A temporary dwelling and the global pandemic

The sukkah, symbolizing the transience of the material world, takes on new meaning in a time when a plague has subdued human arrogance.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

The Chagim (festivals), like the Sabbaths, are called yamim kedoshim (holy days), and it is a mitzvah to sanctify them with good meals and fine clothing. However on the Chagim an additional mitzvah was added, namely, to rejoice, as the Torah says: “Vesamachta bechagecha” (“You shall rejoice on your festival”) (Deuteronomy 16: 14). Consequently, meals on Chagim should be better than meals on Shabbat, and care should be taken that one’s clothes on Chag are nicer than Shabbat clothes, and therefore if one needs to buy clothes, they should be purchased before Chag, in order to enjoy them on the Chag.

The Mitzvah to Study Torah on Chag

Torah study is the foundation of the mitzvot of Shabbat and Chagim. As our Sages state: “Shabbat and Yom Tov were given to us solely for the purpose of learning Torah then” (y. Shabbat 15:3).The mitzvah rests on three foundations: 1) The perpetual mitzvah to study Torah day and night, which, however, cannot be fulfilled due to the need to work and earn a living, but the Torah commanded us to refrain from work on Shabbatot and Chagim, so we can fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. 2) On the sanctity of the Chagim, which should be understood through the study of Torah in matters pertaining to the Chag. 3) On the mitzvah of simcha (joy), for Torah study is one of the expressions of simcha, and for this reason, it is forbidden to study Torah on Tisha B’Av and on days of mourning (Peninei Halakha: Moadim 1:5).

Half for God, Half for You

It is a mitzvah to dedicate half of the day to Torah study (Pesachim 68b; S.A. 529:1). Some authorities say that one should be very careful not to study less than half a day, and Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar wrote that someone who learns less than half the day, it is as if he has stolen some of God’s part of the day. Others say that it is not necessary to calculate the hours accurately, rather, the mitzvah is to study roughly half the day (Pri Megadim). And since this matter has waned in recent times, it appears there is room to plan that study time and prayers will amount to about nine hours (Peninei Halakha: Moadim 1:6).

Four Parts of the Mitzvah of Simcha

There are four components to the mitzvah of simcḥa. First, the primary expression of the mitzvah is to do something especially enjoyable, which causes one’s joy to permeate the entire festival. 2) Festive meals and nice clothes. There is also a mitzvah to study Torah, because it is enjoyable. 3) To participate in whatever activities one generally enjoys – like singing, dancing, and going on outings. 4) To be in a good mood of joy and contentment.

1. The Additional Simcha of Drinking Wine at the Meal

It is a mitzvah to do something especially enjoyable, which will radiate feelings of joy throughout the Chag. To do this, one should drink wine at the holiday meal. Some halachic authorities are of the opinion that in drinking wine, men and women alike fulfill the mitzvah of additional simcha, while others believe that for women, the primary way to achieve additional simcha is in the purchase of a new garment or piece of jewelry. Indeed, all poskim agree that a woman who does enjoy wine, fulfills a mitzvah by drinking wine.

One who drinks grape juice does not fulfill the mitzvah as it is not alcoholic. The amount of wine one needs to drink in order to enhance one’s mood is enough to cause a bit of difficulty with concentration, such that a rabbi would be considered impaired and thus prohibited from giving a halakhic ruling. Some Torah giants would drink so much wine during the meals on Chag that they refrained from giving rulings until the following day (Beitza 4a). Our Sages estimate that minimally, to achieve the requisite level of simcḥa one must drink slightly more than a revi’it of wine (75 ml), though most people would need to drink considerably more than that to achieve such a state. Nevertheless, one should not overdo the drinking, as we are not meant to get drunk.

Additional Simcha for Women

Women’s mitzvah of extra simcḥa is fulfilled through the purchase of new clothing or jewelry for the festival. The mitzvah is fulfilled by purchasing one garment, and it is not necessary for her to wear the new garment during all the days of Chag, for it still brings joy to the entire Chag and constitutes fulfillment of the first part of the festival mitzvah of simcḥa, i.e., doing something special which gives one enjoyment.

An unmarried woman, whether single or a widow, is obligated to fulfill all aspects of the mitzvah of simcḥa. She should buy an item of clothing or jewelry for the festival, have enjoyable festive meals, and participate in enjoyable events, while avoiding sad activities.

This Year, is it Permissible to Order Gifts Online?

In a normal year, it is forbidden to shop for clothes and jewelry on Chag, since they can be bought before the holiday. However this year due to the lockdown, seeing as many women did not have a chance to buy clothes or jewelry for the Chag, they are permitted to order online (Peninei Halakha: Moadim 1I:16). Included in this heter (halachic permission) is a garment or piece of jewelry especially intended for the simcha of the Chag, but not other clothing unless they are urgently needed for the Chag. It is also permissible to order foods and all bodily needs, such as care products and make-up, as well as products that benefit health and exercise, and sifrei kodesh, but not furniture and appliances that are not necessary for Chag.

2. Simcha in Meals and Clothes

Beyond the special simcha for men to drink wine, and a new garment or jewelry for women, there is a mitzvah to sanctify the Chag with good meals and beautiful clothes, more so than on Shabbat.

