Sukkah 23

Science and Health

I love today’s page because it reads a bit like something dreamed up by Dr. Seuss: 

Can you build your sukkah on a boat?

Can you build it on a goat? 

On a cart or in a tree? 

Sukkot is so much fun you see!

OK, the goat one is not on today’s page — but the rabbis do consider placing a sukkah on a camel or an elephant. I just needed something to rhyme with boat. Otherwise, these are all real considerations on today’s daf. And no, green eggs and ham are still not kosher.

There are a few halakhic issues at play. First, there’s the question of whether the sukkah’s placement would make entering it on the festival forbidden. One is not supposed to board a ship, climb a tree or clamber onto an animal’s back on a festival day, but the rabbis determine you can do these things on Sukkot in order to enter a sukkah. At least, some of them do:

It is taught: One who establishes his sukkah at the top of the ship, Rabban Gamliel deems it unfit and Rabbi Akiva deems it fit.

While Rabbi Akiva permits the sukkah on the ship, Rabban Gamliel says it is not allowable. As we have seen before (most famously in Berakhot 27), Rabban Gamliel does not always take it well when his colleagues disagree with his rulings. Watch what happens next:

There was an incident involving Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva, who were coming on a ship. Rabbi Akiva arose and established a sukkah at the top of the ship. The next day, the wind blew and uprooted it. Rabban Gamliel said to him: Akiva, where is your sukkah?

Rabban Gamliel was from a lettered, wealthy and well-connected family. Rabbi Akiva was poor and uneducated as a child. So although we think of them as two of the great Tannaim (early rabbis) — and ultimately Rabbi Akiva as perhaps the greatest rabbi of them all — they might not have thought of themselves as equals. It’s quite likely Gamliel felt himself to be superior. So when Akiva builds a sukkah on the ship, contra Gamliel’s ruling, and then sees it blown over by the strong winds that are common on water, this makes Gamliel’s comment sound more than a little sneering: Akiva, where is your sukkah? (Note that he doesn’t use Akiva’s title, as the rabbis often do when they address one another in the Talmud.)

Equally interesting is where the Talmud goes next. The Gemara continues with Abaye’s comment on this story, which he interprets not, as I just did, as an interpersonal conflict, but as a halakhic disagreement. And not as the original halakhic disagreement about whether one can build a sukkah on a ship, either. Instead, Abaye says that the two are really talking about how strong your sukkah needs to be. If the wind can blow it over, is it still kosher? Abaye says that all parties agree that a sukkah that can be blown over by the kinds of winds that usually sweep across land is not kosher. A sukkah needs to be able withstand typical weather conditions. (Which means, I now come to realize, I’ve built one or two non-kosher sukkahs in my day!) But the winds that typically blow over the surface of a body of water are stronger. Where these two disagree, says Abaye, is if the sukkah is strong enough to withstand land-speed winds, but not water-speed winds. In that case, Rabbi Akiva thinks the sukkah is kosher, but Rabban Gamliel does not.

I find myself wondering if Abaye is trying to salvage this unpleasant story, or just using it as an occasion to more deeply explore the halakhot of sukkah building. We’ll probably never know, because the Gemara immediately turns to more pressing concerns, not the least of which is: If you use an elephant as one of the walls of your sukkah and then it kneels down, or runs away or dies, is your sukkah still kosher? 

Read all of Sukkah 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 30th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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