like the calm, self-satisfied feeling that you get after working out.

And then, rather than rest, we move out into these temporary huts.  What’s the message?
The sekhakh enables us to see the stars, and to let the sun and the rain through.  It does not separate us out from the natural world, from God’s creation; rather, spending time in the sukkah connects us to nature and to Avinu Shebashamayim, to our God in heaven. The sekhakh is not so much a roof, but a kind of active filter, enhancing our limited connection with the sky.  But there is even more here.

The sekhakh must be cut (i.e. dead) things that were once connected to the ground.  Many of you know that I am a gardener and an advocate of getting in touch with God through gardening, and what comes with that is a (curiously enough) a love of compost.  Compost is emblematic of the cycle of life: plants grow and flourish, taking nutrients from the soil; then they die, they decompose, and they provide more nutrients for subsequent generations.  
(By the way, there are hints of this in Jewish text as well, related to our own cycle of life.  Of our beloved departed we say, “Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim- may his soul be bound up in the bond of life.  What is tzeror hahayyim / the bond of life?  It is that which connects this cycle of life to the next, and repeats again.  Those who have passed on continue to nourish the living.)

The sekhakh is the part of the sukkah that connects us to the heavens, the sun and rain.  Since all the materials in the roof are compostable, this amalgam of rain, sun, and nutrients (those produced by decomposing plants) are all that nourish plants, and therefore animals, and therefore us.  Add to this Rabbi Schneerson’s formulation of the sekhakh as creating a kind of holy vessel.  My proposal is this: it is the combination of these physical and spiritual requirements that give us everything that human life needs.  This is what the sekhakh represents: a tangible metaphor for our physical and spiritual needs.

And this is a perfect message for the rebirth of Sukkot.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered / discussed at Temple Israel of Great Neck, second day of Sukkot, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sukkot 5773 - A Good Reason to Live in Your Sukkah

Live in the sukkah?  Are you crazy?

Well, yes.  That is indeed the point.  When I arrived in Great Neck five years ago, I was so pleased to find that so many members of Temple Israel build their own sukkot.  I am not aware of a single member of our community, however, who actually moves out of the house and into the sukkah for seven days.  (And that includes your humble rabbinic correspondent and his family.)