Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Sukkot
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

Dwelling in God's Palace

Early authorities ask: Why does the Torah enjoin us to commemorate the Clouds of Glory of all things. Why not the Manna? Why not Miriam's Well? After all, the presence of these miracles may have been even more important than the Clouds of Glory.


Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav

1. Proper Intention
2. Why the Clouds of Glory?
3. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
4. Two Days To Reckon With
5. New Accounting, New Creation
6. Love and Fear
7. Back to Jacob - Sukkot

Proper Intention
"For seven days you must live in thatched huts....This is so that future generations will know that I had the Israelites live in huts when I brought them out of Egypt (Leviticus 23:42,43)." - The "huts" which God had the Israelites live in when He took them out of Egypt were actually Clouds of Glory.

With these words, the Shulchan Arukh begins to outline the laws of Sukkot. Later Halakhic authorities explain that the purpose of this opening is to teach us that when sitting in the Sukkah one must remember the reason for sitting therein. And while it is true that the fulfillment of the commandment does not depend upon this condition—i.e. a person is seen as having fulfilled the obligation to dwell in the Sukkah even if he does not reflect upon the reason for this act—such a cognizance is nevertheless an integral part of the obligation. This is because the Torah itself informs us that this is the reason for the precept.

Why the Clouds of Glory?
However, early rabbinic authorities (cf. Meshekh Chokhma) ask why it is that the Torah enjoins us to commemorate the Clouds of Glory of all things. Why not the Manna? Why not Miriam's Well? The presence of these factors may have been even more important than the Clouds of Glory: Without bread or water it is impossible to subsist; without Clouds of Glory, however, one's survival is not endangered.

The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to Song of Songs (1:3) addresses a different question: Why does the Torah not command us to dwell in huts at Passover, the time of year when the Israelites left Egypt and the Clouds of Glory began to protect them? He explains that after the Sin of the Golden Calf the clouds disappeared and did not return until the fifteenth of Tishrei, when the Israelites began preparing the Tabernacle. The return of the Clouds of Glory, then, and not the presence of these clouds from the Exodus onward, is the reason for the precept of dwelling in the Sukkah. Despite the Sin of the Golden Calf, their repentance was accepted. More than this: After repenting, God's affection for them grew. The Tabernacle serves as proof of this, for it is written, "They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8).

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
There is, in fact, another important matter which lies at the foundation of the injunction to dwell in huts at Sukkot: the Patriarchs. The three holidays which occur in the seventh month parallel the three Patriarchs of the Jewish people.

Rosh Hashanah, the central idea of which is to proclaim God as King of the Universe, stems from the Patriarch Abraham. This is because Abraham's life goal was to bring about an awareness that God, in addition to being the King of Heaven, is also the King of the Earth. We thus find that when Abraham bound his servant Eliezer by oath not to take a Canaanite woman for Isaac, he did so in the name of "the Lord of Heaven and Earth."

Yom Kippur—a time of asceticism, abstinence from worldly pleasures, and special closeness to God—is bound up with the personage of Isaac. Isaac was entirely dedicated to God, so much so that he was nearly offered up as a sacrifice by his father Abraham.

Sukkot belongs to the Patriarch Jacob. Yet, what is it that makes Jacob the right match for Sukkot? We can perhaps answer this by turning to the words of the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 39:7):
"'On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, etc.' Why is the fifteenth [day of Tishrei] referred to here as 'the first'? R' Mana from Shav and R' Yehoshua from Sakhnin relate a parable in the name of R' Levi: A certain city had to pay a fine to the king. The king went to collect the fee. When he came within ten miles of the city, the city's leaders came out to praise the king and show him honor, asking him to revoke the fine. In response, the king reduced the fee by one third. When he came within fifteen miles, other important city members came out to receive and praise him. The king, in return, reduced the fine by another third. Upon entering the city, all of its citizens, men, women, and children, came out to receive the king. The king requited the members of the city, nullifying the entire fine. He said, 'Let's let bygones be bygones. From here on we will start a new reckoning.'

This may be likened to what happens in the month of Tishrei: On Rosh Hashanah eve, the leaders of the generation fast, and the Almighty expiates a third of their transgressions; from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, pious individuals fast and the Almighty erases a third of their wrongs; on Yom Kippur, everybody, fasts, men, women, and children, and the Almighty says to them: 'Let's let bygones be bygones; from here on we will start a new reckoning.' From Yom Kippur until Sukkot, the entire Jewish people is busy fulfilling Torah commandments - some with the Sukkah, others with the Lulav. On the first day of Sukkot the entire community of Israel stands before the Almighty holding the Four Species in order to give honor to His name. He, in turn, says to them: 'The past is behind us; from here on we will start a new reckoning.' Therefore, Moses warns the People of Israel: 'On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, etc.'"

