Category Archives: Sukkos

Thirteen Times Two Equals One

Oddly, a Hebrew phrase familiar to the Jewishly-educated is routinely used to refer to two entirely different and seemingly unrelated things.

The phrase is “Yud Gimmel Middos” – literally, “13 Measures” – and one of its usages was prominent over the days from before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur.  In that context, the phrase refers to the verses from Shemos (34:6-7) that begin with G-d’s name stated twice (with a pause signaled between them, representing, the Talmud says, one’s different relationship to G-d “before he has sinned and after he has sinned and repented”) and comprising in all a list of thirteen aspects (or, as commonly rendered, “attributes”) of His mercy.  The verses form the centerpiece of the Selichos supplications recited throughout the High Holidays season and are prominent in the Yom Kippur services, including its concluding prayer Ne’ila.

According to Jewish tradition, the formula was taught to Moshe by G-d Himself after our ancestors’ sin of venerating the golden calf.  Acceding to Moshe’s plea that He forgive the people their sin, Hashem then tells Moshe that, in the Talmud’s words, “when trouble comes upon the Jews because of their iniquities, let them stand together before Me and recite” the Attributes of Mercy.  (Commentaries stress the need to do more than merely recite the verses, the need to emulate the Divine patience and understanding they embody.)

The “13 Middos” of mercy thus reflect Hashem’s compassion and love.

The other “13 Middos” refers to a list recited daily before the actual start of the first portion of morning prayers, at the conclusion of what is popularly referred to as the “Karbonos” portion of the traditional liturgy.   This list, cited in Rabbi Yishmael’s name in the Sifri, a Midrash of halachic material, enumerates the “hermeneutical” rules by which Jewish laws are derived from the Torah’s verses.  Some of that methodology, more completely known as the “13 Middos Through Which the Torah is Interpreted,” is logical, some of it not obviously so; all of it comprises a sacred part of the Oral Law itself.

That both the expressions of Hashem’s mercy and the hermeneutical principles number thirteen, and that both are described as “middos” is intriguing.  And it may be meaningful too.

Everyone who has ever thought of G-d, certainly in the context of Judaism, has probably paused at the fact that, at least from human perspective, the Creator seems to present two different “faces.”  On the one hand, He is the Merciful, the life-Giver, the Forgiver of sins and Bestower of blessings.  And, on the other, He is the Lawgiver, instilling the laws of nature in the universe, and charging humanity with the foundational “Noachide” laws – and the Jews, with the laws of the Torah.

Christianity seized on that seeming dichotomy, choosing to emphasize G-d as Merciful and, to one or another degree, to “downgrade” G-d as Lawgiver.  Circumcision and most other Jewish laws were abandoned by the early Church and, later, Thomas Aquinas expressly judged the Torah’s “ceremonial and judicial” laws to be no longer binding.

But even some Jews who would never think to affirm Christian theology have subtly come to effectively accept that bifurcation, laying claim to Hashem’s love but regarding His law, with all its complexity and detail, as off-putting and passé.

However difficult the idea may be for them to internalize, though, the same G-d is the Source of both love and demand.  The opening words of a prayer recited throughout the Days of Repentance say it clearly: Hashem is “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) – both a merciful Parent and a demanding Sovereign.

Perhaps that is the subtle implication of the strange fact of the two “13 Middos” – that the Source of mercy and patience is the very same Source of law and obligation.  Indeed, that Divine mercy and Divine law are inseparable facets of the same Unity.  The demands of Divine law are born of Divine love; they reflect G-d’s concern for our own ultimate wellbeing.

It’s a thought worth thinking as, after Yom Kippur, we emerge from days of focus on the Divine as forgiving Father immediately and seamlessly into days of preparing for Sukkos, paying heed, as commanded, to the myriad technical and exacting laws of the “four species” and the sukkah – laws based, of course, on the 13 hermeneutical principles of Rabbi Yishmael.

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran


The defining element of the sukkah is the once-growing but now detached material that must comprise the structure’s roof.

Some use untreated bamboo canes; others, mats woven for the purpose from slivers of the same material; others still, branches or leaves or thin, unfinished wooden slats.  Whatever its particular identity, the s’chach takes its name from the Hebrew word meaning to “cover” or “hover”; the word sukkah itself refers to the same.

But there is another Hebrew word associated with the word sukkah – “socheh” – and its meaning is “to see” or “to perceive.”  That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow provides some perspective.  Which, in fact, it does.

That is surely true on a mystical plane, but there is prosaic vision to be gained no less.  It doesn’t take inordinate sensitivity to see things a bit differently while spending a week in a small rudimentary hut, within sight of, yet apart from, one’s more comfortable, more spacious home.

One realizes quickly, for example, how dependent one is on “the elements” – which, in Judaism’s teaching, means on G-d’s mercy.  The house is nearby, and if it rains hard enough one can – indeed should – return to surer shelter.  But the lesson remains, because homes aren’t impervious to disruptions either, as we have witnessed all too often of late.  Nature is a humbling force, or should be; that is certainly part of the perspective granted the sukkah-dweller.

But there is more.  What the sukkah allows those within it to perceive, if they try, is that our homes and possessions are not what really matter.  That ultimately, it is not, as the crass bumper sticker has it, “the one who dies with the most toys” who “wins.”  When we sit in our primitive week-house, we come to know that the accumulation of stuff we consider important is not essential.  We can exist without it.  It does not define us.  We will not take it with us.

It may seem an odd thing to say, but that thought is a joyous one.

Sukkos has simcha, joy, as its theme.  In our prayers on the days of the holiday we reference not “freedom” as on Pesach, nor “the giving of our Torah” as on Shavuos, but, simply, simchaseinu, “our happiness.”  One might assume at first thought that depriving oneself of the comforts of home is anything but a road to joy.  But one would be wrong.

