Sukkah 22

Science and Health

Once in a while, we come across an unfamiliar word in the Talmud that makes us sit back and think: “Ooh, I wonder what that means!” 

That happens in a mishnah on today’s daf:

A sukkah that is meduvlelet and whose shade exceeds its sunlight is fit. 

So what does meduvelet mean exactly? The Gemara attempts to figure that out:

What is the meaning of meduvlelet?

Rav said: It means an impoverished sukkah, (i.e., a sukkah whose roofing is sparse, although at no point in the roofing is there a gap of three handbreadths).

Shmuel said: It means that the roofing is aligned with one reed ascending and one reed descending. (There are two layers of roofing, with each reed on the upper layer situated directly above the space between each reed on the lower level.)

From this passage, we see that there are two possible definitions of meduvlelet. The first, embraced by Rav, is having sparse roofing; the second, which Shmuel puts out there, is having double-layered roofing. The former might not be legitimate because it doesn’t provide the required amount of shade, while the latter might violate restrictions on doubling roofing, as explained further down on the page.

Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, an 11th-century North African rabbi known as the Rif, explains that the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel centers on the etymology of meduvlelet. Rav links the word to meduldelet, which means lumpy or miserable looking. Shmuel traces its origins to the word mevulbelet, which means disarranged. 

But Rav and Shmuel don’t limit their differences to the definition of meduvlelet. They also disagree on how many laws can be derived from this single mishnaic statement:

Rav taught the first clause in the mishnah as one halakhah, and Shmuel taught that clause as two halakhot. Rav taught one halakhah: The halakhah of a sukkah meduvlelet. And what is a sukkah meduvlelet? It is a sparse sukkah. Nevertheless, as long as the shade exceeds the sunlight the sukkah is fit. And Shmuel taught two halakhot. What is a sukkah meduvlelet? It is a disordered sukkah. And he teaches two halakhot: A disordered sukkah is fit, and one whose shade exceeds its sunlight is fit.

To paraphrase, Rav teaches that a sukkah may have lackluster roofing, but as long as the sukkah meets the shade-sun requirements, it’s OK to use. Meanwhile, Shmuel says that a sukkah with weird layered roofing is OK. And by the way, so is any sukkah that meets the shade-sun requirements.

Shmuel’s analysis here seems a bit unexpected. After all, we’ve had plenty of opportunities over the preceding pages to come to terms with his second point about the requirements of sun and shade. But instead of explicitly resolving this debate, the Gemara turns to a deeper examination of what kind of unusual roofing is permitted.

Regardless of how we define meduvlelet, the rabbis agree about one thing: A sukkah whose shade exceeds its sunlight is fit for use. Indeed, the laser-like focus on this principle elevates it here, as on the preceding pages, as paramount in determining the status of a sukkah.

Read all of Sukkah 22 on Sefaria.

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

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