Sukkah 7

Permanent impermanence.

sukkah is fundamentally an impermanent structure, meant to stand for only seven days (eight in the Diaspora). But does this mean you can throw together any flimsy structure and call it a sukkah? Or, in order for it to truly function like a “home away from home,” does it have to be built solidly like a permanent structure? 

On today’s daf, Abaye reads through earlier rabbinic statements to glean answers to this question. He compiles a list of eight early rabbinic “heavy hitters” who he claims insist the sukkah must be built like a permanent structure: 

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and Rabbi Yoshiya, and Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Shimon, and Rabban Gamliel, and Beit Shammai, and Rabbi Eliezer, and Aherim (Rabbi Meir) all hold that we require the sukkah to be a permanent residence.

What’s notable here is that Abaye identifies a statement by each of these earlier rabbis which demonstrates their insistence on the sukkah’s permanence, but none of the rabbis quoted actually discuss the question of permanence explicitly. And except for the first quote attributed to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, each statement presents a machloket, a dispute between two rabbis about some feature of the sukkah. So each rabbi that Abaye quotes is presented in the context of another rabbi who disagrees with him!

Let’s look at one example to see how this works. To prove that Rabban Gamaliel believed that a sukkah should be permanent, Abaye quotes the following beraita (early teaching):

As it is taught: One who establishes his sukkah atop a wagon or atop a boat, Rabban Gamliel deems it unfit.

Rabbi Akiva deems it fit.

According to Abaye’s read, Rabban Gamaliel insists that a sukkah has to be stationary — and for Abaye, stationary equals permanent. As noted above, however, Rabban Gamliel never explicitly says the sukkah needs to be permanent, and in this context Rabbi Akiva disagrees with him.

Later on in this tractate, on Sukkah 23a, we’re going to see that the mishnah states that a sukkah can be built on a boat or a wagon, contra Rabban Gamliel. Even more curiously, on that daf, Abaye — who just marshaled all this evidence that lots of distinguished rabbis think a sukkah needs to be built like a permanent structure — seems to agree with the mishnah that a sukkah does not have to be stationary! So what’s going on here in Sukkah 7? If Abaye does not think a sukkah must be built like a permanent structure, why would he be trying to glean evidence that so many major early rabbis thought so?

Abaye is making a classic rabbinic move — trying to fully understand an earlier opinion, even if it’s not his own. We’ve seen rabbis in the Talmud make this move many times.

Abaye is also doing something else — subtly undercutting those earlier opinions by citing them in the context of dispute. Returning to the discussion of a mobile sukkah: By citing the whole beraita, Abaye also names the opinion of Rabbi Akiva that in fact a sukkah can be mobile, built on an ancient wagon or a boat, or maybe even a modern flatbed truck or RV! 

Abaye’s strategy reminds us that it’s important to do our research, to examine other opinions and avoid cherry-picking our favorite sources. After all, this daf demonstrates that reading something in its original context can show us just how contested or complicated an idea is.

And as for how the rabbis decide you actually can build a sukkah on your boat or RV, stay tuned because we’ll get to Sukkah 23 in a few short weeks! 

Read all of Sukkah 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 14th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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