Sukkah 28

A sukkah of her own.

Today’s daf explores the question of women’s requirement to sit in a sukkah. While this sugya (discussion) could easily be dismissed as outdated and archaic when viewed through a modern feminist lens, a deeper reading of the text suggests the rabbis themselves grappled with competing values when deciding whether or not to exempt women from the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. 

The mishnah states:

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah. A minor who does not need his mother any longer is obligated in the mitzvah.

There was an incident where the daughter-in-law of Shammai the Elder gave birth just before Sukkot, and Shammai removed the plaster (from the roof, exposing the beams) and placed s’chach (sukkah roofing) over the bed for the newborn minor.

The mishnah groups women alongside slaves and young minors who are exempt from sitting in the sukkah. Shammai goes to extreme measures — removing the plaster of the roof and turning the house itself into a sukkah — to ensure that his newborn grandson “sits” in the sukkah. It does not seem to occur to him that his daughter-in-law might want to sit in the sukkah too.

But though Shammai the Elder did not appear to give the matter much thought, the talmudic discussion on this mishnah reveals that later rabbis struggled with the notion of women’s exemption from sukkah. The mitzvah to sit in a sukkah commemorates the miracle of God’s safeguarding the children of Israel as they wandered in the desert (Leviticus 23:42-43). Women, of course, were among those protected in the desert — so shouldn’t they partake in this mitzvah? (This is pointed out by the talmudic commentary Tosafot.) After all, women are obligated in other holiday-related mitzvot because of the talmudic principle “they too were part of the miracle (see Megillah 4a and Pesachim 108b for example). 

Although today’s page doesn’t explicitly employ this argument, it does includes a number of linguistic arguments for including women:

(1) The verse (Levitiucus 23:42) says that an “ezrach” (homeborn citizen) is required to dwell in a sukkah, and this same word is used to derive women’s obligation in “inui” (suffering) on Yom Kippur. 

(2) One might have assumed that the Torah’s word to “dwell” in the sukkah implies that just as a man and woman dwell together at home, they would dwell together in a sukkah, hence a woman would be required to sit in a sukkah as well. 

(3) The Torah uses the word “the fifteenth” in describing both the obligation to eat matzah and sit in a sukkah, therefore one might assume that just as women are obligated in the former, they should be in the latter.

Ultimately the Talmud concludes that because there is no logical or midrashic reason women are exempt, and the rabbis themselves generate plenty of arguments they should be obligated, the exemption must therefore be based on the legal fallback principle of “the law transmitted to Moses from Sinai” — perhaps to release them from a requirement they were not always free to fulfill properly. However, the Talmud’s back and forth reflects voices which would in theory support women’s desire to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, leaving open the door of the sukkah for empowered women in the future. 

Read all of Sukkah 28 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 4th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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