Seeing the Sukka

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


By Rav Moshe Taragin


Lecture #11:  Seeing the Sukka


The first mishna of Sukka disqualifies a sukka whose sekhakh is higher than twenty amot above the ground.  The mishna does not provide a reason for this invalidation, but the gemara provides three.  The first suggestion, offered by Rabbah, claims that sekhakh higher than twenty amot is not visible to the human eye.  Rabbah asserts that sekhakh must be visible based on his reading of a pasuk in Emor, which urges us to reside in a sukka “so that future generations will realize that Hashem sheltered us in sukkot when we left Egypt."  On the surface, it seems that the Torah merely LINKS the mitzva of sukka to the historical providence in the desert, and this linkage should in no way affect execution of the mitzva itself.  Rabbah, however, claims that the memory of Hashem’s providence cannot be merely MENTAL or ABSTRACT; it isn’t sufficient to perform the mitzva while recognizing the linkage.  Instead, an EXPERIENTIAL component should trigger the memory; by looking at the sekhakh, we recall Hashem’s miracles.  Sekhakh that is placed too high is not readily VISIBLE and the mitzva is not performed correctly. 


An immediate question presents itself: Does Rabbah believe that such a sukka itself is invalid for the performance of the mitzva, or does he think that inability to discern sekhakh clearly merely crimps the performance of the mitzva?  Put in classic gemara language, is the height problem a pesul in the cheftza of the sukka, making it entirely invalid, or is the sukka itself suitable but sitting in it without noticing the sekhakh is a flawed performance of the mitzva? 


A nafka mina would result in a situation in which a person consciously looks at sekhakh that is higher than twenty amot.  Would he fulfill the mitzva, because he did, in fact, see the sekhakh, or would we disqualify such a sukka in any event, since the sukka cannot enable a mitzva with visual contact?  A similar question would surround a sukka whose sekhakh is higher than twenty amot but which possesses an amaltara (some element or adornment which attracts attention).  The gemara in Eiruvin (3a) states that such items attract attention even if an item is placed higher than twenty amot.  Can an amaltara validate a sukka whose sekhakh is too high? (See the Sefat Emet for an elaboration of this question.) 


The simple reading of Rabbah’s statement, “the human eye cannot behold items above twenty amot,” suggests that the sukka ITSELF is valid but the mitzva is defective.  Rashi’s comment, however, suggests otherwise: "Build a sukka whose residence is identifiable.”  By articulating Rabbah's opinion in this manner, Rashi may have been claiming that a sukka whose sekhakh is placed to high is itself an invalid sukka.  A similar perspective may emerge from the comment of Rabbenu Chananel, who claims that “any sukka which is not identifiable as a sukka of a mitzva IS NOT CONSIDERED A SUKKA. 


Perhaps this question stems from an interesting textual issue. The simple reading of the gemara suggests that Rabbah derives his novelty from the phrase “le-ma’an yeid'u” (so that they will remember [the Providence during the Exodus from Egypt]. The gemara cites those who disagree with Rabbah (and explain the higher than twenty amot disqualification in a different manner) and asserts that those dissenting opinions interpret the phrase as merely obligating future generations toward the mitzva of sukka. The phrase does not add an additional halakhic feature of visual contact to the definition of the mitzva.


The Sefer Hamikhtam cites an interesting variant text of Rashi for the source of Rabbah.  The conclusion of the “le-ma’an yeid'u” phrase includes the word “doroteichem’ (so that your GENERATIONS should recall). The word though is written without a ‘vav’ after the first letter ‘daled.’ Though the word is actually read as ‘doroteichem’ (your GENERATIONS) it can also be read as ‘diratchem’ (your residence). This reading would yield the following meaning: so that your residence should ‘know’ or so that you should recognize [the miracles] THROUGH your residence. By altering the word from ‘doroteichem’ to ‘diratchem’ the pasuk may be indicating that the ability to discern sekhakh and recall the mitzva is an internal feature of a valid sukka-residence.


The question of whether the need to see the sekhakh is a condition for the mitzva performance or a qualification of the actual sukka may impact a related question.  Does Rabbah require optic visibility or merely general recognition?  It is clear that according to Rabbah, mere abstract understanding is insufficient; the sukka itself must trigger the memory of Hashem's miracles.  But in what manner should the sukka trigger this memory?  Must the person actually make eye contact with the sekhakh or is general recognition of sitting under the sekhakh sufficient?  The pasuk that Rabbah interprets suggests that general sensation is sufficient – “le-ma’an yeid'u," "so that they should KNOW."  In fact, the comments of Rashi and Rabbenu Chananel cited above speak about the sukka being identifiable, not about visual contact. 


