Tzfat is built on top of two mountains, and towards evening the wind often picks up. On the high, open northeast edge of town, where we live, that wind can really roar through the night at near gale force. Keeping a sukkah up can be a challenge.
The halakhah is that a sukkah, though intended to be a temporary dwelling, needs to be able to stand in a typical wind. But what about places where the typical wind is much stronger? There’s a passage in the Gemara Sukkah that addresses this problem:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף כג עמוד א
העושה סוכתו בראש הספינה, רבן גמליאל פוסל ורבי עקיבא מכשיר. מעשה ברבן גמליאל ורבי עקיבא שהיו באין בספינה, עמד רבי עקיבא ועשה סוכה בראש הספינה. למחר נשבה רוח ועקרתה. אמר לו רבן גמליאל: עקיבא, היכן סוכתך?
Regarding someone who makes his Sukkah on the top deck of a ship, Rabban Gamliel disqualifies it and Rabbi Akiva declares it kosher. It happened that Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva were traveling by ship. Rabbi Akiva up and made a Sukkah on the top deck. The next day the wind blew and up-ended it. Rabban Gamliel said to him “Akiva, where’s your Sukkah?
The wind at sea is especially strong. In the ensuing analysis in the Gemara, Abaye explains:
Everyone agrees, where it cannot stand in a typical wind of dry land, it’s no sukkah at all. If it can stand in an unusual wind of dry land, no one disputes that it is kosher. Where they argue is where it can stand in a typical wind of dry land, but cannot stand in a typical wind of the sea. Rabban Gamliel is of the opinion that a sukkah should be constructed like a permanent dwelling, and it if cannot stand in a typical wind of the sea, it is no sukkah at all. Rabbi Akiva is of the opinion that a sukkah should be a temporary dwelling, and if it can stand in a typical wind of dry land, it is kosher.
As the later commentators interpret, Rabbi Akiva takes a formal idealist approach. A sukkah is kosher under all circumstances if it can stand in a typical wind of dry land – this is all that is necessary, regardless of where you build it. No matter that the same sukkah, if placed on the windy high deck of a ship will be blown away. Rabbi Akiva has faith in the ideal. Rabban Gamliel seems take a realistic approach: a sukkah needs to be able to stand relative to the environment it is placed in. In a very windy location, like at sea or in Tzfat, where strong winds that would be unusual in other places are typical, you need a stronger structure, and a sukkah built for the normal wind of the dry lowlands is not strong enough and is disqualified from the start.
Rabbi Akiva’s sukkah gets destroyed and Rabban Gamliel seems to get the last word – so the accepted halakhic should be clear, right? But the halakhic tradition, which typically follows Rabbi Akiva when challenged by a single colleague, formally accepts Rabbi Akiva’s position, and a sukkah need only be built to withstand normal winds of the dry lowlands even if it’s built on a mountain top. With all due respect to Rabbi Akiva, most people here don’t rely on this. If they did, they’d have no sukkah to sit in for Yom Tov. So when I went shopping for materials for our sukkah, the hardware store owner also gave me practical and halakhic advice on how to secure the reed mat roof to the frame and not run afoul of other halakhic restrictions.
And this is in keeping with the spirit of Sukkot itself.
Rav Kook in Orot haTshuvah observes that while on Yom Kippur, through fasting and long hours of prayer we ignore the body and the outside world and intensify our spirit to almost angelic levels, this is not the way of life intended by the Torah. It’s okay to devote a day of the year to intense spiritual repair, but the goal of Torah is life lived in responsive, practical harmony with the world. So after the transcendent work of Yom Kippur we are commanded to leave the artificial protection of solid houses and bring our Torah consciousness outside into the permeable sukkah, responsive to the real world, not ignoring it. We take the pure spirit of Yom Kippur and apply it to the complexity of the world. And this world full of challenges, including the terrible madness of violence by deranged individuals or entire nations that have become fanatically deranged. These are challenges we can’t ignore, and our responsiveness is a genuine expression of spiritual and ethical awareness. Sukkot is all about this awareness:
ויקרא פרק כג
מב) בסכת תשבו שבעת ימים כל האזרח בישראל ישבו בסכת:
(מג) למען ידעו דרתיכם כי בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים אני יקוק אלהיכם:
In Sukkot you shall dwell seven days, all citizens of Israel shall dwell in Sukkot. So that your generations with know that I had the Children of Israel dwell in Sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am HaShem your God.
We love Rabbi Akiva and marvel at his level of confidence and trust in his ideal that dares to ignore reality – to try to sit in a minimal sukkah no matter where he finds himself – even on the blustery sea. But the Gemara itself seems to be skeptical, giving Rabban Gamliel the last word. In truth, Rabban Gamliel has his own high level of trust, confident that Sukkot celebrates a vision of Torah awareness so fully internalized and robustly lived that we are empowered to engage responsively and practically with the real world.
But I’m reminded of a Sukkot we experienced in New Haven back in 1976. The previous apartment tenants gave us the wood of their old sukkah, which turned out to be pressure-treated. It’s strong stuff, make for rough weather, but trying to get nails into it was like hammering rock. After much frustration I eventually got it up. Then on Shabbat night of Sukkot, a hurricane hit and knocked down almost every sukkah in town – except ours. So we invited those who needed to our Sukkah for lunch, and it was pretty memorable, and I was thinking it was fortunate that we had the pressure-treated lumber after all. Anne was grateful that the food she had for the small group we were expecting turned out to be sufficient for the large crowd that gathered. When Sukkot was over, I went to take down the sukkah, and looked for a good place to start. With my claw hammer I yanked out one nail – and the entire sukkah tumbled down in pieces around me. Rabban Gamliel or Rabbi Akiva? Maybe some of both: Benjamin Disraeli once said: I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.
Tzfat has a reputation as an airy, spiritual town – but we make sure the Skhakh is secure. Hag Sameah!