Sukkah 10

Sukkah decorations.

On today’s daf, we learn from a mishnah that if one spreads a sheet over the s’chach (roofing materials) of a sukkah to provide shade from the sun or to catch falling leaves, then the sukkah is unfit for use. In the Gemara, Rav Hisda comments that if a sheet is used for decorative purposes, it does not invalidate the sukkah.

Later, we read the following anecdote:

Rav Hisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna happened to come to the house of the exilarch. Rav Nahman, who was the official in charge of the exilarch’s household, lodged them in a sukkah whose decorations were removed from the roofing four handbreadths.

Earlier we learned that while Rav Nahman believes that a sukkah whose decorations are four handbreadths away from the roof is fit, his guests deem it to be unfit. About what do they do they disagree? About whether a decorative sheet that is hung four handbreadths or more below the roofing becomes a roof in and of itself. If so, one who sits under it is no longer sitting under the roof of the sukkah and thereby does not fulfill the mitzvah.

So, it would not be surprising if Rav Hisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna took offense to Rav Nahman’s decision to put them up in such a sukkah; yet, the Gemara reports that they were silent and did not say anything to him. 

Mystified by their silence, Rav Nahman asks his guests if they had retracted their position and now believed that a sukkah whose decorations are more than four handbreadths away from its roof is to be considered fit. They give this somewhat cryptic response:

We are on the path to perform a mitzvah and, therefore, we are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah. 

As we’ll learn in a few weeks, a person who is traveling in order to perform a mitzvah is exempt from the obligation to dwell in a sukkah. So, Rav Hisda and Rabba bar Rav Huna’s failure to reject the sukkah they were offered was not a sign that they had changed their mind; rather, it resulted from the fact that they were exempt from dwelling in a sukkah.

Rav Nahman’s decision to lodge his colleagues in a sukkah that they consider to be unfit is still problematic. How can he justify offering them a sukkah that he knows is unacceptable in their eyes? Some commentators equate his actions to feeding a guest food that they believe to be treyf (non-kosher) when the host deems it kosher. (Which by itself is an interesting comment that presumes different Jews will have different ways of observing kashrut.)

Also problematic is the fact that Rav Nahman acts on his own opinion when two other sages have ruled against him, violating the rabbinic rule that the law follows the majority of sages.

Some later commentators try to let Rav Nahman off the hook by suggesting that the incident took place before the legal debate was settled. Others point out that since the decorations in the sukkah were in plain view, at least Rav Nahman was not leading his colleagues astray. If they had an issue with the placement of the decorations, they could speak up and ask for the sukkah to be modified or for an alternate one to sleep in.

On the other hand, perhaps Rav Nahman housed his guests in that sukkah because he had yet to accept the fact that he lost the debate. Perhaps, despite being outvoted, he is certain that his opinion is right and follows it on the estate that he runs. Maybe he is even filled with contempt for his colleagues who rejected his ruling and is acting out of spite rather than according to the rule of law. (We’ve seen this kind of high-handed approach to halakhah before, from Rabban Gamliel.)

Personally, while I understand the desire to show Rav Nahman in a positive light, I’m more convinced by readings that allow him to have a full range of (less than pretty) emotions and motivations. This story is particularly notable because the ugly skirmish is over a small detail in the design of a sukkah. We’ve seen the rabbis are capable of incredible acts of kindness, tzedakah and compassion. But today we’re reminded that they are human beings who, like anyone else, are sometimes simply peevish.

Read all of Sukkah 10 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 17th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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