For true happiness begins with the realization of what doesn’t really make us happy. Possessions may provide a rush of sorts when first acquired, but that soon enough wears off, like any drug.  The soul is not satiated, which is why – again, like a drug – possessions beget the desire, even the need, for yet more of the same.  In the words of Chazal, “he who has a hundred wants two hundred.”  And, in another place but the same vein, “No man dies with half his desires in hand.”

Need we look further than the possession-endowed of whom we may have heard – the entertainers, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed and lottery-winners alike?  They may zip around in Lamborghinis but their happiness quotient is no greater than that of those who take the bus.  Their grand estates are no more of a home (and all too often considerably less of one) than the simplest, cozy cottage.

In the end, dependency on having as the means to fulfillment dashes all hope of truly attaining the goal.

Because true joy comes from things more rarified than what we can buy.  It comes from our relationships not with things, but with other people – parents, spouses, children, friends, neighbors – and our relationships with our community, and with the Creator.

And so, a deeper perspective afforded us by the sukkah may lie in the realization that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are – to other people and to G-d.

And so, while countless Jewish eyes will soon gaze up at bamboo slats, leaves and branches, they will in fact be seeing far beyond.

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Sukkah Still Stands

There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set.  As a song, it is familiar to many of us who were introduced to it by immigrant parents or grandparents.  And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, remains tender, profound and timely.

Several years ago, thinking about the song, as so many invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written.  I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal.  But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original.

Here goes:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.


A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.


In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”


Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the sukkeleh’s still standing upright.

As we approach the holiday of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the Sinai desert, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy.  We refer to Sukkos, in our prayers as z’man simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”

And yet, at least seen superficially, Jewish joy seems misplaced and elusive these days.  Jews are brazenly and cruelly murdered in our ancestral homeland, hated and attacked on the streets of not only European cities but places like Canada and Australia as well – and here in the United States, our numbers are falling to the internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation.

The poet, however, well captured a transcendent Sukkos-truth.  With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure, ultimately protected as a people if not necessarily as individuals.

And Klal Yisroel’s security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our foreparents, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

So, no matter how loudly the winds and the tyrants may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity.  No, instead we redouble our recognition that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand. 

© 2007 Rabbi Avi Shafran


A Lesson in Love

I used to pass the fellow each morning as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work.  He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passers-by, one of several poster-board and marker signs he had made.  One read “I love you!”  Another: “You are wonderful!”  The words of the others escape me, but the sentiments were similar.

He seemed fairly normal, well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he offered his written expressions of ardor to all of us rushing to our offices. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but I know that something about it bothered me.

Then one day I put my finger on it.  It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but it is simply not possible.  If one gushes good will at everyone, one offers it in fact to no one at all.

By definition, love must exist within boundaries, and our love for those close to us is of a different nature than our empathy for others with whom we don’t share our personal lives.  And what is more, only those who make the effort to love their immediate families and friends have any chance of truly caring, on any level, about all of mankind.

Likewise, those with the most well-honed sense of concern for their own particular communities are the ones best suited to experience true empathy for people who do not share their own national, ethnic or religious identity.

The thought, it happens, is most appropriate for this time of Jewish year, as Sukkos gives way, without so much as a second’s pause, to Shemini Atzeres (in the Gemara’s words, “a yom tov unto itself.”)

While most Jewish holidays tend to focus on the Jewish people and its particular historical narrative, Sukkos, interestingly, also includes something of a “universalist” element.  In the times of the Beis HaMikdosh, the seven days of Sukkos saw a total of seventy calf-sacrifices offered on the altar, corresponding, says the Gemara, to “the seventy nations of the world.”

Those nations – the various families of the people on earth – are not written off by our mesorah.  A mere four days before Sukkos’s arrival, on Yom Kippur, Jews in synagogues around the world read Sefer Yonah, the story of the prophet who was sent to warn a distant people to repent, and who, in the end, saved them from destruction.  Similarly, the sacrifices in the Beis HaMikdosh, the Gemara informs us, brought divine blessings down upon all the world’s peoples.  Had the ancient Romans known just how greatly they benefited from the merit of the sacrificial service, Chazal remarked, instead of destroying the structure, they would have placed protective guards around it.

And yet, curiously but pointedly, Sukkos’s recognition of the worth of all humanity is made real by the holiday that directly follows it, Shemini Atzeres.

The Hebrew word atzeres can mean “refraining” or “detaining,” and the Gemara (Sukkah, 55b) teaches that Shemini Atzeres (literally: “the eighth day [after the start of Sukkos], a detaining”) gives expression to Hashem’s special relationship with Klal Yisroel.

A parable is offered:

A king invited his servants to a large feast that lasted a number of days.  On the final day of the festivities, the king told the one most beloved to him, “Prepare a small repast for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company.”

That is Shemini Atzeres, when Hashem “detains” the people He chose to be an example to the rest of mankind, when, after the seventy sacrifices of the preceding seven days, a single par, corresponding to Klal Yisroel, is brought on the altar.

We Jews are often assailed for our belief that Hashem chose us from among the nations to proclaim His existence and to call on all humankind to recognize our collective immeasurable debt to Him.

And those who are irritated by that message like to characterize the special bond Jews feel for one another as hubris, even as contempt for others.

The very contrary, however, is the truth.  The special relationship we Jews have with each other and with HaKodosh Boruch Hu, the relationships we acknowledge in particular on Shemini Atzeres, are what provide us the ability to truly care – with our hearts, not our mere lips or poster boards – about the rest of the world.  They are what allow us to hope – as we declare in Aleinu thrice daily – that, even as we reject the idolatries that have infected the human race over history, “all the peoples of the world” will one day come to join together with us and “pay homage to the glory of Your name.”

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran