Sukkah 5

Science and Health

Today’s daf is the main piece of a beautiful and intricate discussion about why the minimum height for a sukkah, as we learned yesterday, is 10 tefahim, or handbreadths. The discussion consists of three main sections in which this height is compared first to the Ark of the Covenant, then to a whole variety of Temple vessels and also faces (more on that below!), and finally to the cherubim that sat atop the Ark. These comparisons don’t simply serve to confirm the minimal dimensions of the sukkah — they are a window to its profound spiritual significance.

Let’s start at the very bottom of yesterday’s daf. The Gemara asks how we know that the minimum height of a sukkah is ten handbreadths, and this is the first response offered:

The Ark was nine handbreadths high and the Ark cover was one handbreadth thick for a total height of ten handbreadths. And it is written: I will meet with you there and I will speak with you from above the Ark cover. (Exodus 25:22)

The derivation that the Ark itself was nine cubits high is not difficult — the Torah gives its exact dimension as 1.5 cubits (Exodus 25:10) which, since there are six handbreadths to a cubit, translates to nine handbreadths. Notice, though, the verse from Exodus that the rabbis quote: I (God) will meet with you there. God came down from heaven to the top of the Ark — a mere ten handbreadths from the ground. Therefore, we must build our sukkah ten handbreadths high so that we can meet God. We can imagine that as we sit in our sukkah, the Divine Presence floats just above the s’chach (the branches that comprise the roof). It’s a remarkable image.

The Gemara continues on the top of today’s daf:

Rabbi Yosei says: The Divine Presence never actually descended below, and Moses and Elijah never actually ascended to heaven on high, as it is stated: The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, and the earth He gave to the children of man. (Psalms 115:16)

In Rabbi Yosei’s view, the sukkah brings us up to a meeting point with God, but no further. We are within the sukkah, God is just above it. God remains in God’s space and humans remain in human space — God’s Presence is always just out of reach. Even Moses and Elijah, who represent the pinnacle of revelation and relationship between God and humans — even they, according to the Talmud, cannot cross the threshold into God’s realm.

As we continue down the page, the rabbis next compare the sukkah to a wide variety of things: the frontlet of the high priest, golden crowns ornamenting various Temple vessels, as well as to animal and human faces and even God’s “face.” These comparisons draw God a little bit closer. In particular, the comparison to faces (animal, human and divine) represent a move from earthly to heavenly elements of a relationship, positioning humans somewhere in between.

But the final and most striking comparison is between the sukkah and the cherubim who sat atop the Ark with their wings outstretched toward one another. It was well understood that this was precisely where God’s Presence came to dwell in the Holy of Holies. By comparing the sukkah to the cherubim themselves, the rabbis conjure the image of God dwelling not above the sukkah (as we saw earlier) but precisely in it — with us.

We see, then, a deceptively simple and technical discussion about the minimal height of the sukkah gives way to a theologically radical idea: God’s Presence is welcomed into the sukkah itself, allowing us to elevate ourselves at the same time that God comes down to meet us where we are. A relationship that may seem only transcendental has the potential to be immanent.

If you joined us for Tractate Yoma, you saw there that the rabbis seemed convinced that God’s presence was truly awesome and dangerous. Only one human being (the high priest) entered God’s presence one time per year (on Yom Kippur) and it was an occasion that took enormous preparation and involved great danger. But here, we have a completely different idea. Every sukkah becomes like a Temple and every person like a priest and we all have the opportunity to encounter God’s Presence.

Read all of Sukkah 5 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 12th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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