The last time we looked in on Rav Nahman (Sukkah 10) he was hosting colleagues in a sukkah that, according to their view, was not a legal sukkah. On today’s daf, we find him in another awkward situation:
There was a certain old woman who came before Rav Nahman. She said to him: The exilarch and all the sages in his house have been sitting in a stolen sukkah. She screamed, but Rav Nahman paid no attention to her.
The woman, upset because the exilarch’s sukkah was constructed using wood that has been stolen from her, brings her grievance to Rav Nahman because, as you may remember, he is in charge of the exilarch’s estate. Her claim that the rabbis are sitting in a stolen sukkah might be an exaggeration to get their attention. Or, maybe she agrees with those who say that the use of stolen materials invalidates a sukkah and is eager to see that halakhah enforced.
Whether she’s a victim of theft or a tattletale, Rav Nahman chooses to ignore her. The woman pleads her case demanding that she deserves to be heard like any member of the Jewish community. In response, Rav Nahman turns to his colleagues:
This woman is a screamer, and she has rights only to the monetary value of the wood. However, the sukkah itself was already acquired by the exilarch.
Rav Nahman’s response acknowledges that the woman’s claim is true — the exilarch’s sukkah was built from wood that had been stolen from her. While Rav Nahman believes that the woman is entitled to compensation equal to the value of the wood that was stolen from her, he also holds that the use of stolen materials does not invalidate the sukkah.
Rav Nahman’s legal opinions are not surprising as they are in line with statements quoted earlier in his name. In fact, the reason the Gemara brings up this anecdote in the first place is to demonstrate that Rav Nahman believes exactly this:
If one stole wood and roofed a sukkah with it, everyone agrees that the original owner of the wood has rights only to the monetary value of the wood.
If you’re wondering how it is possible that ill-gotten materials can be used to fulfill a religious obligation, well, as the rabbis see it, robbers actually take possession of items that they steal, and rather than having to return what they stole, they owe their victims monetary compensation for the value of the items. So if stolen goods are later used to build a sukkah, the prohibition against using a stolen sukkah does not apply. It’s subtle, but to the rabbis significant.
Alright, so Rav Nahman knows the law and is correct in letting his colleagues know that they have filled the mitzvah of sukkah in the particular sukkah in which they are sitting even though some of its materials were acquired by theft. His legal reasoning is sharp and in agreement with rabbinic precedent.
But this still doesn’t sit right. After all, just yesterday we were talking about how a stolen lulav is invalid — full stop. And there we read a marvelous parable in which God decries theft, even for the sake of the service of heaven. Even if a stolen sukkah is valid, from where I sit, none of this justifies his poor treatment of the elderly woman who has just been robbed. Though he agrees that she has been wronged, Rav Nahman does so in a way that demeans and diminishes her — refusing to engage her directly and deriding her in the third person as a screamer.
While Rav Nahman’s mastery of the details of the mitzvah of sukkah are on display, so too is his blindness to Leviticus 19:32: “Rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” That’s strike two Rav Nachman. For your sake, I hope the next time you’re featured in an anecdote, your behavior is a bit more redeeming.
Read all of Sukkah 31 on Sefaria.