House of Shekhina and Apocalyptic Shelter

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


Each of our holidays is enhanced by a rich variety of symbols and images which embody the mitzvot of that particular day. Generally, these images evolve from historical antecedents. For example, we eat matza on Pesach night to recall that we were evicted from Egypt without ample time to properly bake our bread. In this respect, eating matza eternalizes the original haste of that fateful night and reproduces that experience for future generations. Similarly, the blast of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana resurrects for us the epic saga of the akeida. Upon first glance, sitting in a sukka turns upon a historical element as well - "You shall dwell in a sukka for seven days... because I sheltered you in huts upon your departure from Egypt." Though this historical element is the dominant Biblical image, Chazal conferred several different features upon the sukka, slants which, evidently, are unrelated to the historical moment. Without question, these additional dimensions greatly influence our own experience of the mitzva itself.




The first aspect of sukka which Chazal develop is the kedusha (sanctity) which attaches to it. From the juxtaposition of the words 'chag' and 'Hashem' to the mitzva of sukka in the verse, "Chag ha-sukkot shivat yamim la-Hashem" ("The festival of Sukkot should be seven days to God"), the gemara infers that a state of kedusha pervades the frame of the sukka, in a manner similar to the kedusha which reposes within a korban (the word 'chag' indicates a chagiga sacrifice). Not only did they discern this kedusha as an abstraction, but Chazal actually attached binding halakhic import to this condition: all peripheral use of the sekhakh is prohibited (issur hana'a), just as personal utility from a korban is banned.


In fact, according to one position the parallel between sukka and korban extends much further. According to Beit Shammai (Sukka 9a), just as a korban must be specifically designated and conferred with kedusha, similarly a sukka must be built or denominated specifically for Sukkot. For example, a simple hut, built to shield field-workers from the sun, cannot be used on Sukkot. Evidently, not only does a sukka contain kedusha tantamount to a korban, but as a korban, this kedusha must be actively charged through human intervention. In this respect, sukka is analogous to many other halakhic articles of kedusha such as tefillin, Sefer Torah and mezuza, each of which must be actively installed with kedusha. Just as these articles depend upon the direct infusion of kedusha through a human action (through the process of ibbud and ketiva lishmah - processing the parchment and composing the texts with proper intent), sukka as well, according to Beit Shammai, requires this inauguration.


In truth, even Beit Hillel, who do not require active investment of kedusha in a sukka, nonetheless concur that this kedusha exists. Even they accept the comparison to korban chagiga and the resultant prohibition. They merely deny the need to actively initiate this state of kedusha; instead, this condition commences automatically without being actualized. According to Beit Hillel, not only does a sukka possess kedusha, but this situation materializes automatically. The source of this kedusha is literally "min ha-shamayim" (from Heaven), as the syntax of Chazal's statement suggests - "Chal shem Shamayim al ha-sukka" (The name of Heaven is conferred upon the sukka).


This inherent kedusha within a sukka presumably stems from the nature of the original historical sukkot which sheltered the Jewish nation through the desert. Chazal already noted the supernatural texture of these sukkot. Rabbi Eliezer claimed that they were composed of "ananei ha-Kavod," Heavenly clouds (Sukka 11b). He does not insist that they were infused with genuine halakhic kedusha - only that they were fashioned from celestial clouds. In addition, Rabbi Eliezer does not offer the same claim regarding our very own sukkat mitzva. Quite the contrary, he highlights the miraculous and singular nature of those historical sukkot which housed the Jewish people as they roamed through the desert. Such miraculous claims surely do not apply to our own sukkot. However, insofar as our own sukkot reproduce that historical experience, at the very least, they symbolize the enclosure of a human being within a heavenly or supernatural structure.


A second gemara further underscores the image of a sukka as a holy edifice. The gemara (43b) effects a comparison between the sukka and the mishkan (Tabernacle):


It says with regard to sukka "teshvu" (they should sit). An identical verb "teshvu" is employed regarding the seven-day vigil kept in the mishkan to mark its inauguration. Just as the inaugural vigil included nighttime residence, so too one should fulfill the mitzva of sukka at night.


