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The Sukkoth Really Were Clouds of Glory

November 15, 2016

(A translation and elaboration of this. )

Mishna, BT Sukka 11a:

This is the general rule: whatever is susceptible to impurity or whatever does not grow from the ground, may not be used for the s’chach, but whatever is not susceptible to impurity but grows from the ground may be used for the s’chach.

The Gemara (11b) elaborates:

How do we know this? Resh Lakish said: Scripture says, “But there went up a mist from the earth.” Just as a mist is a thing that is not susceptible to [ritual] impurity and originates from the soil, so must the s’chach be of something that is not susceptible to [ritual] impurity, and must also grow from the ground. [Reish Lakish’s opinion] is satisfactory according to the authority who says that [the booths of the wilderness were] Clouds of Glory, but according to the authority who says [the Israelites] made for themselves real booths, what can one say? It has been taught: “For I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths” (Leviticus 23:43). These were clouds of glory, so Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says, they made for themselves real booths. Now this is satisfactory according to Rabbi Eliezer, but according to Rabbi Akiva, what can one say? — When R. Dimi came, he explained in the name of Rabbi Johanan that Scripture says, “The Festival of Sukkoth shall you keep (lit., make).” The sukka is thus compared to the Festival [offering]. Just as the Festival offering is a thing which is not susceptible to impurity and grows from the soil, so too must the sukka be unsusceptible to impurity and grow from the soil. And if [you will suggest]: Just as the Festival offering was a live animal so too must the sukka be [of something which is] alive, [it may be replied that] when Rabin came, he said in the name of Rabbi Johanan that Scripture says, “After that you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and your winepress” (Deuteronomy 16:13) .The verse thus speaks of the leavings of the threshing-floor and the leavings of the wine-press.

In order to understand Reish Lakish’s opinion, we should give some background. 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.

It seems that according to Reish Lakish and Rabbi Eliezer, ideally s’chach should be made out of clouds, but because it is completely impractical to do so, we use the next best thing.

This gemara has troubled me for many years, because it seems that according to Rabbi Akiva’s understanding of Leviticus (23:43), the Israelites lived in sukkoth, booths, during their 40-year sojourn, yet, throughout the rest of the Bible, we read about how they dwelled in ohalim, tents. Not withstanding that in poetic contexts, “tent” and “booth” are used as synonyms for a dwelling (see Psalms 27), in the halachic context of the definition of sukkoth, it is clear from the rest of the first chapter of tractate Sukka that an ohel is a solid covering, usually cloth or leather, spread out over an area and supported by a skeletal structure, whereas a sukka is vertical m’hitzoth, walls, of a minimum height that are roofed by something, such that the classic tent would be invalid as a sukka.

Even more so, we find that a number of authorities also did not follow this Gemara. If you open your standard hummash to the verse under discussion, Leviticus 23:43, you will find that both Onqelos and Rashi follow Rabbi Eliezer. Onqelos translates “for I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths” as “for I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths of clouds,” And Rashi, commenting on the words “for in booths” is very succinct: “Clouds of Glory.” Neither major commentator makes mention of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation: They made real booths, as opposed to Clouds of Glory. And that is not the only place where Rashi endorses Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion and implicitly discounts Rabbi Akiva’s. On the first page of the tractate, Rashi, when describing an exposition derived from that verse, says the simple meaning of the words “so that they know… booths…” means that the Israelites dwelt in the Clouds of Glory, but the d’rasha, exposition, from that verse is that the booths we make in their memory not exceed a certain height, so that we can notice them. Surely Rashi and Onqelos were also aware of Rabbi Akiva’s position!

Further, the Zohar calls the sukka the tzilla dimheim’nutha, the Shadow of Faith. That is, the sukka represents a godly form of protection, the Clouds of Glory, and not just sticks and leaves made into a hut. Thus, the Zohar was not troubled by the Gemara’s challenge to Reish Lakish. And neither was the Vilna Gaon, who, in answer to the question as to what historical event happened on the 15th of Tishrei as to warrant a holiday being established thereon, said that Sukkoth is the anniversary of the return of the Clouds of Glory to the Israelite camp after they had been removed due to the Sin of the Golden Calf. According to Rabbi Akiva, who held that the sukkoth were actual booths, the Vilna Gaon would need to give a broader answer.

We thus see that these four major authorities, Onqelos, Rashi, the Zohar, and the Vilna Gaon, believed that Leviticus 23:43 refers to the Clouds of Glory, and none seem bothered by the Gemara’s question.


(Update, Tishrei 5778: This argument was apparently first advanced by the Vilna Gaon himself, and features in his commentary on Shulhan Aruch. I thank God for allowing me to find this on my own.)

I believe the answer lies in how the source midrash is presented in the Babylonian Talmud. In the original texts in our possession, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva switch opinions, Rabbi Akiva claiming the booths were the clouds of glory, while Rabbi Eliezer claims that they were actual booths, or in Hebrew, sukkoth mammash hayu. Notice, even more importantly, that the verb is not asu lahem, they made for themselves, but rather hayu, were. The Gemara has it that they made booths, but the original midrash says that the significant sukkoth just were. Then when we look at the corresponding discussion in the Yerushalmi, we find something even more intriguing (TY Sukka 1:5):

Rabbi Yohanan said, it is written, “After that you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and your winepress.” From the waste that is in the threshing floor and the winepress shall you make for yourself s’chach. Rabbi Shimon (Reish) ben Lakish said, “But there went up a mist from the earth.” Rabbi Tanhuma said, “he holds according to his own opinion, and he holds according to his opinion. Rabbi Yohanan, who said the clouds were above [the Israelites], derives the rule of the s’chach from the ‘you have gathered’ verse, whereas Reish Lakish, who said the the clouds were below [the Israelites], derives it from the verse describing clouds. 

This discussion teaches us three important points. The first is that whereas in the Bavli, Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion is brought by others, R’ Dimi and Ravin, who happen to disagree on what exactly Rabbi Yohanan said, in the Yerushlami Rabbi Yohanan speaks for himself. The second is that in this version of the discussion, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish agree that the s’chach is an approximation of the clouds of glory that protected the Israelites. (See Korban Ha’eda’s commentary to this passage.) Thirdly, the difficulty raised in the BT is not brought against either Reish Lakish or Rabbi Yohanan. Shouldn’t the discussion between them also fit with the opinion that the booths of the desert were actual booths?

I always figured that if Rabbi Eliezer (or Rabbi Akiva) were correct, he’s not referring to the dwellings the Israelites used for 40 years, 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. 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.

The Yerushalmi, Onqelos, Rashi, the Zohar, and the Vilna Gaon therefore believed that the Holiday of Sukkoth commemorates the protective clouds of glory, and like the masters who bring their opinions in the Yerushalmi, the s’chach is supposed to approximate those clouds, and the halacha follows that approach. However, either Rabbi Eliezer or Rabbi Akiva also added something: We must always remember that a place called Sukkoth was our fist stop on the path of freedom. We remember the place that was, sukkoth hayu. The Bavli, however, had a different version of the Midrash, one that says the Israelites made sukkoth, and therefore did not entertain that Sukkoth was the name of a place. 

This lesson is often lost on us. Most of those who try to have the right intentions and thoughts when fulfilling the commandment are aware of the aspect of divine protection, but few are aware of the aspect of the sukka acting as a stop along the path to Redemption. May the holiday of Sukkoth prompt many of our brethren in the diaspora to bring themselves closer to living in the Holy Land.


From → halacha, original, parasha

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