September 15, 2018
Rabbi Heschel Greenberg in #1135, Parsha Thought, Sukkos


The central Mitzvah of the upcoming festival of Sukkos is to dwell in a Sukka – a temporary hut for seven days. This Mitzvah requires of us to move our meals, among other functions, into the Sukka for one entire week.

The simple reason for this Mitzvah is mentioned in the Torah. It is our way of demonstrating how G-d, upon liberating us from Egyptian bondage, provided us with shelter as we sojourned through the desert for forty years.

In addition to the Biblical reason for this Mitzvah, Jewish classical writings discovered other symbolic explanations.

One of the most popular is the one that compares the frail Sukka to the temporary nature of life itself. By going out of the more permanent and comfortable structure of our homes, we impress upon ourselves the temporary nature of life in the physical world.

Upon closer examination, these two reasons are very much connected. As important as it is for us to realize the precarious and temporary nature of life—it is no more than a flimsy temporary Sukka—we must also appreciate the converse; that G-d watches over and protects us, just as He did for the Jews who left Egypt.


Jewish history is a perfect reflection of these two themes. On the one hand, no nation has known more threats to its existence as did the Jewish people. No nation’s existence seems to be more precarious than ours. We have been subjected to more persecution, expulsions, blood libels, pogroms, massacres, religious oppression, and unfortunately not culminating with the Holocaust, than other nation on earth.

And yet, miraculously, no nation has enjoyed such G-dly protection and shelter. We have not only survived these efforts at destroying us; we have thrived. Jews have this incredible power of resiliency that is unmatched by any other group. We have seen G-d’s protective power in the most obvious and overt manner just as we have seen the fragility and precariousness of our situation more than any other nation.  

The Jewish people are the ultimate Sukka.


With the foregoing analysis of the “two sides of the coin” inherent in the symbolism of the Sukka we can shed some light on a dispute recorded in the Talmud regarding the minimum size of a Sukka:

According to the School of Shammai (the Sage made famous by his stern demeanor and display of indignation at the convert who wanted to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot), a Sukka must be large enough to contain the person and his table. The more lenient School of Hillel however disagrees and permits a Sukka that can house just the person’s head and most of his body, even if the table remains in the house.

What is the conceptual basis for their dispute?


It may be suggested that the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel argue about the dominant theme of Sukkos.

According to the School of Shammai, the emphasis should be on the flimsy and precarious nature of the Sukka, i.e., our existence. True, even though G-d protected us, we should not take that protection for granted. Instead we should always accentuate how without G-d’s protection we are so vulnerable. Shammai, whose soul, the Kabbalists tell us, derives from G-d’s attribute of g’vura/judgment, wants us to focus on our vulnerability and weaknesses lest we become complacent and arrogant, and that, in turn, would allow the evil to consume us.

To even allow one’s table to be outside of the Sukka—even if the person is in the Sukka—undermines the essence of why we dwell in a Sukka. We dwell in a Sukka to underscore our vulnerability. How then could we afford to have the table remain in the house outside of the protective covering of the Sukka?

The School of Hillel, however, put the emphasis not on our vulnerability, but on how the Sukka is a constant reminder of how we are always under G-d’s protective covering. As long as we are in the Sukka and are under the influence of the S’chach-Sukka covering which symbolizes G-d’s power, we will not be adversely affected by the table in the house.


This approach mirrors the difference between the two diverse approaches in Judaism that were popularized by the Musar and Chassidic movements respectively.

The school of Musar, which focuses on the negative aspects of the human being and his or her moral frailties, leaves no room for any exceptions to the rule of laying down the law. A strict disciplinarian cannot allow the recalcitrant student any relaxation of the rules. The school of Musar—led by great Jewish leaders from mediaeval times until the present—accentuates the need to keep away from and perpetually wage battle with evil. It has been said in the name of one of the great Musar masters that the Musar approach can find fault with everything and discover threats to one’s spiritual life lurking everywhere. From this perspective, one must therefore never let down his or her guard against the potential for evil.

The Chassidic approach does not deny the existence of evil and its insidious nature, just as the school of Musar does not deny the existence of the positive energy all of us possess. However, the Chassidic approach puts the emphasis on the positive. Instead of fighting the darkness, one can accomplish much more by simply letting in some of the light. Even one candle can dispel the darkness of an entire house.