With this analogy, the gemara recognizes the residence of the kohanim within the mishkan as the model for our own residence within the sukka. To be sure, this comparison is constructed to elucidate a halakha which apparently is unrelated to the sukka's identification as a pseudo-mishkan; sitting in the sukka at night is not a halakha which emanates from its identity as a mishkan. The very comparison, however, confirms the aforementioned principle that sukka is infused with actual kedusha based upon the model of mishkan and korbanot.


An additional parallel is struck by the gemara (11b-12a) in an attempt to determine whether a sukka may be manufactured with materials which can become tamei (halakhically impure). Rabbi Yochanan, utilizing the previously-mentioned comparison between sukka and the korban chagiga, states that "Just as the latter is incapable of becoming tamei (because it is living), similarly the sukka must not be capable of becoming tamei." This parallel, as well, recognizes the innate similarities between sukka and korban chagiga, based upon sukka's status as an item which is suffused with kedusha.


One final comparison is employed to determine the requisite height of a sukka. The gemara (5a) concludes, "How do we know that a sukka must be at least ten tefachim high? Its height is equivalent to the aron ha-kodesh (holy ark) which was nine tefachim layered beneath the kaporet (the gold plate which covered it), which itself was an additional tefach." Of course, this gemara does not present a direct comparison to the entire mikdash (Temple), but rather a localized parallel to one of its kelim (instruments) - indeed, its primary keli. What the gemara does assume, however, is that the sekhakh may be likened to, and measured by one of the roofs of the mikdash - the roof under which the Shekhina (Divine Presence) coursed. Apparently, Chazal viewed this association quite seriously and applied it within the halakhic arena as well. Halakhot such as the prohibition of deriving mundane benefit, and the parameters governing the sukka's construction can all be drawn from this association.




This model of sukka - introduced by the gemara - is further amplified in the midrash. Chazal continually depict the sukka - both as an abstract concept and as our actual sukka of yom tov - as a site for the revelation of Shekhina. Although the midrash does not actually compare sukka to the mikdash, it does portray it as a location designated to house the Shekhina.


For example, the midrash records (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 2:1 s.v. Semolo):


"His left hand is under my head" - this refers to the sukka; "and His right hand embraces me" - this refers to the Shekhina in future eras, as it is written, "The sun will no longer illuminate the day and the moon will no longer brighten the night" (Yeshayahu 60:19).


That the midrash reads the phrase "under my head" as a reference to a mitzva is not particularly striking. In fact, in that vsection, several mitzvot with this experience: tzizit, keri'at shema, and mezuza. The midrash does, however, establish a stylistic parallel between two centers of Shekhina - the sukka and the intense concentration of Swhich will characterize the Messianic era. It is somewhat difficult to determine how much of a parity actually exists between these two presence's. In fact, the midrash does hint at a slight disparity. Residing in the sukka is depicted as being buoyed by God's hand, while the Messianic experience of Shekhina is portrayed as a more intimate embrace of the Shekhina. What does emerge, however, is some degree of symmetry, adumbrating the concept of a sukka as a site of Shekhina.


Another striking midrash elaborates upon the verse (Bereishit 22:14), "And Avraham named the location 'Hashem Yir'eh,' whence the current saying, 'On the mountain, God will be seen.'" The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 56:10) addresses the difference between the name Avraham bestowed upon Jerusalem (Hashem Yir'eh) and the name which Malkitzedek conferred upon it (Shalem).

Rav Berechiya said in the name of Rebbi Chelbo: Until it [Jerusalem] is complete, God constructs a sukka and prays in it that He should witness the reconstruction of His house. This itself is based upon the verse, "When His sukka (abode) is in Shalem (literally, complete) and His den in Zion" (Tehillim 76:3).


