Sukkah 20

Science and Health

Today’s daf begins a new chapter of our tractate and a new series of questions about how to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah, and it starts with the following mishnah:

One who sleeps below the bed in a sukkah has not fulfilled their obligation to sleep in the sukkah.

The Talmud never tells us why someone might want to sleep under their bed in a sukkah. But it does explain why it could be a halakhic problem. On a technical level, the bed might constitute a tent within the sukkah, which would be considered a barrier between the person and the sukkah itself. And on a more intuitive level, if the goal of dwelling in a sukkah is to temporarily make your residence in a building that is somewhat open to the elements, then maybe having a bed as an extra layer of protection is kind of cheating.

Is it, though? The rabbis then debate whether this action is really so problematic.

Rabbi Yehuda says: We used to have a custom to sleep under the bed, which we did in front of the elders, and they never said anything to us.

Rabbi Shimon says: There was an incident regarding Tavi, the slave of Rabban Gamaliel, who was sleeping under the bed. Rabban Gamaliel said to the elders: Have you seen Tavi, my slave, who is a student of the sages and knows that slaves are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah? That’s why he is sleeping under the bed!

Both Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon bring proof from anecdotes. First Rabbi Yehuda notes that he has a memory of sleeping under the bed in the sukkah when pre-rabbinic legal authorities were there and did not disapprove, which suggests that this practice is actually legally fine. Taking the other side of the argument, Rabbi Shimon tells the story of Rabban Gamaliel, who makes a light-hearted — if also somewhat troubling — comment about his slave, Tavi. Rabban Gamaliel claims that Tavi sleeps under the bed precisely because this action doesn’t count as sleeping in the sukkah. Tavi apparently is so knowledgeable about rabbinic law that he knows, first of all, that he is personally exempt from the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah, and secondly, that someone sleeping under a bed has not fulfilled their obligation.

How should we understand this story about Tavi? On one hand, there’s something very unsettling about it. The anecdote seems to be premised on the highly problematic idea that it’s surprising or funny that a human being with a lower social status should also be smart and knowledgeable. Even though Rabban Gamaliel is technically complimenting Tavi here, it is a rather backhanded compliment, along the lines of “You’re so smart for a …”

On the other hand, this anecdote can also be read as subtly undermining some seemingly stable categories. Tavi’s actions poke a bit of a hole in the supposedly clear difference between who is obligated in mitzvot and who is not: Despite being technically exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah, Tavi apparently makes a point to sleep there anyway, and does so in a manner that only debatably does not count.

And the role of the anecdote itself in the mishnah is likewise destabilizing: Whereas Rabbi Yehuda tries to bolster his point by using the precedent of his own behavior and that of established legal authorities, Rabbi Shimon’s anecdote relies on the precedent of a non-rabbinic figure whose opinions are not usually considered. Just as the sukkah upends our usual understanding of a home, so too the story of Tavi can encourage us to think in new ways about categories we normally take for granted.

Read all of Sukkah 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 27th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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