Sukkah 4

Science and Health

Today’s daf continues our discussion of sukkahs that are too tall. The rabbis offer a number of ways that someone might try to “shorten” a tall sukkah — raising the floor with dirt, building a platform in the middle of the sukkah — and assess each one for its halakhic permissibility. 

As part of this discussion, the Gemara offers the following scenario:

If a sukkah was more than 20 cubits (30 ft.) high, but the ends of the palm leaves (on the roof) fall within 20 cubits (of the ground): If the shade provided solely by the leaves within 20 cubits of the ground is greater than the sunlight in the sukkah, it is fit. If not, it is unfit.

Can you “shorten” a tall sukkah by letting the leaves that make up its roof dangle? That depends: If the dangling leaves function as the roof, by which we mean producing substantial shade, then the sukkah is fit. If they don’t actually function as a roof, then it is not. 

This scenario leads the Gemara to ask about the inverse scenario as well: The shortest allowable sukkah is 10 handbreadths tall (about a yard). If this sukkah has dangling leaves, do they bring the height down so that the sukkah is not actually tall enough to count as a kosher sukkah at all? Abaye offers one possible answer which follows the logic we saw above:

Abaye said: If the sunlight in the sukkah is greater than the shade, it is fit. 

Once again, if the dangling leaves produce substantial shade themselves, then they function as a roof that is too low to the ground, and the sukkah is unfit. But if they are not really functioning as the roof, then the sukkah is fit.

But then Abaye’s colleague Rava offers a completely different approach to understanding this scenario of a short sukkah with a sagging roof:

Rava said to him: That residence is serucha, and a person does not reside in a residence that is serucha.

The Hebrew word seruchahas a range of meanings: hanging loosely or sagging, but also foul-smelling, rotten, offensive. 

Rava’s response takes this discussion in a completely different direction. If a sukkah is meant to be a home (even if a temporary one!) shouldn’t it be a place someone would actually want to live? Rava seems to think that a person would only live in a home with a roof that doesn’t hang down, a home which isn’t rotting or smelly, a home which is comfortable. Anything else wouldn’t count as a home and so couldn’t be a fit sukkah. 

After Rava’s statement, the Gemara moves on to a new discussion without further comment. Even the standard medieval commentaries, Rashi and Tosafot, don’t feel the need to weigh in on Rava’s claim. 

But it’s worth examining the implications of Rava’s belief that a person does not reside in a residence that is seruchaAfter all, across the globe we sadly have no shortage of people living in housing that is absolutely serucha, no matter which translation of the word we adopt: whether we are talking about cities affected by urban decay, people experiencing homelessness, or people living in diverse regions where housing policies and corruption have led to the construction of structurally unsound housing. 

Rava is simply wrong that people don’t live in housing that is serucha. But perhaps we can read Rava’s statement not as a description of a social reality but as a prescription for the reality we should strive to create. After all, if Rava thinks that even a fragile temporary hut that is designed to expose us to the elements should not be serucha, how much more so should we create structurally sound and dignified housing for the other days of the year?

Read all of Sukkah 4 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 11th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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