A Non-Traditional Sukkah
What is the liberal Jewish definition of the mitzvah of sukkah? Can a non-traditional structure (such as a tent) be considered a sukkah for us? Does eating meals outdoors suffice? (Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, Houston, Texas)
Like Pesach, the festival of Sukkot is the occasion for much detailed discussion in the halakhic literature. In particular, a plethora of information awaits anyone seeking instruction concerning the size, shape, structure, and material for the making of a sukkah.1 Our task is to consider these rules in the context of contemporary Reform Jewish practice. Does Reform Judaism insist upon all the traditional requirements, or can the goals and purposes of sukkah observance be met through the use of structures that do not meet these requirements? Indeed, does the Reform Jewish idea of sukkah necessitate a physical structure of any kind?
We begin with the definition of a sukkah presented in the halakhic literature. The sukkah is a temporary structure (dirat ar`ai) which becomes the functional equivalent of one’s home during the festival.2 Thus, the height of a sukkah may not exceed twenty cubits, since to build it that high would require that the walls be sturdy enough to support a permanent structure (dirat keva`).3 Nor may the height be lower than ten handbreadths, for such a structure would be considered dirah seruchah, unfit for even temporary habitation.4 The area of the sukkah must be sufficient to allow an individual to eat a meal within it.5 The `ikar, or essence of the sukkah rests in the sekhakh, the material which serves as its roof or covering.6 The sekhakh must consist of detached vegetation that cannot contract ritual impurity, and there must be enough of it so that the amount of shadow it casts exceeds the amount of sunlight which enters the sukkah.7 The walls of the sukkah (there must be at least three), by contrast, may be constructed out of any material, so long as they are sturdy enough to withstand a normal wind.8 The walls, if they are anchored in the roof of the sukkah, must extend to within three handbreadths of the ground.9 The sukkah must have a roof; should the walls come together in the manner of a conical hut, the structure is not a valid sukkah.10
It should be obvious from the foregoing that the suggestions raised in the she’elah are not halakhically acceptable. A tent, because it has neither roof nor sekhakh, is an invalid sukkah (sukkah pesulah), and eating one’s meals outdoors hardly qualifies, since the minimal definition of a sukkah requires a structure with roof and walls. Yet the question asks us to look beyond the halakhic tradition and to reexamine the very parameters of this mitzvah. Reform Judaism, after all, has long championed the cause of “creative ritual” and has introduced many fundamental innovations into the corpus of Jewish religious observance. Perhaps there is good reason why we ought to do so in this case.
For the sake of clarity, let us formulate the question as follows. It is a fact that many, indeed most Reform Jews, do not construct sukkot and thus do not fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in its traditional sense. On the other hand, these Jews might well be prepared to observe the festival in some other, arguably related manner. Though not everyone will wish to purchase or erect a sukkah, there are those (families with young children, for example) who would find it enjoyable to eat festive meals in their camping tents. And many who are unable or unwilling to build a sukkah would presumably be quite willing to eat outdoors, particularly if the early fall weather is pleasant. Though their practice would be decidedly non-traditional, these individuals would be willing to leave their permanent homes to take their meals in “temporary dwellings”. Would this not fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah for liberal Jews? Would it not meet the intent, the essential purpose of the observance, by calling to mind the miracles which God did for us when we came out of Egypt?11 Indeed, given that the rabbinic tradition is divided over whether God actually caused our ancestors to “dwell in booths” in the desert,12 do we really need to construct huts in accordance with a long list of concrete halakhic specifications in order to remember the wilderness experience?
The question challenges us to consider the meaning of ritual observance in Reform Judaism. Is ritual, in and of itself, ever a “necessity” for us? Does a traditional practice possess any obligatory force above and beyond the moral or religious meaning it conveys? Put in this way, we believe the answer to the question is “yes”. And that means that the answer to the present she’elah is “no”: it does not fulfill the mitzvah of sukkahto eat outdoors, or in a tent, or in some other non-traditional manner.
Jewish religious life, for us no less than for other Jews, expresses itself through the practice of concrete rituals and observances. These observances, to be sure, carry “messages” of universal moral significance, but the messages do not exist for us as Jews in the absence of the rituals. For example, Shabbat communicates the values of rest, of physical and spiritual refreshment, of human dignity, of appreciation of God’s creative labors and so forth. These values, which are hardly unique to Judaism, can be transmitted and taught in any number of ways. The institution of the Jewish Sabbath is our particular way of transmitting and teaching them. Marked off by kiddush and havdalah, colored by festive meals and songs that express `oneg and kavod, given content by a special liturgy and by a complex of permitted and prohibited activities, Shabbat not only allows us to rehearse its “message”; it stirs us to remember who and what we are as a people. The same is true with Passover. We could absorb the message of the holiday by simply contemplating the themes of slavery and liberation. But that does not suffice for us, because our Passover is not Passover without matzah, the haggadah, the seder and its special foods and spirit. It is through these concrete observances, rituals by which the Jewish people has come to express its understanding of itself as an historical religious community, that we identify ourselves with their experience. Surely we would not suggest that liberal Jews could somehow “fulfill” the mitzvot of Shabbat and Passover by stripping these special times of the very rituals that make them special, that make them Jewish. And just as surely, we do not think that liberal Jews can “fulfill” the mitzvah of sukkah by substituting some non-traditional approximation for the age-old Jewishobservance.
