What is a Succah?

September 18, 2019
succah hut for succot festival chag insecurity graphics

This short Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks discusses the true meaning of the succah, in which we dwell on the festival of Succot.


What exactly is a succah? What is it supposed to represent? On this, two great Mishnaic Sages disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer held that the succah represents the ananei kavod, the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Israelites during the wilderness years, protecting them from heat during the day, cold during the night, and bathing them with the radiance of the Divine Presence. That view is reflected in a number of the targumim, and Rashi in his commentary takes it as the plain sense of the verse. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, says it is succot mamash, meaning a succah is a succah, no more and no less –  a hut, a booth, a temporary dwelling. It has no symbolism, it just is what it is.

If we follow Rabbi Eliezer, then it's obvious why we celebrate a festival by making a succah: it's there to remind us of a miracle. All the festivals are about miracles, and Succot is about God's tender care of His people, mitigating the hardships of the journey across the desert by surrounding them with His protective Cloud, the way a parent wraps a young child in a blanket. And that is Succot for Him, a memory of that Divine protection during the wilderness years.

Rabbi Akiva's view, though, is deeply problematic. If a succah is just a hut, what was the miracle? There's nothing unusual about living in a hut if you're living a nomadic existence in the desert. It's what the Bedouin did until recently, and some still do. So what’s miraculous? Why have the festival?

Rashbam, who was Rashi's grandson, says the succah was there to remind the Israelites of their past, so that at the very moment they were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel, they should remember their lowly origins when they had no land and no permanent home.

But I think there's another way of understanding Rabbi Akiva altogether, and it lies in one of the great lines of Jeremiah in words we say on Rosh Hashanah:

Zacharti lach chessed ne’urayich”, I remember the lovingkindness of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the wilderness, through a land not yet sown.

Jeremiah 2:2

This is one of the very few lines in Tanach that speaks in praise, not of God, but of the People Israel. Elsewhere they are portrayed as fractious, rebellious, ungrateful, and wayward. But the fact remains that they had the courage to travel, to move, to leave security behind and follow God's call the way Abraham and Sarah did at the dawn of our history.

There's no sacrifice if God is protecting you every inch of the way at all times. But if we follow Rabbi Akiva and see the succah as just what it is, the temporary home of a temporarily homeless people, then it makes sense to say that Israel showed the courage of a bride willing to follow her husband on a risk-laden journey to a place that she has never seen before. A love that shows itself in the fact that she is willing to live in a hut, trusting her husband's promise that one day they will have a permanent home. In other words, the other festivals represent God's love for Israel, but Succot represents Israel's love for God.

I call Succot ‘The Festival of Insecurity’. That is exactly what the Israelites experienced for 40 years in the desert. It is exactly what we experience, at least here in London, when we celebrate Succot exposed to the cold, the wind, the rain, and the storm. And Succot is zman simchateinu, that miraculous ability to rejoice even in the midst of insecurity.

The 21st century is the age of insecurity, and we as Jews are the world's experts in how to live in insecurity because we've existed with it for millennia. And the supreme response to insecurity is Succot, when we leave behind the safety of our houses and sit in succot mamash, in huts, exposed to the elements. To be able to do so and still say this is the festival of our joy, zman simchateinu, is a supreme achievement of faith and the ultimate antidote to fear. Faith is not certainty, it is the courage to live with uncertainty. It's the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination without fear, because we walk towards God, and He towards us.

Chag same’ach.