The midrash aims to explain the hybrid nature of the name Yerushalayim. The name is actually a blend of two names - that given by Avraham and the one bestowed by Malkitzedek. Instead of understanding the fusion as a representation of two different but parallel dimensions of Jerusalem (i.e. the city of God and the city of Shalem), the midrash interprets the final name as one which encompasses two distinct chronological states. The latter stage - that of shelemut (wholeness) - transpires when the Temple is standing and serves as the locus of the Shekhina on this world. By contrast, the former stage - based on Avraham's name "Hashem Yir'eh" - refers to a temporary phase in which the revelation of God's Shekhina on this planet is still deficient. This stage (prior to the construction of the Temple) is characterized by the hope and prayer that the Presence of God will widen and extend. Indeed, God Himself , so to speak, prays for the fruition of this dream. Until this future of universal revelation of Shekhina arrives, however, God constructs a temporary structure to facilitate prayer and to temporarily house the Shekhina.


This progression - from temporary lodging of the Shekhina to permanent residence - unfolds as part of the historical drama of Jerusalem and the Temple. To be sure, the sukka's role in housing the Shekhina is alluded to in the very verse in Tehillim which the midrash cites: "Va-yehi be-shalem sukkoh u-me'onato be-Tziyon" ("When His sukka is complete and His dwelling in Zion"); this verse underscores the symmetry between "sukka" and "His dwelling." This midrash, by citing the verse in Tehillim, and providing the historical gloss to the naming of Jerusalem, taps into the image of sukka as a house for the Shekhina and employs this metaphor in describing the different historical stages of Jerusalem.




Alongside this image of sukka as a house for the Shekhina, Chazal add a second metaphor. This image also stems from the Gemara but is later amplified by the midrash. The gemara (Sukka 2a) discusses the requirement that the sekhakh alone provide the shade of the sukka. For this reason, the gemara considers invalidating a sukka whose walls are extraordinarily high and disproportionate to its width. In such an instance, the shade will be provided by the towering walls and not exclusively by the sekhakh. This requirement - that the sekhakh be the sole provider of shade - is derived from a verse in Yeshayahu (4:6) which states, "The sukka will be a shelter from heat by day and will shield from the pelting torrent of rain." If sekhakh does not provide shade and shelter, the gemara reasons, it cannot be defined as a proper sukka.


This verse concludes an eschatological vision of Yeshayahu in which he depicts, among other things, the ultimate evolution and progression of humankind, an international religious pilgrimage, and the outbreak of universal harmony:


"All the nations will flock to Zion and will declare: Let us ascend to the house of the God of Jacob so that we may be educated in His manners and follow in His paths ... And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." (2:2)


Part of this vision however, details apocalyptic destruction, describing ýhuman beings fleeing for refuge from the "dread of God" and from "the awe of Hs magnificence" (2:10). These passages depict a day of vengeance, one of universal and cosmological disaster in which the wicked are punished and society is expurgated. The day is depicted as one of storming gales, heavy and dense clouds, fiery smoke, and uncontrollable conflagration - a day in which nature itself is sacked and starry planets are eclipsed. Amidst this maelstrom of flight and terror, the sukka is erected in Zion as a safe haven of refuge from this onslaught. Essentially, Yeshayahu portrays the sukka as a structure which extends shelter from natural catastrophe and from apocalyptic fury.


In fact, this function of sukka, implied by Yeshayahu, and imported by the gemara to determine the height of the sukka, is already alluded to by several verses in Tehillim. King David petitions, "When you will shelter me in your sukka on a day of destruction, you will conceal me in the privacy of your tent and uplift me upon a rock" (Tehillim 27:5). In this instance, David seeks asylum and protection from raging wars and warring armies. In another instance, when seeking to escape the designs of his malevolent enemies, he importunes, "Hashem, my God, the strength of my salvation, you have provided protection (sacotah - literally, You have provided a sukka for my head) for me on the day of battle" (140:8). He further assures himself, "He will save me from the fowler's trap, from the destructive plague, in His pinions I will take shelter (yasech - literally, take shade) and underneath His wings I can find shelter" (91:3). In fact, the midrash comments upon this final verse, "Yasech lach (you will be screened) - from the mazikin (supernatural agents)" (Pesikta De-rav Kahana; Pesikta Acharita De-sukkot). David, in his prayers and in his petitions, employs this image of sukka as shelter from enemies - foes both human and supernatural.


