Sukkot, apparently, is a difficult festival for the bigamous. At least, that is what Rabbi Eliezer thinks. On today’s daf, he receives two questions from the steward of King Agrippas. Here is the second:
And the steward further asked Rabbi Eliezer: For someone like me who has two wives, one in Tiberias and one in Tzippori, and has two sukkahs, one in Tiberias and one in Tzippori, what is the halakhah? Can I depart from one sukkah to another sukkah and exempt myself from the obligation?
Rabbi Eliezer said to him: No, as I say that anyone who departs from one sukkah to another sukkah has negated the mitzvah of the first.
The steward is asking about a particularly intense form of what we today call “sukkah hopping.” One is obliged to live for seven days in a sukkah — normally one’s family structure. But the steward has two families and wants to split his festival between his two sukkahs, and two wives. He will still dwell in a sukkah for seven days, but he will not dwell for seven full days in either one. Rabbi Eliezer reacts harshly: Not only is this itinerary prohibited, but the steward will retroactively lose credit for his first days.
At the turn of the last millennium, Rabbeinu Gershom outlawed polygamy for Jews. But there’s no evidence here that Rabbi Eliezer has a problem with the steward’s plural marriage.
As we discover in the daf’s continuation, Rabbi Eliezer is constitutionally a homebody. He believes that when the Torah commands, “You shall rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14:26) it means something like, “in your household” — that is, stay in one sukkah for the whole holiday. He has other, related opinions: that it is generally forbidden to construct a sukkah during the intermediate days (hol hamoed) of Sukkot and that the lazy are praiseworthy because they remain at home during a festival.
Speaking narrowly, I feel a sense of relief that Rabbi Eliezer’s positions did not become religiously normative. I do not have two spouses, but nor do I always have a singular, stable sukkah in which to hunker down: I have often needed to craft a makeshift sukkah mid-holiday (even using car doors for walls) or crash at friends’ sukkahs. The royal steward’s unusual lifestyle captures something of a modern life, lived in transit and uncertainty, and surely that’s part of what this holiday — designed to evoke the Israelites’ temporary dwellings in the wilderness — is about.
Perhaps Rabbi Eliezer’s position is better motivated if we contemplate the steward’s wives. The steward casually assumes, after all, that they will remain anchored to their homes even as he frolics back and forth through the Galilee. You imagine he would be upset to return from Tzippori only to discover that his wife in Tiberias had skipped town. As fun as sukkah hopping is, it does depend parasitically on people, usually women, doing domestic labor and, well, staying in their places. In that sense, as unyielding as Rabbi Eliezer seems, I like to think he is usefully pushing the steward to live, at least for a week, the way one of his wives does — and perhaps to reckon with who exactly makes his peripatetic lifestyle possible.
Read all of Sukkah 27 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 3rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.