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The Mitzva of Sukka

  • Rav David Brofsky


            The Torah teaches in two places that one must “dwell” in a sukka for seven days:


You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt - I am the Lord your God.  (Vayikra 23:42-43)


You shall keep the feast of Sukkot seven days, after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress.  And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your man-servant, and your maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates. Seven days shall you keep a feast unto the Lord your God in the place which the Lord shall choose; because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your increase, and in all the work of your hands, and you shall be altogether joyful.  (Devarim 16:13-15)

             Why did the Torah command us to dwell in sukkot for seven days? The Torah teaches, “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” What exactly are we enjoined to remember?

 The Talmud (Sukka 11b) records the following debate:


For it has been taught: “I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths” -These were clouds of glory, so said R. Eliezer. 

R. Akiva says, They made for themselves real booths.


R. Eliezer and R. Akiva disagree as to whether this verse refers to the ananei ha-kavod, the “clouds of glory," which guided and protected the Jewish People during their 40 years of wandering in the desert (see Nechemia 9:19), or to the booths that the Jews made for themselves during their travels.   

            According to R. Eliezer’s explanation, we commemorate the Divine protection of the Jewish People during their wandering in the desert.  Apparently, mitzvat sukka is intended to arouse the memory of the exodus from Egypt in general, and more specifically God’s supernatural protection of the Jewish People throughout their travels in the desert. However, according to R. Akiva, why is it worth commemorating the booths that the Jewish People made for themselves?           

I would like to point to three suggestions. 

            The Ramban (Vayikra 23:43) explains that through remembering the sukkot that the Jewish People made for themselves in the desert, we remember that God provided for all of the needs of the Jewish People in the desert.  According to this explanation, R. Eliezer and R. Akiva agree, fundamentally, that mitzvat sukka serves to commemorate the Divine protection that the Jewish People merited in the desert.  If so, what really is the different between R. Eliezer and R. Akiva? Ostensibly, while R. Eliezer focuses upon the miraculous and supernatural protection of the Jewish People in the desert, R. Akiva focuses upon the day-to-day shelter that God provided through the natural order. This protection, although not supernatural, was no less miraculous.   

            One might offer a different interpretation. While R. Eliezer focuses upon the Divine protection afforded to the Jewish People, R. Akiva notes the Jewish People’s active involvement in furthering the redemption - they made booths for themselves.  As the prophet Yirmiyahu described (2:2), “Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus says the Lord: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” The mitzva of sukka highlights the Jewish People’s dedication and loyalty to God throughout their travels (with, admittedly, a few exceptions), and their response to the Divine gesture of yetz’iat Mitzrayim.  As we read in Megillat Eikha (5:21), “Return us unto You, O Lord, and we shall return.” 

            Finally, we might suggest that the Torah focuses upon the “booths they made for themselves” because the purpose of the mitzva of sukka is to recall and to re-live the experience of the Jewish People in the desert. Indeed, the Rashbam (Vayikra 23:43) writes:


"That your generations may know, etc." (Vayikra 23:43) – Its plain meaning is like those who say in tractate Sukka: an actual sukka.  And this is what it means: You shall make for yourself a festival of booths when you gather from your threshing floor and your wine-press, when you gather the corn of the field and your houses are filled with every good, grain, wine and oil, that you shall remember that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths in the wilderness for forty years without settlement and without inheritance.  And from this you will offer thanksgiving to Him, who gave you an inheritance and your houses filled with every good, and you will not say in your hearts, "My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth"… Therefore we go out of our houses that are filled with every good at the time of the [harvest] gathering and we dwell in sukkot as a reminder that they did not have an inheritance in the wilderness, nor houses to dwell in. And for this reason God established the festival of Sukkot at the time of gathering from the threshing floor and the wine-press, so that their hearts not swell on account of their houses that are filled with every good, lest they say, "Our hands have gotten us this wealth." 

The Rashbam explains that we celebrate Sukkot during the “gathering” season in order to impress upon the Jewish farmer the goodness which God has bestowed upon him, in contrast to the bare existence of the Jewish People as they left Egypt. 


In other words, we are commanded to experience the sense of transience, the exposure to the elements, and the uncertainty of nomadic life in the desert.  R. Akiva challenges us to realize the truth of our existence: Even our permanent homes are really dirot arai (temporary dwellings), and that which appears secure and permanent is actually vulnerable and ephemeral. Only God’s providence secured the Jewish People’s personal and national existence in the desert and in this day as well. 

(Incidentally, the Bach and his son-in-law, the Taz, offer different, opposite interpretations of the debate between R. Eliezer and R. Akiva.)