3. Singing, Dancing and Outings

Anything that brings one joy is included in the mitzvah of simcḥat Cḥag. This includes singing, dancing, and tiyulim (outings). Unlike the mandatory mitzvot to have festive meals, wear nice clothes, and study Torah, all other activities that provide simcḥa are optional. If one finds them enjoyable, he should engage in them; if one does not, he need not. However, one must be careful that all this enjoyment does not detract from one’s Torah study, as it is a mitzvah to dedicate half the day to study and prayer.

This year, due to the lockdown, we will not be able to celebrate the Chag with dancing with friends and outings. I must admit, however, that to a large extent I am pleased about that, for more people will be able to properly fulfill the mitzvah to study Torah on Chag with their families, as mentioned in Tractate Sukkah (27b): “Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘I praise the indolent who do not emerge from their houses on the Festival.”

4. Festive Mood
It is a mitzvah to be in good spirits for the duration of the festival. At first glance, this would seem to be an easy mitzvah, since everybody wants to be happy. However, in practice this mitzvah is difficult to observe, especially this year when the Coronavirus, with all its health hazards and economic consequences, greatly obscures the joy.

And yet, this is the mitzvah we are tasked with on Chag, to transcend worries, anxieties, overcome anger, and to rejoice in Hashem.

The Mitzvah to Rejoice and Bring Joy to Others

The primary mitzvah of Chag is to rejoice and bring joy to others, for simcha is not genuine if no effort is made to make others happy, as the Torah says: “You shall rejoice on your festival along with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and the Levite, proselyte, orphan and widow from your settlements” (Deuteronomy 16: 14).

The mitzvah to rejoice begins in the nuclear family, and this year, we can fulfill it well. Admittedly, the lockdown is liable to cause tensions, and therefore it is incumbent on everyone to do their best to contribute to the good atmosphere and add simcha to those around him, and to avoid things that will hurt them and detract from the joy of the holiday.

Due to the lockdown, we will not be able to host relatives and friends, but instead, we can talk to them on the phone or by Zoom, and thus, add joy and encouragement to one another.

The Joy of the Harvest Holiday in a Temporary Dwelling

The Holy Blessed One desired to benefit us, and gave us the Holy Land of Israel, a good and spacious land, in which every activity that advances its building is a mitzvah, so that in it, we may keep the Torah and the mitzvot, by means of which all the achievements we accomplish are sanctified – in science, economics, wealth, and welfare.

Nevertheless, a great danger lurks before us: living comfortably in a house, combined with receiving a stable salary, is liable to create a false impression in a person, as if his life is protected and safe. In reality, however, even the strongest and best-built houses cannot protect one from diseases, natural disasters, or wars. And even if one survives all these tragedies and merits to live a good and long life, he will eventually die, and at that time it will become clear that all his dwelling in this world was temporary. And even in those years when he was able to sit peacefully in his protected home – the peace and protection came from Hashem. Anyone who ignores this is living a lie. He thinks that the more he invests in the vanities of this world, the more stable and better life he will have, while the truth is the more he connects his actions in this world to the Source of Life and to eternal values – indeed, he will merit true life – a good and meaningful life, filled with genuine happiness.

Therefore, we were commanded precisely on Chag HaAsif (Harvest Festival), in which we rejoice in all the good we have harvested, to sit in the sukkah, a temporary dwelling, and thus, bear in mind the temporary existence of man in the world. And as a result, open ourselves to emunah (faith) and deveykut (devotion) to Hashem, and He will spread His shelter of peace upon us, and our lives will be strengthened beyond the boundaries of time and place, to the vision of tikkun olam for the entire world.

Deveykut to Hashem on Chag Sukkot

The lockdown, in which we have nowhere to travel or go, affords us a special opportunity to relax, to breathe the life that Hashem has granted us, and to express it with sensitivity, in suitable meals and joyful study.

Just as we must beware of the arrogance of nonbelievers who think they control everything but the plague proved them wrong, in fact, evidencing that our lives are temporary and fragile – equally, we must beware of the arrogance of so-called ‘maaminim’ (‘believers’) who now enthusiastically declare that ‘ha’kol be-yedai Shamayim’ (‘everything is in the hands of Heaven’) and nothing is in human hands. They, too, are disbelievers, because Hashem created man in His image so that he may be a partner in tikkun olam and its perfection, and for that we rejoice on Chag HaAsif.

Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKoken Kook, explained that in understanding deveykut to Hashem, people make three mistakes: first, they think that deveykut to Hashem is “more important than actual life”. Second, that it is relevant only to tzadikim (the righteous) and chasidim (the pious). And third, that it is a matter of le’atid le’voh (for future times). Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda taught that counter to this, it is written: “Ve’atem ha’deveykim ba’Hashem chaim kulchem ha’yom” (“Only you, the ones who remained attached to God your Lord, are all alive today”) (Deuteronomy 4: 4), and explained the words: ‘atem’ (‘You’) – those alive here and now; ‘kulchem‘ (‘all’) – with all your strengths; ‘ha’yom’ (‘today’) – now. (Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda, Sukkot, p. 147).

Chag HaAsif in the Year of Corona

Every year anew, out of the joy in all the good Hashem has given us, and while sitting in the sukkah in the shadow of the Shechina (Divine Presence), we learn again what is the ikar (most important), and what is tafel (secondary), and consequently, correct our priorities.

Nevertheless, we are not always successful in truly acknowledging the transience of our lives, and to rejoice in the goodness of Hashem. This year, when the entire world fears the Coronavirus, gathering in the sukkah can be very meaningful, and if fortunate, from it we will be able to design a revised and advanced agenda, for a good year for ourselves, and the whole world.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.



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