In other words, rather than saying, "On the fifteenth day..." which is in fact the time for taking the Four Species, the Torah says, "On the first day..." for from this day forward a new reckoning begins and the reckoning of all that preceded is forgotten.

Two Days To Reckon With
Yet, if a person receives a clean slate after Yom Kippur, what is meant by "starting a new reckoning" on the first day of Sukkot? And if indeed there are two days for beginning new reckonings, why isn't the day after Yom Kippur, the eleventh of the month of Tishrei, also referred to as the first day, like the fifteenth? Moreover, according to the Torah, Yom Kippur is the time for forgiving sins, and we do not find any other day of the year being attributed a like trait.

It therefore would appear that there are two types of new records; One, on the day after Yom Kippur, a result of our offenses having been pardoned on the Day of Atonement; a second, on the first day of Sukkot at which point man is, in a sense, "reborn," and his past considered as if it never was. This second type is evidenced in the words of the sages (cf. Rashi on Genesis 36, following Midrash Shemuel, ch. 17) who inform us that "There are three kinds of people who are [automatically] pardoned for their sins: a convert, a person who ascends to greatness, and one who marries" (cf. Talmud Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 3:33). A convert receives this dispensation because he is looked upon as having been reborn. People who ascend to greatness or wed, by virtue of the fact that they have now attained a more consummate status, can be also be considered "reborn," and are therefore entitled to a new reckoning.

New Accounting, New Creation
Yom Kippur, when accompanied by repentance, brings atonement and rectifies the transgressions of a Jew. This process is referred to as "sur mera'" ("turning away from evil"), for so long as the delinquent refuses to renounce his actions he is considered a kind of insurgent against the King who has encroached upon his laws. When such a person is pardoned for his offense, and his sins are expiated, it naturally follows that a new accounting begins.

When, however, the Jewish people are busy fulfilling commandments—viz., the Sukkah and the Lulav—with an earnest desire to attach themselves to the Creator and King of the Universe, their love for God is given veritable expression. This is especially true regarding the Sukkah, for with every act performed therein one also fulfills a Torah commandment with his entire body. This is true not only when one is awake, but even when one sleeps in the Sukkah. It is comparable to sleeping in the King's palace in order to get as close as possible to his majesty. The Lulav and other species also give expression to Israel's desire to come close to the Almighty. The sages hence explain that the Four Species allude to God's oneness. They also allude to the unity of Israel in the sense and to the degree that Israel's unity uncovers the divine nature of creation. Taking these species, then, is tantamount to clinging to goodness; it is as if Israel is attaching itself to the Creator, like a new creation, unlike anything which has existed before. Therefore, the Torah calls the first day of Sukkot "first"; it is not a continuation of anything which precedes it. It is comparable to a new state—a state which is born of the unique bond which has been achieved between Israel and God, like that of a bride and groom. This, then, is why a new reckoning begins at this point.

Love and Fear
Ramban (R' Moshe ben Nachman) explains that a person who eschews transgression demonstrates fear of God, while one who fulfills the positive commandments demonstrates love for God. This explains why positive commandments override the negative even though the punishment for transgressing a negative commandment is more severe (lashes) than that of the punishment for transgressing a positive commandment. One who performs a transgression rebels against the King and the punishment is therefore more severe. This, however, is not the case when it come to the failure to carry out positive commandments. Such a laxity is not deemed rebellion so much as lack of loyalty. The punishment, therefor, is lighter. But when positive and negative clash—i.e., when one can choose between avoiding a transgression or fulfilling a command—fulfilling the command, which demonstrates obedience to the King, takes precedence. It, by its very nature, rules out rebellion.

Yom Kippur is a kind of suppression of rebellion against the King, while Sukkot is a revelation of Israel's staunch loyalty to their King, the Creator of the Universe.

Back to Jacob - Sukkot
This, essentially, is the trait of Jacob who, despite the unusual difficulties he faced throughout his lifetime, succeeded in building a bridge between our mundane, ephemeral world and the unchanging Creator of the Universe. The festival of Sukkot represents a continuation of this: With every action one carries out in the Sukkah, one fulfills a divine commandment. We relocate our mundane existence in God's own palace, achieving continuity with the Clouds of Glory which were essentially Israel's divine framework for living in the desert and as such provided the setting for a unique closeness to God. This is what sets the Clouds of Glory apart from the other miracles experienced by Israel in the desert, and from here issues the unique and unmatched joy on Sukkot—a joy which is felt more so in the Holy Temple than any place else (cf. Rambam, Hilkhot Lulav, ch. 8, laws 12-15).

Translations of biblical verses in the above article were taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's, The Living Torah (Moznayim).

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