These two approaches have their antecedents in the Schools of Shammai and Hillel. In the very same passage of the Talmud where the dispute between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding the minimum area of the Sukka is mentioned, another dispute is discussed. The School of Shammai argued that a person would have been better off not having been born since there are so many pitfalls in life; the prospects of failing and sinning outweigh the alternative. The School of Hillel disagrees and maintains that it is preferable to have been born over not being born.

What are these two schools arguing about?

The School of Shammai certainly did not mean to get us depressed and to hate life. Rather they wanted us to be prepared to deal with the danger that lurks beneath the surface. We should not be blinded by the veneer of goodness that belies the evil that exists within. This is perhaps the first statement that exemplifies the approach of Musar.

The School of Hillel had a different focus. While not denying the power of evil and its ability to deceive us, they nevertheless argued that it is preferable to have a positive view towards life. Furthermore, they felt that one’s obsession with evil—even to fight it—can lead to depression and even worse. But above all, the School of Hillel—whose very name Hillel is related to the words praise and light—believed in the power of light to dispel the darkness.


Another famous dispute between these two schools that echoes the foregoing analysis relates to the manner in which we light the Chanukah lights:

According to the School of Shammai, we are required to kindle eight candles the first night and decrease the number each successive night until the eighth night, when we light only one light. The School of Hillel states the reverse. We begin with one and proceed to increase the number of lights each successive night until the last night of Chanukah, when we light eight.

It has been explained that the School of Shammai sees the light of Chanukah as the fire that consumes the evil forces. As the evil is destroyed, the need for light/fire becomes less pronounced since there is less evil to contend with. We therefore decrease the number of lights each night.

The School of Hillel maintains that the lighting of the Chanukah candles is primarily to introduce light and positive energy, not the battle against the forces of evil. As we progress we add to the light.


We can now appreciate their views concerning the size of the Sukka.

As stated, according to the School of Shammai, if one’s table does not fit into the Sukka it is invalid.

In Shammai’s world-view, the only way to be fully protected against the deleterious effects of evil is to be completely insulated. Thus, the Sukka that represents Divine insulation must encompass the entirety of the Jew; his head, body and even his table. One cannot afford to leave the table outside the protective influence of the Sukka lest it will end up becoming the Achilles heel.


The School of Hillel will counter this argument by invoking the positive aspect of the Sukka; that it represents the Divine energy that embraces and envelops us. It is the expression of G-d’s love for us after we demonstrated our devotion to Him in the preceding Days of Awe.

The School of Light therefore maintains that it suffices to have one’s head and most of one’s body under the influence of the Sukka. Its salutary message of Divine love and protection will insure that no harm will come from that “table” that was left back “in the house.” Moreover, the light of the Sukka will “trickle down” and spread to the table that is currently outside of the Sukka.


A question can be raised. The great Kabbalist, the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) stated that in the Messianic Age, we will no longer follow the School of Hillel—as is the practice today—but we will then follow the School of Shammai. This would imply that the School of Shammai’s views are more sophisticated, ahead of their times.

However, from our above analysis of their respective views it would seem that the School of Shammai sees the individual in a far less positive light, for he sees his weaknesses and vulnerability. The School of Hillel seems to be so much more sophisticated. If this is true, why will we “graduate” from the School of Hillel to, what seems to be the inferior philosophy of, the School of Shammai?

In truth, the School of Shammai can be understood on two levels. On the more basic level, the School of Shammai is concerned with our weaknesses and vulnerability. They thus admonish us to be more vigilant.


On a deeper level, however, the School of Shammai represents a more advanced approach.

As we are in exile, we don’t have the ability to deal with and defeat evil. We therefore are required by Jewish law to follow the more positive and joyous approach of focusing on the good and letting the evil take care of itself. But, in doing so there will always be areas of evil on which we cannot have any enduring effect.

In the Messianic Age, however, we will be empowered to tackle evil head on, without fear of the repercussions. Moreover, we will then even be able to transform the evil.

Translating the above in terms of the location of the table vis-à-vis the Sukka, this means that in the Messianic Age, even our table—our must mundane activities—will be fully ensconced in the Divine enveloping force—of the ultimate Sukka.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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