Alternatively, the syntax of Rabbah’s derasha, “a sukka higher than twenty amot is impermissible since the eye does not behold it,” indicates that actual vision is necessary.  In fact, Rabbenu Bechaye, in his commentary to Parashat Re’eh, claims that the word “sukka” stems from the etymological root of “seeing.”  Perhaps, then, Rabbah required actual eye contact with the sekhakh.  In contrast to Rashi and Rabbenu Chananel, the Meiri clearly maintains that actual vision of the sekhakh is necessary and that a sukka less than twenty amot high will allow at least periodic glancing at the sekhakh. 


Tosafot in Sukka (2a) raise an interesting question based on a gemara in Eurivin (3a).  The gemara in Eiruvin cites Rabbah, who invalidates a sukka whose sekhakh is only partially within the twenty amot limit.  If Rabbah's only concern was the ability to make visual contact with the sekhakh, then partial sekhakh within range should be sufficient.


Perhaps we can solve Tosafot’s question based on Rashi’s view of Rabbah's halakha.  Rabbah did not require visual contact with the sekhakh, but rather general recognition of its presence.  Had optic contact with the sekhakh been required it may have been sufficient to facilitate contact with even a strand of sekhakh.  As long as a representative sekhakh lies within eyesight the sukka should be valid and Tosafot’s question is compelling.  If, however, the sekhakh must be ‘sensed’ and ‘recognized,’ perhaps the primary sekhakh which provides halakhic shelter must be within twenty amot range.  Merely positioning a few stalks of sekhakh under twenty amot may not be sufficient.  To facilitate this sensation, the actual sekhakh which provides shelter and shade must be within sensing distance.  Sekhakh – as well as the element that allows carrying within a mavui on Shabbat (a korah) - requires actual visual contact, but it can be placed in a location which will allow it to be identified.  The difference between a sukka (for which all the sekhakh must be located low enough) and a mavui (for which it is sufficient to locate even part of the korah within twenty amot) is that the former is an individual experience and will not be properly sensed unless all the sekhakh is identifiable, whereas the latter is a public symbol and will be easily recognized. 


We have raised two independent questions regarding the height limitation for the sekhakh of a sukka.  If the sekhakh is higher than twenty amot, is the sukka pasul or is the mitzva impaired?  Must the sekhakh actually be seen or is it sufficient for it to be recognized? It is possible that the two questions are related.  If the twenty amot height impairs the mitzva but does not invalidate the sukka, perhaps it is because we require actual visual contact with the sekhakh; part of the ACTION of the mitzva requires looking at the sekhakh itself.  However, if the twenty amot height is not only a qualifier of the mitzva but defines the anatomy of the sukka itself, we might not require the ability for actual visual contact with the sekhakh; a sukka that facilitates general awareness of the sekhakh may be sufficient.


A third question about Rabbah's position pertains to which aspect of the sukka must be sensed or seen.  The gemara (Sukka 2b) claims that the height problem applies only to a sukka whose walls do not reach the sekhakh.  As long as the walls are aligned along the vector of the sekhakh, the sukka is valid, provided that the sekhakh is within the twenty amah height.  If, however, the walls of the sukka touch the sekhakh, the sukka is valid even if the sekhakh is above twenty amot.  The gemara explains that in this instance, the eyes can trace the sekhakh.  Presumably, the gemara assumes that since the walls and sekhakh connect, a person’s eyes will easily follow the walls all the way up to the sekhakh.  Based on this simple reading, we should likewise validate a sukka if there is an amaltara or any other artificial element that trains the eye upon the sekhakh.  Tosafot seem to adopt this reading and therefore question why similar solutions are not employed for mavui correctors or Chanukah candles that are too high.  Why not station the candles higher than twenty amot but physically connected to a wall?  As long as the eyes focus upon the wall, they will follow its height and reach the neirot! Tosafot provide a technical answer to explain why eyes will not necessarily trace a wall to the candles or the korah. 


Perhaps a different solution lies in understanding the status of the walls of a sukka.  In a famous position, the Rambam claims that the walls are actually part of the sukka and endowed with the unique holiness that permeates the sukka.  Perhaps the height of twenty amot was not stated as a mere qualification of the manner of PERFORMING the mitzva – ensuring that a person scan the sekhakh during his meal – but rather as a dimension of the sukka itself.  Perhaps the twenty amot set a limit beyond which partial walls cannot extend up until the sekhakh.  The area above twenty amot, beyond the visibility of a human being, constitutes an entirely different realm as far as a sukka is concerned.  If the walls connect to the sekhakh, however, and we are not forced to imaginarily extend walls, the twenty amah height does not impair the sukka.  This would suggest that the twenty amah height is a structural flaw in the sukka according to Rabbah.  It would also presume that the allowance of walls taller than twenty amot if they connect to the sekhakh is a scenario unique to sukka but irrelevant to Chanuka candles or mavui correction.  Walls do not allow eyesight above twenty amot.  If the walls connect to sekhakh and we do not require the virtual extension of walls, the sukka can be validated.