Height of a Sukkah

Sukkah (1:1) | Yaron Gottlieb | 16 years ago

When beginning a new tractate in Mishnayot a question that is often raised is how does the first Mishnah relate to the essence of the tractate and why was it chosen as the starting point. This of course assumes that if we were to discuss a topic, the start of that discussion would contain a central point, after which the discussion can be broadened to include the other areas that are needed for a comprehensive halachic view.

The tractate of Sukkah begins with a discussion about the height of the sukkah and the thickness of the covering of the schach. The Gemara brings a number of reasons for the height restrictions on the Sukkah being twenty amot. One explanation is that visually, a roof that high would not noticeably be made of schach. A second reason (and the prevailing one amongst the commentators) is that any structure above this height ceases to be temporary.

The second explanation raises a difficulty with our initial hypothesis, since the main focus of the Sukkah is the schach - the root of the word sukkah - why then is the first Mishnah dealing with a structural issue of what is considered a temporary abode rather then purely the nature of the roof?

As an aside, there are two other areas in Halacha where the limit of twenty amot appears. The first is placement of the Chanukah candles and the second is the height of the koreh used in a mavoi relevant to the halachot of eiruvin. The reason for these height limitations is that both these issues require people on the street to see them. Therefore if the koreh is decorated and thus visually recognisable higher than twenty amot, it is valid. (See Vol. 2 Issue 11. for further explanation, Ed.) The same cannot be said of the Sukkah when considering the second explanation cited above.

Therefore the Sukkah is a structure that contains two aspects that are complimentary, expressed through the requirement that the Sukkah must be a temporary structure. The roof must be visible and lower than great halls found in stately homes that are permanent in their structure. It could also be suggested that these are meant to replicate the homes of the lower classes in society, and thus mirror the poor man’s bread that is eaten on Pesach (of which more will be said soon). This may explain the remainder of the Mishnah that demands three walls. After having provided with the upper restrictions of the nature of a temporary structure, it continues to explain that it cannot be too temporary, and needs some sort of form so that it can be considered a room.

The Gemara cites a connection through a gezeirah shava that exists between Pesach and Sukkot, and a number of laws are learnt through this about the nature of the two festivals, especially the connection between the mitzvot of Sukkah and Matzah fulfilled on the first days of the respective festivals. This could present a new connection. Although unlike Pesach there is no requirement of vehigadetah le’vincha (passing on the story) on Sukkot, it is nevertheless an important need to have the visual aid in the meal. Just as Rabban Gamliel requires us to speak of the matzah, so too we have to be able to see and feel like we are in a temporary structure as Bnei Yisrael were in the desert.

The temporary nature of the building is fundamental to the Sukkah, just as much as the covering. For this reason both are necessary in the first Mishnah to introduce us to the tractate. Even though the discussion of the structure itself does not appear until later in the first chapter after the discussion about the schach, this is a perfect introduction to the fundamentals of a Sukkah.

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