            While Rashi, the Ramban, and Onkelos (Vayikra 23:43), and subsequently the Tur and Shulchan Arukh (625), accept R. Eliezer’s opinion, the Rashbam argues for R. Akiva’s understanding (see also Peri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 625:1).  Although seemingly there should be no practical difference between these two views, some Acharonim point to the following possible halakhic ramification. 

Intention for the Mitzva of Sukka 

            R. Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640), in his opening comments to the laws of Sukka (Bach, Orach Chaim 625), notes that the Tur uncharacteristically discusses the reason behind mitzvat sukka. The Tur observes that the Torah links the mitzva of sukka to yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, an event which undoubtedly demonstrates God’s existence and involvement in this world. R. Sirkis suggests a reason for the Tur’s interest in the reason behind the mitzva of sukka.


It seems to me that he must believe that since the verse says, “that your generations may know …” (Vayikra 23:42), one has not fulfilled the mitzva in its entirety (ke-tikuna) if he does not know the intention of the mitzva of sukka according to its simple understanding (kefi peshata), and therefore [the Tur] explained, according to the peshat, that the primary intention that one should keep in mind while fulfilling the mitzva of Sukka is to remember the exodus from Egypt. 

R. Sirkis understands that whenever the Torah links a mitzva’s performance with its intention, “lema’an yeid’u doroteikhem” (in order that your generations shall know), the Torah wishes to teach that the awareness of the mtzva’s reason is an integral part of its performance. He further explains that the Tur seems to require one to have the proper intention when fulfilling the mitzvot of tzitzit (Tur, Orach Chaim 8) and tefillin (ibid. 25), as the Torah also links the performance of these mitzvot with their reasons (Bamidbar 15:40, Shemot 13:9).   

            The Mishna Berura (625:1) writes that one should preferably keep in mind the exodus from Egypt and the ananei ha-kavod during the performance of the mitzva of sukka. Based upon the debate cited above, one should preferably keep both understandings of the mitzva of sukka in mind while performing the mitzva.   

            Seemingly, lack of this awareness should not prevent the fulfillment of the mitzvaa, but rather performing these mitzvot with their proper intention constitutes a “mitzva ke-tikuna”- a mitzva fulfilled in its entirety. R. Yaakov Ettlinger (1798-1871), in his treatise on the laws of sukka (Bikkurei Yaakov 3), rules that if one did not keep these reasons in mind while eating in the sukka on the first night of Sukkot, he should preferably eat another ke-zayit of bread in the sukka with the proper intention. The Mishna Berura (above) rejects this understanding.

 Is There a Mitzva to Build a Sukka?

             While clearly there is a mitzva to sit in the sukka, as the verse teaches, “You shall dwell in booths seven days,” is there a mitzva to build a sukka as well? The Torah does command, “You shall keep the feast of Sukkot seven days, after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress,” although seemingly “you shall keep” (or literally, “you shall make”) refers to fulfilling the festival, and not building the sukka, per se. However, there are numerous indications that point to a mitzva of some sort to build a sukka.  The Chatam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 271) explains that there is no mitzva to build a sukka. R. Achai Gaon (8th century), however, in his collection of homilies on Jewish law and ethics, the She'eiltot (169), writes:


The Jewish People are obligated to construct a sukka

 R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), explains in his commentary to the She'eiltot, Ha’amek She'eila:


It seems that we can derive from his language that even though the primary mitzva is to sit [in the sukka], and the construction [of the sukka] is only preparatory, still there is a mitzva [in the building], as this preparation is written in the Torah and is more important that other preparations for mitzvot


            Based upon this, many (e.g., Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 134:1; Kaf Ha-Chayyim 625:11) are accustomed to participate in the building of their own sukka, in fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum, “mitzva bo yoter mi-be-shelucho,” which teaches that one who is obligated to fulfill a mitzva should preferably fulfill the mitzva himself, and not through an agent (Kiddushin 41a).   

            Seemingly, if we are to view the building of the sukka, and not just dwelling in it, as a mitzva, then it should certainly be worthy of a berakha.  Indeed, the Yerushalmi (Sukka 1:2, Berakhot 9:3) teaches that one who builds a sukka for oneself (le-atzmo) should recite a birkat ha-mitzva  – “la’asot ha-sukka” (to make a sukka).  The Talmud Bavli does not record this opinion.  The Or Zaru’a (Hilkhot Tefillin 583) explains according to the Yerushalmi that when making of an article to be used for a mitzva that requires “li-shmah” (special intention), one recites a blessing. The Talmud Bavli not only rejects this assumption, but also cites a debate whether the construction of the sukka must be li-shmah (Sukka 9a), regarding which Beit Hillel rules leniently. Alternatively, the Yerushalmi may simply believe that the building of one’s own sukka constitutes a mitzva of some sort, and this mitzva warrants a blessing. 

