Sukkah 19

How to think like sages.

Jazz, Bill Evans once said, is not a what; it’s a how. By this, the great pianist and composer meant that the ability of jazz to touch the soul comes less from the what of it — the melodies, harmonies, rhythms — than from the how: the improvisation, how the music and the musician interact in the creative process. In other words, it is primarily through the form, and only secondarily through the content, that the mystery and beauty of jazz are revealed. 

What’s true of jazz is true of the Talmud, which also communicates much through form. The economy of language, shakla v’tarya (back and forth) style of argumentation, and rhetorical process by which the sages arrive at their decisions — all of these teach us something beyond the words on the page. 

On today’s daf we see a clear example of this phenomenon as part of the Gemara’s discussion of sukkahs that are built in somewhat unusual ways:

Fit roofing that consists of different kinds of agricultural waste products that extend from the sukkah has the legal status like that of the sukkah.

What is the meaning of: “Waste products that extend from the sukkah?”

Ulla said: Branches that extend behind the sukkah and are not limited to the area within the sukkah walls.

Visualize it: Someone has built a sukkah whose s’chach (roofing) is made of long branches that jut out beyond the sukkah walls. According to Ulla, this s’chach extension forms a second kosher sukkah. 

It seems strange that long branches hanging off one sukkah could create a second sukkah. To understand what’s going on, the Gemara enters into a conversation with itself that reminds me of the classic Jewish joke, The Riddle. I’ll paraphrase here: 

How could this second sukkah be kosher? Don’t we need three walls underneath the sch’ach?

Nu, this sukkah has three walls.

But don’t we require a minimum area of 7×7 handbreadths for the sukkah to be kosher?

Nu, this sukkah is of the requisite minimum area.

But don’t we require more shade than sunlight?

Nu, this s’chach provides more shade than sunlight.

At this point we have a clearer picture of the situation. Someone wants to build a sukkah but has only three very long pieces of wood. Rather than build one enormous three-walled sukkah, they decide to make things more cozy by setting up two parallel walls and running the third piece of wood perpendicular to the others at their midpoints, creating two three-walled spaces of half the size. The intent of the builder was just to create one smaller sukkah, but has now created two. According to Ulla, in such a situation, if the s’chach placed over the space intended as the sukkah extends over the other, it creates a second kosher sukkah. 

You might ask: Why did we need this teaching at all? The fact that one sukkah extends from another is irrelevant — all the requirements for being a kosher sukkah are met, so it’s obvious that this second sukkah would be kosher! The Gemara asks this exact question and answers itself (again, I paraphrase):

You might have thought that because the middle sukkah wall was built as a wall for the original sukkah, it can’t be considered a wall for the second sukkah. This teaches us that the initial intention is irrelevant, and that the middle wall qualifies as a third wall for the second sukkah and the second sukkah is kosher.

Can’t the Gemara tell us this much more succinctly? Instead of all the back and forth about the walls, the sunlight and the size, the Gemara could have simply said: “Ulla teaches that in a case where all aspects of the second sukkah are kosher, the initial intention for the original sukkah’s walls is irrelevant, and its walls can be used to create a second kosher sukkah underneath the extended s’chach.”

It’s important to note that this bit of discourse is very late. The editor of the Talmud could have cut to the chase, but instead retains the intellectual methodology of earlier sages, showing us that the form of the argumentation is as much the point as the bottom-line law.

As Menachem Fisch writes in Rational Rabbis: Science and Talmudic Culture, while the Mishnah constitutes a textbook that transmits knowledge of rabbinic law, the Gemara serves as a scientific logbook, which “documents the processes of trial and revision of the knowledge thus received, as part of the debate that will in turn motivate the framing of the textbooks of tomorrow.” In other words, the Talmud is not just the what of a legal text, but also the howIt’s an instructional document that is trying to create rabbinic minds by teaching talmudic thinking. 

Whenever we encounter such moments, it’s worth stopping to ask: What is the form of this passage teaching me about rabbinic methodology? What type of thinking is it asking me to engage in?

Ultimately, this is the goal of Talmud study: Not to know every law, but to learn how to think like the sages.

Read all of Sukkah 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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