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  • Writer's pictureGabbai

Sukkot – Mezuzah in the Sukkah

Rather than a sermonic article, this is a different type of Torah thought for Sukkot, one that does not necessarily carry any moral lessons nor have halachic implications. The following is an exploration of some Talmudic discussion related to Sukkah.

One of the halachic distinctions of a Sukkah is its exemption from having a Mezuzah affixed to its door, despite the Sukkah enjoying the status of our primary dwelling place for the duration of Sukkot. The Shulhan Arukh (YD 286:11) states that the halacha follows the sages’ position that the Sukkah by definition is a temporary dwelling, as opposed to Rabbi Yehuda who considers the Sukkah a permanent dwelling. A dwelling of a temporary nature does not meet the requirements for a Mezuzah. The debate between Rabbi Yehuda and his colleagues over the nature of the Sukkah surfaces elsewhere in the Talmud.

In Yoma (10a) the Talmud states that all the chambers of the Temple were exempt from having a Mezuzah except for the chamber designated for the High Priest, which was used for his lodgings once a year (in the week prior to Yom Kippur). A discussion ensues in regards to this halacha. Rabbi Yehuda points out that there were numerous chambers used as lodgings by various priests which were nevertheless exempt from Mezuzah. Why then, R’ Yehuda asks, is only the lodgings of the High Priest exempt? R’ Yehuda asserts that a special decree was issues to obligate the chamber where the high priest resided.

The two symbols of Talmudic discussion, Abaye and Rava, feature in this passage. After some arguments are presented and rejected, Rava’s conclusive explanation asserts that there is a dispute between R’ Yehuda and the sages regarding the High Priest’s chamber as well as regarding the Sukkah. Concerning the Sukkah the basis for the debate is simple – R’ Yehuda holds that the Sukkah has the status of a permanent dwelling for the duration of Sukkot and the sages hold that the temporary nature of the Sukkah remains even during the festival. The obligation of Mezuzah applies only when a dwelling is permanent.

Regarding the chambers in the Temple, however, the issue up for debate is whether a dwelling in which one lives against his will is obligated in a Mezuzah. (In this context the High Priest does not choose to lodge in the Temple chamber based on his own desire; he is required by law to reside there during the week prior to Yom Kippur. It is therefore considered “against his will.”) The sages rule that a forced dwelling is still obligated in Mezuzah. For this reason the chamber of the High Priest has the full status of a dwelling and must bear a Mezuzah. R’ Yehuda, however, rules that a forced dwelling is exempt from a Mezuzah. In principle, therefore, the chamber was exempt from Mezuzah. A special decree, however, obligated the chamber to wield a Mezuzah. Rava, explaining on behalf of R’ Yehuda, notes that it was important that the lodging of the High Priest is not viewed as a prison of a sort. The placement of a Mezuzah on the doorpost gave the impression that the chamber was not a place of forced lodging (although in reality it was.)

This explanation follows Rashi’s interpretation of the passage. The Tosafists, in their commentary to this Talmudic passage, understand Rava’s explanation to apply to Sukkah as well. In their view the Sukkah is similarly exempt from Mezuzah since our dwelling in the Sukkah is not of our own volition but because of the Mitzvah obligation. As such, R’ Yehuda obligates a Sukkah in a Mezuzah not because of its permanence but in order that it doesn’t appear to be a forced lodging.

What emerges from the explanation of the Tosafists is that all the Mitzvot we perform are not considered acts of free will but of forced compliance. This is certainly not the way we tend to view the observance of Mitzvot. We don’t feel compelled to observe, we observe because we choose to comply with the Mitzvot. Nevertheless, the position of R’ Yehuda as explained by Rava and as understood by the Tosafists (which has no bearing on the practical halacha since R’ Yehuda’s position is ultimately rejected by halacha) is that all Mitzvot have at least an element of force. (Indeed the Midrash portrays the revelation at Mt. Sinai as the mountain being held above the nation. If they accepted to live by the Torah all would be good. If not, the mountain would be their grave.)

The question can be raised, if indeed our observance of all Mitzvot is considered forced, why are these two Mitzvot – dwelling in the Sukkah and the High Priest’s lodging in the Temple chambers – singled out for cosmetic alteration? Why does R’ Yehuda demand a Mezuzah to avoid the appearance of “forced lodging” if all of the Mitzvot are considered forced?

I saw a suggested explanation of R’ Yehuda’s position regarding these two Mitzvot. While all Mitzvot may carry an element of force, only in these two instances is one obligated to leave one’s home and lodge elsewhere. There are two forms of leaving one’s permanent residence to reside in a temporary abode. One form is to seek temporary lodging for pleasure, a holiday or vacation, to relax. In such an instance one becomes a guest at the temporary home/hotel/cabin. The other form is when one is forced to relocate from his own home against his will. This is usually when one is imprisoned. These two Mitzvot, leaving one’s home for the Sukkah and the High Priest leaving his home for the Temple chamber, resemble the latter more than the former. Although in both cases one relocates because of one’s choice to subjugate oneself to the Mitzvah, it nevertheless carries the status of “forced.” The “forced” relocation gives the appearance of imprisonment and the Mitzvah can be associated with bad taste if it is viewed as such. Therefore in these two instances specifically R’ Yehuda required a Mezuzah.

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