            While the Talmud Bavli does not instruct one to recite a birkat ha--mitzva upon building a sukka, the gemara (Sukka 46a) does imply that the blessing of she-hechiyanu should be said upon building a sukka. 


Our Rabbis taught: One who makes a sukka for his own use shall recite the benediction, “Blessed are You who has kept us in life, etc.” (she-hechiyanu).  When he enters to take up his abode in it, he says, “Blessed are You who has sanctified us, etc.” If it was already erected, he may recite the benediction if he can make some renovation in it; and if not, he recites two benedictions (i.e., the birkat ha-mitzva and she-hechiyanu) when he enters to take up his abode in it. R. Ashi stated: I observed that R. Kahana recited all of them over the cup of kiddush.

The gemara first cites a Tosefta (Berakhot 6:14) which teaches that one who builds his own sukka should recite she-hechiyanu, and then relates that R. Kahana would recite both the blessing of “leishev ba-sukka” and “she-hechiyanu” upon reciting the kiddush on the first night. 

            How should we understand the position of the Tosefta, that one should recite she-hechiyanu upon building the sukka? On the one hand, one might assert that the actual building of one’s own sukka warrants the blessing of she-hechiyanu.  Of course, then we must explain why we recite she-hechiyanu and not a birkat ha-mitzva! On the other hand, we might suggest that the birkat she-hechiyanu is actually recited upon the festival of Sukkot, when encountering it in a meaningful way for the first time. Indeed, Tosafot (Sukka 46a, s.v. nikhnas) rules that one who recited she-hechiyanu upon building one’s sukka should not repeat she-hechiyanu during kiddush on Yom Tov!  

Furthermore, how are we to understand R. Kahana, who recited the birkat she-hecheyanu over kiddush and not when building his sukka? Some (Rambam, Hilkhot Berakhot 11:9; Ritva, Sukka 46a; et al.) insist that one should certainly recite the she-hechiyanu upon building one’s sukka and once again on Yom Tov.  R. Kahana never intended to rule that one should NOT recite she-hechiyanu upon building one’s sukka, but rather to teach that one can recite the blessing on Yom Tov over both the building and the sanctity of the day. Others (see Or Zaru’a 2:316, citing the Behag, for example) explain that R. Kahana believes that one should not recite she-hechiyanu upon building a sukka at all. The Rosh (Responsa 25:3) writes that since erecting a sukka is a preparation for the festival, we delay reciting the she-hechiyanu until the festival itself. Finally, the Mordekhai (Sukka, 769) suggests that since so few people actually build their own sukkot, it is customary for everyone to simply recite she-hechiyanu during kiddush.   

            The Shulchan Arukh (641) rules that although theoretically one should recite she-hechiyanu upon building one’s own sukka, it is customary to recite the she-hechiyanu during kiddush on the first night. 

            This entire discussion implies that many Rishonim understand that, at least theoretically, the building of one’s own sukka warrants the blessing of she-hechiyanu, and therefore should be viewed, on some level, as a mitzva.  

The Proper Time to Construct the Sukka 

The Rema (624:5), in the concluding laws of Yom Kippur, writes, “The meticulous should begin building the sukka immediately after Yom Kippur, in order to go from mitzva to mitzva.” In the next chapter (625), the Rema begins the laws of Sukka by teaching that “it is a mitzva to fix (le-taken) the sukka immediately after Yom Kippur: mitzva ha-haba'a le-yadkha al tachmitzena – when a mitzva comes your way, do not allow it to ferment” (i.e., when the opportunity to do a mitzva  arises, do it quickly).  Incidentally, the Sha’arei Teshuva (625) cites those who recommend building, or at least starting to build, one’s sukka before Yom Kippur, in order to accumulate more mitzvot before the Day of Judgment.  

Why does the Rema twice mention that one should build the sukka immediately after Yom Kippur, one chapter after another? The Magen Avraham (625:1), most likely responding to this question, explains that the second passage refers to completing the sukka.   

We might suggest that the first passage, taught in the context of Yom Kippur, teaches that after Yom Kippur one would go “from mitzva to mitzva” - a message appropriate for the conclusion of Yom Kippur.  The second passage, however, refers to the laws of sukkot: Since building a sukka constitutes a mitzva of sorts, one should perform it without delay.