Based to a large degree upon this precedent, the midrash broadens this depiction of sukka as an asylum. Though David had already employed the term "sukka" as that which connotes protection or refuge, he did not intend the actual sukka of our holiday, but rather conceived of literal ordinary huts. Chazal, however, coupled the sukkot of Yeshayahu and David (which again were merely metaphors for protection) with the sukka we sit in during Chag Sukkot. Chazal (ibid.) have the following comment on the aforementioned verse in Yeshayahu:


Rav Levi said: Whoever performs the mitzva of sukka in this world, about him God says, "Since he has fulfilled the mitzva of sukka in this world, I will shield him from the wrath of the world to come." In apocalyptic times God will toss the Heavens, as it says, "The Heavens will be rolled like a scroll" (Yeshayahu 34:4), and He will punish the wicked, as it says, "The day is coming burning like an oven, and all the evildoers will be like straw; that day will ignite them and leave them without root or branch" (Malakhi 3:9). God will also create a sukka for the righteous to protect them, as it says, "You will protect me on the day of evil..." It is also written, "The sukka will be a refuge from the winter (which can alternatively be understood as wrath)." An alternate explanation is, "The sukka will be a shelter." Anyone who fulfills the mitzva of sukka in this world, God will protect him from supernatural mazikim as David said, "In His pinions I will take shelter, under His wings I will be safe."


This very graphic midrash edan iwhich was latent in the previously cited verses in Yeshayahu and Tehillim. The sukka serves as a shelter from the fury of Judgment Day - specifically for the righteous and specifically for those who have faithfully performed the mitzva of sukka. Chazal clearly align the sukka of the mitzva with the notion of an apocalyptic shelter, while underscoring the feature of security.


To summarize: Chazal detected within the sukka two distinct symbolic strands. On the one hand, they discerned within it a site which accommodates the Shekhina and which enables a rendezvous between the human and the Divine. On the other hand, they depicted the sukka as an apocalyptic shelter - possibly only for those righteous who have properly performed the mitzva of sukka.




In general, these two facets are independent and unrelated to each other. There are, however, select midrashim which weave the two strands into one fabric. A classic example is the following midrash:


An alternate position states: "The sukka shall be a shade from the winter" - anyone who fulfills the mitzva of sukka on this world, God grants him a place in the sukka of Sodom. This is the part of the reward included in the famed promise that God will grant the righteous "shevatim shevatim" (multiple portions heaped upon a shoulder), as it is written, "God spoke in His holy place that I will rejoice and distribute 'Shechem' and the depths and valleys of the 'Sukkot' I will measure" (Tehillim 60:8). [The midrash now elaborates on this cryptic verse.] "I will rejoice" - when My kingdom in this world is complete. "I will distribute 'Shechem'" - when I allot several portions [of reward] to your children [Shechem, the name of the Israeli town also refers to a shoulder, used to receive reward or tribute]. "I will measure the depths of the sukka" - this refers to the sukka in Sodom [the lowest point on the planet] which was shaded by seven layers of trees, one atop the other. These layers were composed of grapevines, fig trees, pomegranate trees, peach trees, almond trees, temol trees, walnut trees, safek trees, and anah trees... Rav Levi said: Anyone who fulfills the mitzva of sukkot in this world will be seated by God in the sukka made out of the skin of the levayathan.


These eschatological and supernatural sukkot - one fashioned from the levayathan and one situated in Sodom - provide a future site for the assembly of tzaddikim (the righteous). Even moreso, these sukkot award them with the due they did not receive in this world. This function of furnishing unpaid reward can best be glimpsed by examining the grounds of the above midrash. This Divine announcement embedded within the midrash is cited amidst the context of a dialogue between Iyov and God regarding Divine Justice. Iyov accuses God of not properly rewarding the righteous (Iyov ch. 23); in effect, he raises the standard theodicical claim - "Why do the righteous suffer?" The midrash cites God's response: "Iyov, any deficiencies in the reward of tzaddikim will be compensated by the skin of the levayathan which, in the future, I will fashion into a sukka for the tzaddikim." In this respect, the sukka reconciles the notion of Divine justice, while sitting in this sukka and enjoying the concomitant "feast" entails ultimate compensation for any apparent imbalance in our world.


