Sukkah 16

Science and Health

Those of us who are into interior design hang all sorts of things in our living spaces to personalize them. We hang pictures on our walls. We hang curtains in our windows. We hang plants in our windows and on our patios. Today’s daf asks about hanging something else — the wall itself!

Most of our homes have walls that stretch from floor to ceiling (or in the case of a sukkah, from ground to s’chach). But what if that isn’t what your wall looks like? What if it’s a partition hanging off the roof that doesn’t stretch all the way to the ground? Or a partial wall (like a pony wall) that rises up from the ground but doesn’t meet the ceiling?

One who lowers the walls of the sukkah from up downward (i.e. has hanging walls), if the lower edge of the wall is three handbreadths above the ground, the sukkah is unfit. From down upward, if the wall is ten handbreadths high, the sukkah is fit. 

According to the first opinion in today’s mishnah, to be a true wall, a wall must hang all the way down until it is less than three handbreadths (about nine inches) above the ground. Anything that leaves more space at the bottom is not a true wall. And a wall that rises up from the floor doesn’t have to reach all the way to the ceiling of the sukkah — as long as it is ten handbreadths high, it is considered acceptable. 

In true mishnaic form, the mishnah then offers a second opinion:

Rabbi Yosei says: Just as a wall built from down upward must be ten handbreadths, so too, in a case where one lowers the wall from up downward, it must be ten handbreadths.

When Rabbi Yosei’s opinion is juxtaposed with the first opinion of the mishnah, it seems that he is being read as saying that what matters is the height of the wall, not how far it is from either the roof or the ground.

The Gemara then tries to figure out which halakhic principle is at the root of this mishnaic dispute. The rabbis look to our old friend Eruvin (you may have joined us to learn this tractate nearly a year ago!) and a parallel debate about whether a hanging wall can permit one to carry within it on Shabbat. But ultimately, they decide that this parallel is not actually relevant to Rabbi Yosei’s opinion. 

So what’s going on? What are the first anonymous opinion of the mishnah and Rabbi Yosei really disagreeing about? At this point in our journey through Tractate Sukkah, we have learned multiple times that a sukkah is meant to be somewhat porous. The dispute in this mishnah raises the question: porous to who?

Let’s think about this practically: If the walls of a sukkah are high off the ground, then all kinds of creatures can just walk right in: dogs, cats, raccoons and — for those living in more rural settings — chickens, goats, and maybe even cows!  If the walls of a sukkah are rooted in the ground but don’t reach the s’chach, then along with cool breeze, birds and bugs can get in. According to the first opinion in the mishnah, in order for a sukkah wall to function as a true wall, it must exclude creatures that walk on the ground. Rabbi Yosei, on the other hand, seems to think that a wall is defined by a strict measurement — ten handbreadths, regardless of how it functions to make a space exclusive to the natural world. 

While later halakhic deciders like Maimonides side with the first opinion, this dispute points to one of my favorite things about the rabbis — their boundless curiosity and eagerness to question everything around them. I mean, what even is a wall? How should it function? And what kinds of ritual implications (for sukkah, for carrying on Shabbat) do those answers have?

Read all of Sukkah 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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