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S’chach and the Clouds of Glory

October 7, 2015

The Torah declares (Leviticus 23:42-43):

Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths;  that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

However, the Targum of Onqelos seems to take sides in a classic dispute between Tannaim. Rabbi Eliezer said that the booths of the wilderness were “real booths,” while Rabbi Akiba said they were the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the people:

That your generations may know how I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths of clouds when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

My input:

The Israelites did not live in what we would call booths (sukkoth) during their 40-year sojourn. There are numerous verses which describe them living in tents. This would be the only verse that describes their accommodations as booths. I always figured that if Rabbi Eliezer were correct, he’s not referring to the dwellings they used the entire time, but rather to a particular place. Some seven years ago, I heard one of the Rabbis Zilberman describe the significance of the fact that Jacob’s first station within Canaan was called Sukkoth (Genesis 33:17), and how the Israelites’ first station on the way out of Egypt was also called Sukkoth (Exodus 12:37, Numbers 33:5-6). There was something special about the fact that they had made that first leg of the journey. Sukkoth represent the beginning of the transition to the holy land. 

Secondly, the Targum often translates/interprets the verses in light of the halacha as understood by our sages, and I believe that here it is ruling like Rabbi Akiva, namely, that even though the Israelites lived in tents, the remarkable and miraculous aspect that we commemorate on the festival is that they were truly protected by the Clouds of Glory. And that is why we specifically build sukkoth with s’chach, and not tents. That is why the Torah says to dwell  ba-sukkoth, in the booths. Not just b’sukkoth, in (any) booths.

How do s’chach-roofed sukkoth recall the clouds, and why would tents or any other actual roofs not do so?

Well, the sages were tasked with telling us how to build booths that were the most like the Clouds of Glory. Ideally, one should have to build the main part of the sukka, the s’chach, (both from the root samech-kaf-kaf) from actual clouds. But that is basically impossible. So instead, the sages bade us to use the material whose halachic specifications come closest to those of clouds.

The sages recognized a number of categories of materials:

  1. Susceptibility to impurity: According to Torah law, people, keilim (lit. implements, including but not limited to tools, vessels, and garments), and foodstuffs are susceptible to ritual impurity, but living creatures, raw materials, and things attached to the ground are not. Basically, insusceptibility to impurity is a status enjoyed by substances and things that have not been corrupted by human hands. The Clouds of Glory fit the insusceptibility category.
  2. Natural source: Things are either domem (inanimate), tzomeiah (vegetative), hay (living), or m’dabber (sentient). Only humans fit into the last category, while clouds fit the inanimate category.
  3. Propagation: some things are qarqa, naturally part of the earth, like most inanimate objects, while others are giddulei qarqa, they grow from the earth, and still others, like animals, grow on their own. According to the second chapter of Genesis, clouds form from vapors that rise from the ground.

Therefore, the sages sought materials that came from the ground, yet were inanimate, and like the Clouds of Glory, not susceptible to impurity. Only s’chach has all of those features. It grows from the ground, yet once it has been disconnected from the ground, it is inanimate, and as long as it is not fashioned into any form of implement, it is insusceptible to impurity, and that is why I believe the halacha specifically demands the s’chach with which we are familiar.

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