Is Sukka One Mitzva Made up of Separate Acts?

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


The majority of mitzvot asei are “instantaneous” activities, such as lifting a lulav or eating matza. The fulfillment of these mitzvot does not extend over a time period (although they may be performed more rapidly or less rapidly). These mitzvot often regenerate themselves; for example, the instantaneous mitzva of lulav is regenerated each day of Sukkot. (Of course, this regeneration of this chiyuv only occurs within the Beit Ha-Mikdash; outside of the Mikdash, the seven day mitzva is only Rabbinic.)

Other mitzvot span durations of time. These are elastic mitzvot that are performed over an extended period, whether short or long. A classic example of this model of mitzva is tefillin, which are worn over a time period. The entire time span of wearing tefillin constitutes one mitzva (which regenerates on a daily basis). Similarly, talmud Torah is incumbent upon a person on a daily basis. Presumably, the experience of studying Torah constitutes one extended mitzva. Likewise, a well known position of the Geonim suggests that counting the Omer is considered one long “experience,” despite the isolated nature of each act of counting. Counting days – by definition – can only occur in 24 hour intervals, but the entire experience of counting is one incorporated process.

Which category does the mitzva of sitting in a sukka belong to? Does this mitzva obligate at least seven different, isolated acts, or does it constitute one “extended” mitzva performance stretched across seven days? Inasmuch as the mitzva mandates residing, eating, sleeping, and recreating in the sukka, it may constitute one long continuum, rather than a series of independent activities.

This appears to be subject to a debate between Shmuel and R. Yochanan cited by the gemara in Sukka (45b). The former claimed that only one berakha should be recited all seven days of sukka residence because all seven days are deemed “chad yoma arikhta,” one long day. Evidently, Shmuel viewed the entire sukka mitzva experience as one mitzva, despite the obvious interruptions when leaving the sukka.

R. Yochanan argues and obligates a different berakha every time a person enters a sukka anew. Does he argue with the fundamental assumption and render the mitzva of sukka as multiple mitzvot? Or does he agree in principle that sukka is one long obligation, but despite this continuum a new berakha is necessary each time the sukka is re-engaged? Multiple berakhot may be recited even though only one mitzva is being fulfilled. R. Yochanan’s language is ambiguous and supports either position.

It appears, however, that R. Yochanan adopts the latter approach, since the gemara (46) compares sukka to tefilin. As noted above, tefillin is the prototypical example of one extended mitzva. As the gemara acknowledges, the berakha is recited every time tefilin is re-applied, even though the same mitzva is being revisited. Evidently, berakhot are recited every time a person engages in a mitzva anew, even if he is engaging in the same mitzva.

The Ritva adopts this approach, as does a very interesting Tosafot in Berakhot (11a), which questions the difference between sukka and talmud Torah. Presumably, extended residence in a sukka constitutes one long mitzva in the same way that extended Torah study entails one (daily) mitzva. Yet every reentry into the sukka is accompanied by a new berakha, while re-engaging with Torah study does not obligate a new berakha. To resolve this, Tosafot essentially claim that Torah study is not interrupted by non-Torah interactions in the way that departing a sukka truncates the mitzva. Since Torah study is partially mental and behavioral, it can extend even when a person is not actively studying Torah. Sukka, in contrast, is purely mechanical, and absence from the sukka completely interrupts the mitzva. Ultimately, Tosafot maintain the fundamental similarity between the mitzva of sukka and the mitzva of Torah study, but differentiate between the two based on the level of interruption, and consequently the obligation to recite a new berakha. Fundamentally, they agree with the Ritva that despite multiple berakhot, sukka remains one long extended mitzva even according to R. Yochanan.

An interesting comment of R. Yosef Engel in his Gilyonei Hashas, further solidifies the notion that sukka is one long, extended mitzva, despite periodical departures. The Torah demands that a sukka be considered a home, in the spirit of “teishvu ke-ein taduru.” As explained in a different shiur [Teishvu Ke-Ein Taduru – Fashioning a Sukka like a Residence], this requirement is primarily geared toward the level of experience within the sukka; it should be as comfortable as a residential experience. R. Engel asserted that the sukka-residence comparison can also exempt a person from sukka experience, just as a person often departs from his home. Ironically, by periodically departing from a sukka, one assures that the sukka resembles his residence! Departing from the sukka is part of the overall treatment of a sukka as a home.