It is true that Reform Judaism has radically altered or done away with many traditional observances. When we have done so, however, we have tended to justify our decision on the grounds that the observance in question was fatally flawed, no longer in keeping with the spirit of modern culture and civilization, or objectionable on moral or aesthetic grounds.13 We do not find the mitzvah of sukkah problematic by any of these considerations,14 nor do we believe that the temper of the times demands a new, more “progressive” definition of this observance.15 We know that it can be somewhat burdensome to build a sukkah or to travel to one, but this “burden” is hardly a crushing one. The availability of prefabricated sukkot in a variety of price ranges enables most households to erect such a structure with a minimum of muss and fuss. Moreover, synagogues and other communal institutions erect sukkot on their premises, making it relatively easy for those who do not have their own sukkot to observe the mitzvah.
None of this to to say that there is no value in non-traditional styles of observance. On the contrary: Jewish tradition recognizes that even a less-than-perfect performance of a mitzvah can bring merit to its doer.16 We would by all means encourage our people to mark the seasons of the Jewish year to whatever extent they can. If one cannot build a sukkah, one might purchase a lulav and etrog; if one cannot do that, one can attend festival servies at the synagogue. In addition, our tendency toward creative approaches to liturgy should prove that we Reform Jews certainly do not oppose the search for new and innovative ways of celebrating Jewish life. In response to the present she’elah, we might say that it is better for Jews to consciously and explicitly mark the occasion of Sukkot by eating outdoors or in a tent than for them to ignore the holiday entirely by doing nothing at all to observe it. But to repeat: this is not the mitzvah of sukkah, and it is better still for our people to come to fulfill that mitzvah in the way that Jews have over the course of many centuries come to fulfill it.
The choice, as we see it, is between two definitions of rabbinic responsibility. On the one hand, we can decide that our role is to tell our people that they may be satisfied with ersatz Jewish rituals or with whatever level of observance they are able to reach at the moment. On the other, while we validate their good intentions, we can resolve to teach, to lead, and to encourage them to adopt into their lives those forms of Jewish observance that, while resonating with our modern temperament, have become emblematic of Torah, of our people’s particular religious experience in its search for God.
We think that the second alternative is the better one.
C.C.A.R. Responsa Committee
W. Gunther Plaut, Chair,
Mark Washofsky, Co-Chair
Joan S. Friedman
Faedra L. Weiss
The texts are centered chiefly in the Talmudic tractate Sukkah; the law is codified by the Rambam in Yad, Hilkhot Shofar veSukkah veLulav, chs. 4-6, and by Karo and Isserles in Shulchan Arukh Orach Hayim chs. 625-669. Lev. 23:42 reads: “you shall dwell in sukkot for seven days”; from this, the tradition derives that one should live in the sukkah precisely as one lives the rest of the year in one’s home (teishvu ke`ein taduru; BT. Sukkah 28b). This reasoning follows the opinion of Rava, Sukkah 2a, who holds that the essence of a sukkah is that it is a temporary structure. R. Zeira, ad loc., offers a competing theory: a sukkah requires shade (cf. Isaiah 4:6), and if the height of the walls exceeds twenty cubits, one dwells in the shade of the walls rather than that of the sekhakh. M. Sukkah 1:1; BT. Sukkah 2a; Yad,Hilkhot Sukkah 4:1; SA, OC 633:1. “The sukkah must contain one’s head, the major part of one’s body, and one’s table”; this area is generally rendered as “seven square handbreadths” (BT. Sukkah 3a; Yad, Hilkhot Sukkah 4:1; OC 634:1). Rashi, BT. Sukkah 2a, s.v. veshechamatah. M. Sukkah 1:1 and 1:4; Yad, Hilkoht Sukkah 5:1; SA, OC 629 and 631. A sukkah may not as a rule be built under a tree, since its shade will derive from that tree and its branches (M. Sukkah 1:2; Yad, Hilkhot Sukkah 5:12. For special circumstances see SA, OC 626:1.). M. Sukkah 1:1 and 1:5; Yad, Hilkhot Sukkah 4:2 and 4:16; SA, OC 630:1ff. M. Sukkah 1:9; Yad, Hilkhot Sukkah 4:4; SA, OC 630:9. See M. Sukkah 1:11 and BT. Sukkah 19b; Yad, Hilkhot Sukkah 4:7; SA, OC 631:10. See Sefer Ha-Hinukh, # 325. See BT. Sukkah 11b. The dispute concerns the meaning of the sukkot mentioned in Lev. 23:43. R. Akiva reads the word in its concrete sense: “booths”. But R. Eliezer understands it to mean `ananei kavod, “clouds of glory.” Much could be said about all of these; this is not, however, the occasion for detailed discussion. We would mention only that the phenomenon of “adjustments” in ritual practice did not start with Reform Judaism. It is in fact the very history of Jewish tradition. Our own subject is a case in point: while the original definition of the commandment to dwell in the sukkah required that one sleep in the sukkah during the entire festival, the climatic conditions of northern and eastern Europe led to the removal of this requirement. See Arukh HaShulchan, OC 639, pars. 11- 13. That a sukkah is not a terribly aesthetic or “nice” place for modern, upper-middle-class Jews to dine is hardly a valid objection; the whole point of “living” in a temporary dwelling is to leave our comfortable lifestyles behind, however briefly. This is not to say that we do not believe in the possibility of a progressive understanding of our tradition. Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof taught us that Reform responsa ought to be written in a “liberally affirmative” spirit. We do not share the passion of many contemporary Orthodox poskim to forbid new ideas or to insist upon ever-increasing levels of ritual stringency, absolute precision in measurement, etc. We interpret broadly rather than narrowly, and proudly so. In this case, however, a “broad” construction of the kind discussed would mean altering the mitzvah of sukkah beyond recognition. See M. Berakhot 1:2: one who recites the morning Shema later than its appointed time nonetheless receives the reward “of one who reads (the Shema) in the Torah.”
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.