Sukkah 29

Science and Health

The mishnah that kicks off today’s conversation contains a helpful concession to the human need for creature comfort:

All seven days of Sukkot, a person renders his sukkah his permanent residence and his house his temporary residence. If rain fell, at what point is he permitted to vacate the sukkah? When the congealed dish will spoil.

There is an ongoing debate in later commentaries about just how spoiled a dish must be before one is allowed to relocate the meal indoors. But regardless, the point is that one need not continue to live in a sukkah if the weather is spoiling one’s meal.

This seems like an open and shut matter: The obligation to sit in a sukkah does not extend to requiring us to suffer unduly from the elements. So I find it surprising that at this point the mishnah makes an unusual move — it further illustrates the ruling with a parable.

To what is this matter comparable? To a servant who comes to pour wine for his master, and he (presumably the master, as the Gemara will later affirm) pours a jug of water in his face.

According to this parable, Israel is God’s servant, sitting in the sukkah in fulfillment of one of many divine commandments. But God occasionally tires of the attention and sends a volley of rain — like the proverbial glass of water thrown in someone’s face — to rudely chase them away.

The Gemara responds to this parable with a volley of its own, a barrage of teachings that address the troubling idea that God unleashes weather to repel loyal subjects. The first is a parable much like the one the one found in the mishnah.

The sages taught: When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world. To what is this matter compared? To a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern before them (to light the room). He became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.

Like the parable about the rain on Sukkot, this one about solar eclipses suggests that God uses weather and other astronomical phenomena to punish people — but this time it’s not directed at Israel, but the whole world. At least we now know that Israel isn’t the only people who tire the deity’s patience. Like the parable found in our mishnah, this one in the Gemara gives no indication that the people have done anything to deserve rejection.

But the Gemara swiftly tackles this problem as well. In the next few teachings, it is suggested that eclipses are not simply random punishments, they are sober warnings of impending disaster: a black eclipse for hunger, a red eclipse for war; a solar eclipse is a sign for other nations, a lunar eclipse a sign for Israel (who use a lunar calendar); a morning eclipse warns of a far-off calamity, an evening eclipse of one that is imminent.

Still, these signs of impending doom feel unprovoked. There remains the problem of why people should suffer this way. The sugya (discussion) ends by addressing that problem. God does not bring about war or famine for no reason, but because of human wrong-doing: a sundry list of human crimes that includes everything from chopping down fruit trees to neglecting a woman who cries out that she is being raped. This conclusion solves the original theological problem of a deity who spontaneously spurns a devoted people, but it introduces a new and indeed thornier dilemma: Do divine punishments match human crimes?

Alas, that problem — given particularly eloquent expression in the biblical Book of Job — is left aside as we hurtle on to the next chapter of the tractate, in which we contemplate whether a stolen lulav, or one taken from a tree used in idolatry, is kosher. More on that tomorrow!

Read all of Sukkah 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 5th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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