Based on this view the mitzva may be so uninterrupted that the question of reciting a new berakha upon reentry can be challenged according to R. Engel. Unlike removing tefillin, which effectively severs a person from the mitzva and therefore launches a new berakha, departing from a sukka does not fully disengage a person from the sukka and therefore should not trigger a new berakha. Despite the concerns of a regenerated berakha obligation, however, it is clear that R. Engel would more likely define the seven day residence in a sukka as one long mitzva; even the departures do not interrupt the mitzva experience.

It is possible that this question regarding the nature of the mitzva of sukka was the subject of an interesting debate between R. Eliezer and the Chakhamim regarding a sukka built during Sukkot. R. Eliezer disqualified any sukka that was not built before Sukkot, since it was not a sukka capable of facilitating a seven day residence in the sukka. Presumably, he defines the mitzva as one long continued experience, and he requires one sukka to enable that experience. In fact, an associated position of R. Eliezer supports this notion: a person should not relocate from one sukka to a different sukka, but should rather reside within the same sukka all seven days. Evidently, the mitzva is one long experience (with timely interruptions) and it must be performed in one constant sukka.

Further indication that R. Eliezer viewed the mitzva as one long process may stem from two ancillary positions that he takes. First, he claims that the sukka must be owned by the person performing the mitzva, in the same manner that the four minim must be owned (on the first day). Although he bases this requirement upon a gezeirat ha-katuv, it might be based upon the notion that the entire sukka experience is integrated. By definition, residence in someone else’s sukka cannot be integrated with other sukka experiences; since he can be denied residence by his host, this experience is isolated from his residence in his own sukka. Even if he were to reside all seven days in his host’s sukka, it would not represent an incorporated experience, since his residence can be discontinued at any point.

A second indication that R. Eliezer views the mitzva as one incorporated experience stems from a hava amina he proposes that a person who converts to Judaism during Sukkot should be exempt from the mitzva. (Ultimately, the convert is obligated based on an extra word [ha-ezrach] used to describe the mitzva of sukka.) This hava amina clearly assumes that the seven days entail one extended mitzva and cannot be engaged in mid-stream. Perhaps the hava amina suggests, a convert can’t engage in the mitzva since he wasn’t obligated in it when the seven day period began.

An interesting parallel to the question of a ger emerges from a gemara in Arakhin (3b) that questions whether Kohanim are obligated in the mitzva of sukka. Since they are “on call” for Mikdash duty, they are not able to conduct marital relationships every night of Sukkot. This inability may represent a flaw in converting a sukka into a residential experience. Perhaps they should thus be excluded from the mitzva.

The gemara responds that even though they may be exempt during evenings that they are “on call,” they are not exempt during the other evenings, when they can be with their wives. Strangely, the gemara assumes that sukka is an “all or nothing” proposition; if the Kohanim cannot engage in a comprehensive experience, they might be exempt even from a partial experience! This is reminiscent of the hava amina that a ger should be excused from joining the sukka experience in the middle. Ultimately, both the ger and the Kohanim are obligated to perform partial sukka residence, but the very discussion suggests that – at least according to R. Eliezer – the entire process is one integrated experience.

The Rabbanan disagree with R. Eliezer and allow relocation to a different sukka, as well as building a new sukka in the middle of the chag. Once again, their position is unclear. Do they disagree fundamentally with R. EIiezer and define the mitzva as comprised of separate “units,” so that there is no requirement to execute each separate mitzva in the same sukka? Or do they agree that the mitzva entails one extended experience, but disagree regarding whether this integrated experience must be performed within one common sukka? Perhaps if one person experiences the mitzva within different sukkot, the entire duration is still considered one incorporated sukka residence.