Sukkah 49

When the sukkah is home.

Yesterday, we read about the transition from the seven-day holiday of Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret. As we learned, Shemini Atzeret is a separate holiday and so the various Sukkot rituals, like dwelling in a sukkah, are no longer practiced. 

According to the mishnah on Sukkah 48, one should not dismantle their sukkah on the last day of the holiday, since it’s still Sukkot and eating in a sukkah remains obligatory. But one should begin removing utensils from the sukkah in the afternoon of the last day in anticipation of eating the evening meal in the house. 

The Gemara then asks what should be done if one doesn’t have any place to eat other than the sukkah. Two possibilities are floated. One is to take a small action that would render the sukkah unfit, thereby depriving it of its status as a kosher sukkah. The other is to perform an act in the sukkah that would be prohibited on the holiday. 

Both are great solutions. But there is a bigger problem the Gemara seems to ignore altogether: There are people who have nowhere else to go other than their sukkah! If so, they are living permanently in a structure that is meant to be temporary. Rather than focusing on how to avoid the appearance of extending the holiday, shouldn’t the Gemara instead focus on our obligation to ensure everyone has stable housing?

On today’s daf, we find a statement that I’d like to read as a response:

Rabbi Elazar said: One who performs acts of charity is greater than one who sacrifices all types of offerings, as it is stated: To perform charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than an offering. (Proverbs 21:3)

And Rabbi Elazar said: Acts of kindness, assisting someone in need, are greater than charity, as it is stated: Sow to yourselves according to charity, and reap according to kindness. (Hosea 10:12)

In general, the Talmud spills more ink debating ritual mitzvot, the acts we perform for God, than the mitzvot that govern our obligations to one another. In Hebrew, these two types of mitzvot are known as ben adam la’makon (“between a person and God”) and ben adam l’chaveiro (“between a person and their friend”). One might then conclude that the former is more important than the latter. But as Rabbi Elazar makes clear, it’s quite the opposite.  

While it may take the rabbis many chapters to detail the rules of what makes a lulav kosher, it doesn’t take nearly as long to explain that we have obligations to other people. Rabbi Elazar hits the nail on the head: Performing acts on behalf of others is a primary Jewish value. 

Let this be a wake up call to those who live in communities where there are people living permanently in sukkah-like structures. Helping them find pathways to secure shelter is one way to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. This may in fact be even more important than determining when you are allowed to begin moving your dishes back into the house.

Read all of Sukkah 49 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 25th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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