Sukkah 15

Science and Health

Building a sukkah from scratch is a great deal of work. What if you could use something you already have — like your house? It turns out that although the sukkah must be a temporary structure, and it must be intentionally prepared in the days leading up to the holiday, you can use your house as part of that structure. In one model, you can lean your sukkah against your house so that one wall of your home serves as a wall of your sukkah. But perhaps more surprisingly, the rabbis today envision a scenario in which you use all four walls of your house as the walls of your sukkah. 

How is this even possible? Although the sukkah is meant to be impermanent, the Gemara seemingly has no problem with the idea that you would essentially convert your home into a sukkah. The real challenge here is not the walls but the roof. After all, the sukkah roof — that spread of loose, unthatched plant materials (s’chach) that allow us to look through and see the stars — is the essence of the sukkah.

It is clear from the Gemara that the rabbis imagine most home roofs to be made of wooden slats covered with plaster.  To make this roof kosher as a sukkah roof, one would need to start by removing the plaster. (In fact, according to the Gemara, sometimes a roof may be intentionally unfinished in such a way as to enable an easy conversion into a kosher sukkah.)

So once you remove the plaster, how do you turn your home with a roof of slats into a sukkah? Depends who you ask! The mishnah says that according to Beit Shammai all you need is to move each board or slat, and this shows you are acting with intention to make a structure for the festival; then finish your sukkah by removing a few slats and replacing them with some suitable s’chachBeit Hillel, who is more lenient, says all you have to do is remove alternate slats. Rabbi Meir, even more lenient, says you only need to remove one slat. 

It is logical to wonder about the nature of this plaster that is removed for the festival and then, presumably, reapplied afterward. The word for plaster in Hebrew is ma’azivah. Our earliest reference is in the Book of Nehemia where the word is used to describe the reinforcements or strengthening of the city of Jerusalem and its walls (Nehemiah 3:8).  In Bava Metzia 117a there’s a fascinating case in which two people live on separate floors of a structure. If the plaster of the upper floor cracks so that when the resident of the upper floor washed it with water, it leaked, and the water ran down and damaged the lower floor, who was responsible for the repairs?Naturally, the rabbis disagree. But from this, we learn that ma’azivah was a material used for both floors and ceilings — so it must have been pretty strong.

But what exactly was it? Sometimes ma’azivah is called gravel and sometimes cement. The Jerusalem Talmud says there is a difference between thick ma’azivah and thin ma’azivah but we do not know what the difference was and which would have been for the roofing and which for the floor. A few centuries after the Talmud was closed, Rabbi Hai Gaon (939-1038), who lived in Pumbedita in Iraq, said that ma’azivah was purely decorative and not functional. Another opinion, quoted by Marcus Jastrow in a modern dictionary of ancient Aramaic, has it that ma’azivahcomes from the Aramaic for goat’s hair, ma’aziyah, which was often used to strengthen the mixture of earthen ingredients that went into making the plaster. But who knows for certain? Whatever it was, if you wanted to turn your home into a sukkah, you had to remove it from the roof.

Read all of Sukkah 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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