Halacha (Jewish law and practice) doesn’t ordinarily care about its own interpretations. So long as the Jew does what he or she is supposed to do, the system doesn’t care why he does it or how she understands what she does. For this reason, the great codes of Jewish law describe what is required of the Jew with little elaboration. “Do this… don’t do that” — the rest is commentary.
It is therefore extremely surprising to discover that, when one opens up to the laws of sukkah in the great 16th-century code the Shulchan Arukh, one finds, at its very beginning, a ruling in a matter of symbolism — one that has nothing to do with actual practice. The “law,” as recorded there, is this: “‘You shall dwell in sukkot [booths] seven days… for I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot’ (Leviticus 23:42-3) — they [the sukkot] are [symbols of] the clouds of Divine Glory with which God surrounded them in order that they not be injured by heat or sun.”
I call this a “ruling” because the question of the sukkah’s meaning is actually a matter of debate in the Talmud (Sukkah 11b). According to the Talmudic report, it was R. Eliezer who interpreted the sukkah as a kind of spiritual symbol (sukkah = Divine cloud), while R. Aqiba believed that the sukkah should be understood literally, as a memorial of the sukkot in which the children of Israel lived as they wandered through the desert on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Now, to be sure, this is an interesting theoretical question (what is the meaning of the sukkah?). But why is it more important to decide this dispute regarding the symbolism of a mitzvah than it is any of the many such disputes the tradition preserves?
The beginning of an answer is found in the formulation of the predecessor text to the Code of Jewish Law, the 14th-century codification known as the Tur. Following the words quoted from the Code of Jewish Law above, the Tur adds: “in order that we remember God’s wonders and miracles.” The sukkah, in his view, is not a pedestrian historical re-enactment (a kind of “Disney-Exodus”) but a conscious symbolic replacement of the miraculous divine clouds. God protected us, enabling us to survive the un-survivable conditions of the desert for 40 years. It is this we must remember, not the mundane fact that we (like any humans in the same condition) built temporary, portable dwellings in which to live in the course of our journey.
The Tur continues: “and even though we left Egypt in the month of Nisan, God did not command us to make the sukkah at that time because it is the summer, when people commonly make a sukkah for shade, and [if we did it at that time] our making them in fulfillment of the command of the Creator would not be recognized. For this reason God commanded us to make them in the seventh month [Tishrei] which is the time of the rains, when it is the practice of people to leave their sukkot and dwell in their houses, yet we leave our houses and dwell in the sukkah….”
To understand the Tur’s point, it is helpful to consider the insight of recent students of ritual. Rituals, they say, achieve their purpose through what might be called “strategic difference.” That is, the activities acted out in rituals are most often common activities rendered different to make a point. Breaking bread is breaking bread. Drinking wine is drinking wine. Do these acts together, in a certain order accompanied by the recitation of certain words, and you have the beginning of a Sabbath or Festival meal.
By the same token, as anyone who ever has driven through the Negev in the summer knows, sukkot are perfectly common features on the landscape of the Holy Land. Bedouin, to this day, build huts out of any available material to protect themselves from the brutal summer sun. This was as true in ancient times as it is now. So to notice that a sukkah is a sukkah and not a mere booth — and to allow the sukkah to communicate something other than “protection from the sun” — Jews do something crazy: When everyone else is abandoning their sukkah to return to the protection of their houses before the rains begin, we do just the opposite — we leave our well-protected homes and take residence in mere huts. By doing so, we declare that this activity is not merely a historical re-enactment, that the sukkah is not meant to be understood literally. It is, symbolically at least, nothing less than the enveloping, protecting clouds of God.
We might say that this unexpected symbolic turn takes a mitzvah that is physical in the extreme and renders it spiritual. But it seems to me that this reading would be only half right. The fact that this “Halachic decision” finds its way so easily into a work of substantive Halacha tells me that, in the end, the dichotomy is a false one. All mitzvahs communicate meaning, and virtually all Jewish meanings find expression in a mitzvah. In the vast majority of cases, this relationship is allowed to develop with some freedom. The case of the sukkah merely gives voice to one such relationship that, in the opinion of our teachers, must be fixed.
David Kraemer is Joseph J. and Dora Abbell librarian and professor of Talmud and rabbinics in The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.