In this detail, the sukka constitutes a site of rendezvous with the Shekhina - if not with the Shekhina itself, then at least with a form of Divine justice which does not exist on this planet. Furthermore, the midrash associates this event with the emergence of absolute malkhut shamayim (Divine kingship). As long as God's kingdom is incomplete in this world, there is no relevance for this sukka, there is no possibility for this intimate assembly, and the reconciliation of Divine justice is delayed. When a new era arrives, fundamentally different from our present reality, this process may commence. This entire era is, in effect, symbolized by the harmonious residence of tzaddikim within a transcendent and ideal sukka. As this convocation of the righteous, which isn't feasible in our present condition, occurs within this transcendent sukka, it is this very structure which comes to symbolize the entire era. Though this sukka is not invested with actual kedusha, it still constitutes an arena for the revelation of Kingship and Shekhina and the reconciliation of Divine justice. Ultimately the sukka is taken as a hieroglyph for an era marked by the universal recognition of God.


Alternatively, the concept of shelter from apocalyptic disaster and from supernatural agents, while not blatant, is certainly alluded to in this very midrash. The same midrash continues:


Yitzchak said in the name of Rav Yochanan from Sitna: There is a species of bird known as "aya," which flies twenty five milin (a Talmudic measure of length equivalent to the distance a person can walk in eighteen minutes) over the earth but can still see the ground. Rav Meir, Rav Yossi and the Sages dispute [its optical powers]. One said this bird can see anything on the ground which is at least three tefachim wide. A second claimed it could even detect an object of a tefach and a half, while the third stated it could even discern that which was only three finger-lengths wide. God said: "Anyone who fulfills the mitzva of sukka in this world will be afforded a place in the sukka where even this bird cannot spy him."


This passage describes a type of protection which is so effective that even a bird with advanced visual capabilities cannot descry the person. This sukka is designated for refuge and shelter and therefore is built so densely that that it is impenetrable. Notably, this sukka is referred to not only as the sukka of the levayathan but also as the sukka of Sodom. The first image - the sukka of the levayathan - is one which is well documented (e.g. Bava Batra 75a) and has become a mainstay of popular Jewish folklore. The same cannot be said about the sukka of Sodom. One might surmise that this sukka is positioned in Sodom specifically to stress its ability to shelter and shield. Outside this sanctuary burn fiery storms, sulfur and salt (see Bereishit 19:24), while inside it is safe, secure and peaceful. Tzaddikim who enter it escape the cataclysms which engulf the outside world and ultimately are incorporated into an ideal society where they may lead an exemplary lifestyle. Their fate is far different from others, who remain outside and are subject to apocalyptic destruction. In truth, then, not only does this sukka service a congregation of the righteous and and furnish a rendezvous with the Divine, it also furnishes shelter and escape from apocalyptic wrath.


There is an additional midrash which describes the integration of these two images. The Midrash Tanchuma comments on the mitzvot relating to holidays which are described in Parashat Emor. According to the midrash, these mitzvot "sweeten" or mitigate our verdict and the accompanying punishment we deserve; God reduces our punishment in exchange for each holiday mitzva we perform. For this reason, Rosh Ha-shana is referred to as the first day - "rishon le-cheshbon ha-avonot" (the first day of accounting sins). According to the midrash, this moniker refers to the role Rosh Ha-shana plays in lightening the punishment for sins or atoning for them entirely. The mitigation, however, continues through Yom Kippur and ultimately through Sukkot as well. In the end of the passage, the midrash relates from two distinct angles to the mitzva of sitting in the sukka. First of all, this mitzva, like all others during this month, lessens the punishment for sins. However, the midrash elaborates the unique role sukka plays in expressing our gratitude to God. The midrash concludes:


