For those unfamiliar with the way in which Sukkot was celebrated in the Beit HaMikdash, today’s daf (Sukkah 43b) – which expands upon and debates the teachings in Mishna Sukkah 4:1-3 (see Sukkah 42b) – may be hard to comprehend. This is because, as we were previously taught in Mishna Sukkah 3:12 (see Sukkah 41a), until its destruction the only place where the Arba Minim were taken throughout the seven days of Sukkot (including Shabbat) was the Beit HaMikdash, and they were only taken on the first day of Sukkot everywhere else. However, upon the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai instituted that the Arba Minim be taken throughout Sukkot (with the exception of Shabbat) ‘in remembrance of the Mikdash’.
Yet paralleling this mitzva of the Arba Minim (i.e. the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim & Aravot) whose practice outside the Beit HaMikdash after its destruction was expanded, is a further mitzvah of the Aravot whose practice in the Beit HaMikdash was also different from its practice today. Specifically, tall Aravot were taken in the Beit HaMikdash throughout the seven days of Sukkot which were stood up around the Mizbeach (see Mishna Sukkah 4:5, 45a). Today, however, we only practice the taking of Aravot as a separate mitzvah on Hoshana Rabba in remembrance of this earlier practice.
In terms of today’s daf, much of its focus relates to these two mitzvot of the Arba Minim and the Aravot and both their areas of similarity and difference. Yet, overall, what is clear when contrasting these two mitzvot is that while one mitzvah has expanded (i.e. we take the Arba Minim throughout Sukkot), one has contracted (i.e. we only take the Aravot on Hoshana Rabba). The question we must consider is why was there a need for both expansion and a contraction? Why don’t we do less with both, or more with both? Why the inconsistency?
To my mind, this was the genius of the leaders in the post Churban era such as Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai who ideologically wanted us to feel the loss of the Beit HaMikdash (as reflected by contracting the application of certain mitzvot), but who were also pragmatic and who therefore emphasised the importance of us feeling connected to the Mikdash and its mitzvot (as reflected by expanding the application of certain mitzvot).
All too often we only think of what we no longer have after a loss, or how opportunities also develop after a loss. But what we see in these Mishnayot and the accompanying discussion in the Gemara is that both occur; that there is both less and more. And that if you want to see a powerful example of how these developments of both contraction and expansion occurred, it can be seen in how Sukkot was celebrated then, and now.