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The sukkah serves to remind us of our humble beginnings as a fledgling nation, when we did not have any permanent dwellings and had to live in simple huts.

What's the Reason for the Sukkah?

What's the Reason for the Sukkah?

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The word sukkah (pl: sukkot) literally means a “shaded1 booth.” In a rather cryptic verse, the Torah tells us to dwell in a sukkah for seven days so that coming “generations shall know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt.”2

Oddly enough, nowhere in the entire narrative of the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent travels through the wilderness for 40 years is there any mention of the children of Israel residing in booths! On the contrary, Scripture describes on numerous occasions how they dwelt in tents, not booths!3 Where did the booths come in?

Clouds of Glory

In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer gives the following classic4 explanation: These “booths” are a reference to the miraculous Clouds of Glory, which protected the Israelites throughout their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.5

These clouds not only protected them from above, but surrounded them on all sides as well. They protected the people from the harsh elements, flattened mountains before them, killed snakes and scorpions in their path, kept their clothing clean and guided them through the desert.

It is this miraculous “booth” that we commemorate by sitting in a sukkah.

Actual Booths

Rabbi Akiva explains in the Talmud that “sukkot” is a reference to actual shacks that the people used as dwellings while they were in the wilderness for 40 years.6

Now, why would we celebrate the fact that the Israelites didn’t have nice homes and had to live in shanties?

The sukkah serves to remind us of our humble beginnings as a fledgling nation, when we did not have any permanent dwellings and had to live in simple huts. This puts our lives in perspective, and gives us reason to thank the Almighty for all that He bestows upon us.7

A Unique Mitzvah

Unlike all other mitzvahs in the Torah, which are done with only part of the body, the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah encompasses a person’s entire body.

The chassidic masters point out a number of unique qualities of the sukkah:

Elevating the Mundane

When we do a mitzvah, we elevate ourselves, the object with which we did the mitzvah, and our environment. Most mitzvahs are focused only on limited aspects of our being and limited dimensions of our environment.

However, when it comes to dwelling in a sukkah, not only is the entire body enveloped by the mitzvah, but so are the most mundane aspects of life. After all, by eating, drinking or even reading a good book in the sukkah, we perform a mitzvah that encompasses our entire body!8

A Sukkah of Unity

The sages associate the mitzvah of sukkah with the concept of peace and unity. Thus, in our prayers the sukkah is called “Your sukkah of peace,” and the sages of the Talmud state that “all Israel are fit to dwell in one sukkah.”9

Our world is characterized by differentiation. In fact, even the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, which represents the unity of the four kinds of Jews,10 is nevertheless a unity of differences and various levels.

However, when we sit in a sukkah, it encompasses all of us equally, with no distinctions. Thus, when the entire Jewish nation dwells in a single sukkah, the unity expressed is one that transcends all differences and distinctions between them.11

The Talmud tells us that when Moshiach comes, the Jewish nation will in fact sit together for a festive meal in one single sukkah12—may it be speedily in our days!

Footnotes
1.
I added the word “shade” since that is an essential component of the Sukkah, for more on how to build a Sukkah see Sukkology 101- Sukkah-building basics from the inside out
3.
See, for example, Exodus 18:7 and Numbers 16:26–27, 24:5–6.
4.
See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 625:1 and many others, who cite only this reason. Indeed, there are laws and customs regarding the building of the sukkah that are specifically based on this reason.
5.
Talmud, Sukkah 11b.
6.
Talmud, ibid..
7.
See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:43; Rashbam, Leviticus 23:43.
8.
See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 2, pp. 417–418.
9.
Talmud, Sukkah 27b.
10.
See Vayikra Rabbah 30:12: The etrog, which has both a delicious taste and a delightful aroma, represents the perfect individual—one who is both knowledgeable in Torah and replete with good deeds. The lulav, whose fruit (dates) have taste but no smell, personifies the learned but deed-deficient individual—the scholar who devotes his life to the pursuit of the Divine wisdom, but shuns the active sphere of Jewish life. The hadas’s delightful scent and lack of taste describe the active but ignorant individual. Finally, the tasteless, scentless aravah represents the Jew who lacks all outward expression of his Jewishness.
11.
See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 19, p. 359.
12.
See Talmud, Bava Batra 75a.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Teresa Plane Sydney Australia October 12, 2017

As a long time meditator my Sukkah isat the centre of my being in my own heart. God is the centre of my soul. Reply

Roland Canada October 6, 2017

May I add that I sincerely believe that Sukkah is the place Within our=selves that we can reach if we want... Am I correct or wrong? What do You Think?
Roland ♀ Reply

James More See Sea City October 3, 2017

Sleeping outside in a tent along a river for several years, this is my Sukkot where I say my prayers. Reply

Irving Whitehall October 3, 2017

The Mikvah also encompasses our entire body as does the dwelling in a Sukkah mitzvah. Reply

Dr Stephen Games London October 3, 2017

I beg to disagree with you, Rabbi Shurpin. The instruction to live in booths has nothing to do with our ancestors' having lived in shanties, as you put it: this is now what a succah was. A succah was a makeshift shelter for animals, as is quite clear in Bereishit 33:17 where we are told that Jacob built a house for himself and succot for his animals.

יזוְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ נָסַ֣ע סֻכֹּ֔תָה וַיִּ֥בֶן ל֖וֹ בָּ֑יִת וּלְמִקְנֵ֨הוּ֙ עָשָׂ֣ה סֻכֹּ֔ת עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרָ֥א שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֖וֹם סֻכּֽוֹת

The chag of succot reminds us that we're not that grand, and requires us to abase ourselves for a week, and remind ourselves that we are God's flock and he our keeper, as we've just read at Yom Kippur. It's a very powerful image. Reply

evelyn new jerser October 3, 2017
in response to Dr Stephen Games:

very interesting comment...thank you1 Reply

Anonymous Fulton October 3, 2017
in response to Dr Stephen Games:

This is a comment in a Chumash I have had for maybe 20 years.
"It seems strange that Jacob named the place (Succoth) for the animal shelters, rather than the houses he built for the people." "Because Jacob here made a public display of compassion for all living creatures... (Or HaChaim)". What I have believed from my readings about Jacob, these animal shelters would have been designed as close as possible to the quality of dwellings for his family. Reply

Rhoda Indonesia October 2, 2017

What are the 'different types of Jews'. Refrenced above? Reply

Anonymous ALBUQUERQUE October 2, 2017

I was always taught in Hebrew School that the Sukkot was to display the agricultural goodies from the season! This way they could be seen and admired by all....... Reply

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