In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot

Leviticus 23:42

It is fitting that all of Israel should dwell in a single sukkah

Talmud, Sukkah 27b

When is something yours? When you control it? When you have legal and moral right to its use? When it is yours alone, to the exclusion of everyone else? Ownership may mean many things, depending on the individual and social circumstances that define it.

A legal difference between the two major observances of the festival of Sukkot—dwelling in the sukkah and acquiring the “Four Kinds”—is one example of the different possible definitions of ownership. Regarding both these mitzvot, the Torah stipulates that the object of the mitzvah must be “yours”; but the definition of “yours” varies from mitzvah to mitzvah.

In the case of the Four Kinds, the Torah states:

You shall take for yourselves on the first day [of the festival] the splendid fruit of a tree (etrog), fronds of dates (lulav), the branch of the thickly leafed tree (hadas), and aravot of the brook . . .”

Our sages explain that the words “You shall take for yourselves . . .” come to teach us that these must be the absolute property of their user: one who uses a stolen etrog (or lulav, hadas or aravah), or a borrowed etrog, or even an etrog which he owns in partnership with another person, has not fulfilled the mitzvah of taking the Four Kinds on the first day of Sukkot.

Regarding the mitzvah of sukkah, the Torah likewise stipulates, “You shall make, for yourself, a festival of sukkot.” But here, the words “for yourself” are more broadly defined. In this case, says the Talmud, the verse comes only to exclude a stolen sukkah; a borrowed or partially owned sukkah is considered to be sufficiently “yours” to satisfy the mitzvah’s requirements.

To support its broader interpretation of ownership as applied to the sukkah, the Talmud cites another of the Torah’s statements regarding the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. In Leviticus 23:42 we read: “In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” In this verse, the word sukkot, which is the plural of sukkah, is spelled without the letter vav. This means that the word can also be read as sukkat, “the sukkah [of],” and the verse can then be understood as saying that “all citizens of Israel shall dwell in the sukkah.” Explains the Talmud: the Torah wishes to imply that the entire nation of Israel may, and ought to, dwell in a single sukkah! Aside from stressing the brotherhood and equality of all Jews, this also has the legal implication that a sukkah need not be exclusively “yours” in order for you to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in it. If all Israel may dwell in a single sukkah, then the requirement to make it “for yourself” cannot to be understood in the narrow sense of exclusive ownership, but in the sense of the right to a thing’s use.

Why does the “yours” of the sukkah-dweller differ from the “yours” of one engaged in the mitzvah of taking the Four Kinds? Obviously, there is an intrinsic difference between these two Sukkot observances—a difference that extends to the very identity and self-definition of their observer.

The Joy of Giving

Sukkot is the festival that celebrates Jewish unity. Unity is the underlying theme of the festival’s three precepts: joy, the taking of the Four Kinds, and dwelling in the sukkah.

All of the festivals are referred to as “occasions for joy” (mo’adim lesimchah), but the Torah stresses the centrality of joy to the festival of Sukkot more than with any other festival. Thus, only the festival of Sukkot is defined, in our prayers of the day, as zeman simchateinu, “The Time of Our Joy.” (Passover is subtitled “The Time of Our Freedom,” and Shavuot, “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.”) Indeed, there is a unique joy associated with Sukkot—a joy that reaches its height in the nightly “water-drawing” celebration held during the festival.

And joy, for the Jew, is an exercise in empathy and communal concern. “You shall rejoice on your festival,” enjoins the Torah, “you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow . . .” In the words of Maimonides: “When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the other unfortunate paupers. One who locks the doors of his courtyard and feasts and drinks with his children and wife, but does not feed the poor and the embittered—this is not the joy of the mitzvah, but the joy of his stomach.”

Selfish festivity is divisive, accentuating the differences between the haves and the have-nots, between the full and empty stomachs of society. But the joy of a mitzvah, joy as defined by Torah, unites. Master and servant, family man and loner, wealthy man and pauper, are all united by the giving and compassionate joy of the Jewish festival.

Nevertheless, even the most generous joy cannot be said to achieve a “unity” in the ultimate sense of the word; at most, it introduces a connection between disparate individuals. The pauper remains separated from the rich man by a gulf of status and economic station, as does the servant from the master and the stranger from the homesteader. Joyous hearts and giving hands extend across these gulfs, but the division and distance remain.

So to inspire a deeper and truer unity, the Jew acquires the Four Kinds on Sukkot.

Taste of Knowledge and Scent of Deed

The Midrash explains that the Four Kinds represent four spiritual classes within the community. 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.

On Sukkot, the lulav, hadas, aravah and etrog are bound and joined together, reiterating the underlying oneness of a topically diverse people. Whatever may divide the scholarly from the ignorant and the more observant from the less so, Sukkot is a time when all are held together in the single hand of Jewish identity.

So while the joy of Sukkot introduces a unifying give-and-take relationship between various segments of the community of Israel, the Four Kinds take this unity a step further, integrating us into a single entity. By taking the Four Kinds in hand, we reiterate that, despite our disparities, we are all one.

The Enveloping Home

Despite our disparities, we are all one. For the disparities remain, as even the unifying Four Kinds express.

The lulav towers above the lot in scholarship and erudition. The hadas exudes its scent of good works, while the aravah is marked by its obvious ignorance and fruitlessness. The etrog, of course, outshines them all with its sublime perfection. Even as they symbolize the unity of the various segments of Israel, the Four Kinds underscore the differences between them—indeed, they stress these very differences as the complementary components of a one people.

There is, however, yet a higher form of unity that is realized by the festival of Sukkot. This is the unity of the sukkah—the unity embodied by the structure worthy of accommodating an entire people within its walls.

“The entire nation of Israel may, and ought to, dwell in a single sukkah.” For the sukkah represents a oneness so deep and all-embracing that all distinctions pale to insignificance before it.

Sukkah is the only mitzvah into which a person enters with his muddy boots,” goes the chassidic saying, and this expresses the very essence of the sukkah. When a person enters a sukkah, its walls and roofing encompass him entirely, and equally encompass his entirety. His mind is no more and no less in the sukkah than his toes; his heart is simply another occupant of its space, as are his “muddy boots.” So when the entire nation of Israel dwells in a single sukkah, the unity expressed is one that transcends all differences and distinctions between them.

This is not the unity that is created by our love and compassion for each other. Nor is it the deeper unity that stems from the way in which our individual roles, talents and strengths complement and fulfill one another, forming the organs and limbs of a single, integrated body. Rather, the sukkah brings to light the oneness implicit in our very beings—the simple and absolute oneness of a people rooted in the utterly singular oneness of their Creator and Source.

Self and Selves

This explains the different ways in which our sages interpret the Torah’s requirement of “for yourself” regarding the mitzvot of the Four Kinds and of the sukkah. The Jew taking the Four Kinds is uniting with his fellows in a manner which preserves—indeed, employs—his identity as an individual. Hence the Torah’s use of the word lachem, “for yourselves” (in the plural): in addressing the people of Israel as they relate to the Four Kinds, the Torah is speaking to many individuals, each with his or her own unique contribution to the communal whole. In this context, “yours” is something that is unique to your individual self; a borrowed or jointly owned object is not “yours.”

Regarding the making of a sukkah, however, the Torah addresses us in the singular lecha (“for yourself”). For the mitzvah of sukkah touches on the intrinsic unity of Israel, a unity in which we are all seamlessly one. Here “for yourself” is the singular self of Israel; as long as your use of a sukkah does not violate the integrity of this unity (as does the use of a stolen sukkah), the sukkah of your fellow is no less yours than your own.