Every year, my synagogue builds a magnificent sukkah, four walls of wood, greenery galore for its roof, and enough space to seat 150 people or more. But not this year.
Because due to the concerns of COVID and the need to provide for greater air circulation, this year, we've decided to build a sukkah of just three walls, to leave one side wide open so that those who sit in our sukkah will be safer.
But is a three-walled sukkah "kosher?"
According to the Code of Jewish Law (OC630:2), not only is a three-walled sukkah kosher, but even a two-walled sukkah with just a portion of a third wall is perfectly fit. Of course, that is, as long as the roof, with its greenery (
), still offers more shade than sunlight.
How can that be? Would just three cups of wine on Passover be enough? Would three fringes on a
be sufficient? Of course not! So why would three walls be perfectly good-even by the strictest of standards?
According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 1:1), the answer is found in verse from Isaiah (4:6), which describes three functions of a sukkah, ergo the three walls. This is also the position of the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 6b).
But there may be another reason why a missing wall is not a problem, one which harks back to a Talmudic debate over the reason for this holiday. According to the second-century sage, Rabbi Eliezer, we observe Sukkot as a remembrance of the "clouds of glory" which escorted and protected the Jews through their 40 years of wandering. On the other hand, the famous Rabbi Akiva said that we observe Sukkot to commemorate the huts the Jews lived in during their years in the desert (Sukkah 11b).
Asked the nineteenth-century sage, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan OC 625); according to Rabbi Eliezer, we can understand the reason for Sukkot - to remember the God's miraculous protection of our people. But according to Rabbi Akiva, why establish a holiday to remember structures in which we lived?
The answer he wrote explained that remembering how we lived in the desert is a tribute to the faith of the Jewish people, who, despite the dangers, despite the uncertainty, were willing to follow Moses for 40 years.
According to Rabbi Akiva, Sukkot celebrates the miracle of faith, a miracle of a people who, despite all that they lacked, despite never knowing what the next day would bring, nor where they would be the next day, had faith.
This is symbolized by a sukkah - not a perfect structure, but an imperfect one. For this reason, a sukkah of three walls is perfectly fit to be used, not in a de facto sense, but de jure. Because the sukkah celebrates our faith despite uncertainty and reminds us that while life may be imperfect, it must still be celebrated.
For, in reality, no one has all four walls of life intact. In varying degrees, we all experience measures of sorrow or failure, loss, or disappointment. No one is exempt; no one is alone; because in life, a three-walled sukkah is the rule and not the exception.
This is a lesson we must recall in these unusual times when our world has been turned upside down, and we find ourselves living lives very different than we ever imagined. On the one hand, we could mourn the loss of our fourth wall - of social interactions that are now limited, and the health risks we must face. Or we can remember the message of Sukkot, which our Torah identifies as
(a holiday of joy), and celebrate the three walls that are still intact, the imperfect world in which we live.
For me, this year's three-walled sukkah will be a sight for sore eyes. It will be a sign that we remember but an opportunity to celebrate that God will protect us if we continue to move forward with faith and confidence that even in the uncertainty of these times, God will "spread His sukkah of peace over us and of His nation Israel."
Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky, Ph.D., is the Dean of Ida Crown Jewish Academy.