Sukkah 53

One skull floating in the water.

On Sukkah 5, we explored the radical rabbinic idea that the sukkah is a meeting place between people and God, an opportunity for us to elevate ourselves and for God to come down and meet us where we are. On today’s daf, we see another exploration of the personal relationship with God on Sukkot, but in a different and more public context: simchat beit hashoeva, the extravagant celebrations in the Temple at the end of Sukkot, accompanying the ritual of drawing water.

Regarding those celebrations, Hillel gives one of his pithy proverbs: 

When Hillel the Elder was rejoicing at the celebration of the place of drawing water he said this: If I am here, everyone is here; and if I am not here, who is here?

What on earth does this mean? Rashi and Tosafot, early medieval commentators on the Talmud, disagree about who is speaking. Is it Hillel? Or is it God? 

According to Rashi, it is God who says “If I am here, everyone is here…” — meaning, if people show up and take God seriously, if people are not sinning and do what God requires of them, then God will be present. If we continue in the Gemara, we see that Hillel makes a second statement, apparently also in God’s voice, that echoes this sentiment: 

He would say this: To the place that I love, there my feet take me. If you come to my house, I will come to your house; if you do not come to my house, I will not come to your house, as it says: In every place that I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you. (Exodus 20:20)

Rashi’s interpretation focuses on the element of sin and repentance: Sin causes God to retreat, making a relationship impossible. Not sinning, or repenting for one’s sins, allows God to come close and form a relationship.

Tosafot, on the other hand, understand Hillel’s first statement as being spoken not by God, but by Hillel himself. “If I am here everyone is here” — he is essentially saying that if we are present, if we praise God in a serious way, we can establish a strong relationship with God.

Whichever interpretation you accept, it is clear that Hillel emphasizes that though simchat beit hashoeva, the water drawing ceremony, may have elements of levity, it is in at least one essential respect quite serious: it strengthens and maintains Israel’s relationship to the Divine. 

There is one final statement of Hillel found in our daf that drives this idea home. It too is cryptic:

Additionally, he saw one skull floating in the water and he said to it: Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and those that drowned you will be drowned. 

This third and final statement is perhaps a warning about a world without relationships — a dystopian vision of a world without proper praise of God and respect for God’s creations. Without relationships, and specifically a relationship to God, we are like drowned people — no air in our lungs, no life at all.

But what exactly is the nature of our mysterious relationship with God? According to Rashi’s reading of Hillel, our relationship with God is mostly in God’s hands, as it were. Our correct behavior inspires God’s closeness and affection. In contrast, Tosafot’s interpretation bases our relationship with God less on obedience and more on praise, suggesting more of a reciprocal relationship. In this view, the praise must originate spontaneously with us — not as a response to God’s demands, but as an organic gesture, a natural response to how we encounter God’s presence in the world.

Read all of Sukkah 53 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 29th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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