The first Mishna of Massechet Sukkah begins by teaching us that ‘a sukkah whose s’chach is above twenty amot (approx. 10 metres) is invalid’, and in the subsequent discussion in the daf (Sukkah 2a), the question of מנא הני מילי – ‘from where do we know this rule?’ is asked, to which the Gemara cites three different answers.
According to Rabbah, this law is derived from Vayikra 23:43 where we are taught that the mitzvah of Sukkah was established לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – “so that your generations will know that I made Bnei Yisrael live in sukkot”. This suggests that the mitzvah of sukkah requires that those dwelling therein be constantly aware of the s’chach. However, if the s’chach is so high that it is not clearly visible or noticeable by those who dwell in it, then they are unable to achieve this necessary level of awareness.
An alternative answer is offered by Rabbi Zeira who suggests that this law is derived from Yeshayahu 4:6 where we are taught that וְסֻכָּה תִּהְיֶה לְצֵל יוֹמָם מֵחֹרֶב – “a sukkah will be for shade in the daytime from the heat”. From here we learn that the function of dwelling in the sukkah is to sit in the shade provided by the s’chach, whereas ‘if the sukkah is higher than twenty amot, then you are not benefitting from the shade of the s’chach, but instead, from the shade of the walls of the sukkah’.
Lastly, Rava explains that this law is derived from Vayikra 23:42 which instructs that בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים – “you shall dwell in sukkot for seven days” from where we derive the rule that a sukkah must be a temporary dwelling place. However, if a sukkah is more than twenty amot tall, it requires sturdy and supportive walls – which negate the commandment of temporariness.
Reflecting on these three different insights, Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (1798-1871) explains (in a final thought appended to his ‘Aruch LaNer’ commentary to Massechet Sukkah) that the mitzvah of Sukkah is meant to help us understand our relationship with God while we journey through life (just as the original sukkot protected our ancestors as they journeyed through the wilderness), and that each of these three insights communicate a different trait which should guide our relationship with God.
For Rabbah, the primary trait that each of us need to foster in our journey through life is awareness of God (i.e. יראת ה’ – awe of God), and this is communicated through his explanation that we cannot be fully aware of s’chach that is twenty amot high.
For Rabbi Zeira, the primary trait that each of us need to foster in our journey through life is trust in God (בטחון), and though we must do whatever we can to help our situation (השתדלות), only God can truly provide salvation, with this idea emerging through his explanation that we should sit in the shade of the s’chach, rather than in the shade of the walls of the sukkah.
While for Rava, the primary trait that each of us need to foster in our journey through life is humility (ענווה) which is achieved by remembering the frail and fleeting nature of life – as communicated by his explanation that a sukkah with sturdy and supportive walls negates the commandment of temporariness.
From this stunning explanation of Rabbi Ettlinger we learn that the physical structure of the sukkah represents the values of awe of God, trust in God and humility – which not only is a profound idea unto itself, but will likely help us find even deeper meaning in the many of discussions that we will בע”ה (with God’s help) encounter as we proceed to study Massechet Sukkah.