God says to Yisrael: I have told you in this world to manufacture a sukka so that you may repay the favor I bestowed during your exodus from Egypt, as it is written, "You should sit in a sukka for seven days so that future geneshould remember that I sheltered you in sukkot during your exodus from Egypt..." If you perform this mitz, I will it as if... and in the future I will appear in My full majesty and royalty and protect you like a sukka, as it is written, "The sukka will serve as a shade from the winter..." (Midrash Tanchuma to Parashat Emor)


In this instance the integration of the two images of sukka is quite apparent. Precisely at the moment of the revelation of Shekhina ("I will appear in My full majesty and royalty"), God protects us in His sukka. Though, in general, it is true that Divine Salvation is accompanied by Divine Revelation, it is mostly assumed and rarely enunciated. By deliberately mentioning this revelation, the midrash appears to be highlighting the "twinning" of these two phenomena - Divine revelation and apocalyptic protection.


This unique integration between these two elements might help illuminate another famous midrash which addresses the final day of Judgment. The Midrash Tanchuma in Parashat Shoftim cites a discourse which will occur between God and the league of nations. Ultimately, the rest of the nations will complain that they did not fulfill the Torah due to their own ignorance of its laws. "Bestow upon us the Torah afresh" they assert, "and we will gladly fulfill it." The midrash cites God's response:


God determines that He will give them one simple mitzva as a trial. If they fulfill it, their reward will be commensurate to that of Am Yisrael. God asks them to perform the mitzva of sukka. Immediately, each human erects a sukka and attempts to fulfill the mitzva. God then makes it unusually and unbearably hot so that each Gentile abandons his sukka in disgust, as it is written, "Let loose our bonds" (Tehillim 2:3). God delights in their lack of fulfillment, as it is written, "He that dwells in Heaven will laugh, God will take delight [at their failure]" (Tehillim 2:4).


One might question why the mitzva of sukka is selected for this international experiment. Furthermore, why does God "stack the deck" against these people by creating oppressive conditions which do not facilitate the performance of the mitzva? Is this considered a just trial? Had conditions been more conducive, maybe these nations would have succeeded!


One might decipher this midrash in light of the previously determined images of the sukka. Obviously, the more discernible dimension of the sukka - at least to the naked or mundane eye - is its capacity to shield and shelter. One doesn't require religious sensibilities or spiritual ambition to appreciate the need for shelter. Certainly, amid the backdrop of apocalyptic upheaval, the awareness of the sukka's capacity to shield and protect is heightened. The challenge of sukka, however, is to discern the second aspect as well - a sukka which enables a rendezvous with the Almighty. This facet is apparent only to an individual who constantly strives to fulfill the wish, "Let me dwell in the house of God my entire life." For this very reason, God arranges a climate which is so unfavorable that the sukka can no longer provide ample shade, thereby neutralizing this dimension. In this environment, the only remaining aspect of sukka is its facilitating a meeting between man and God. Not recognizing or esteeming this goal, the Gentiles demolish their sukka. In this manner, they effectively fail the test - one geared to determine both their religious mettle and spiritual ambition.


Based upon this midrash, we might reach one final conclusion. It is not sufficient to recognize these two ideals within a sukka as independent ones. We must grasp that a sukka's ability to provide shelter is directly dependent upon its serving as "tzila de-mehemnuta" (the shade of the Reliable One, a phrase deriving from the Zohar.) It is not a physical structure which can protect or guard us, but rather our enduring belief in "Yoshev be-seter Elyon be-tzel Shakkai yitlonan" (who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the protection of Shakkai - Tehillim 91:1). This message will not be apprehended by the Gentile community, and as a result, they will not merit the mitzva of sukka nor the rich world of Divine service. We must stress that only a sukka which is suffused with Shekhina can assure our safety. By constructing a sukka in the spirit of "be-tzilo chamadti ve-yashavti" (I have yearned for and sat in His shade) (Shir Ha-shirim 2:3), we can assure ourselves that God will respond by building an eternal sukka of protection.