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Hakhel: Can Our Sukkah Welcome All?

The Baal Shem Tov's Broken Sukkah

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

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  • September 24, 2015
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  • 11 Tishrei 5776
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Class Summary:

Every student of the Laws of Sukkah will observe an anomaly—and it is a theme that pervades many pages of Tractate Sukkah: The sukkah laws allow for scores of “loopholes,” pun intended. Many strange and extreme leniencies exist when it comes to the construction of a sukkah. The sukkah allows for a “curved wall,” for large empty spaces, for large patches of un-kosher sechach, for a sukkah with few or no walls, for drapes that don’t reach the ground, and many more loopholes.

These leniencies were transmitted by oral tradition from Moses. Yet, the obvious question is why does the Torah allow for so many loopholes in the construction of a sukkah? Particularly when we compare Sukkos to its partner holiday—Passover. There, the laws are extremely stringent with little compromise and loopholes. Even a tiny bit of chemetz is absolutely forbidden to consume on Passover. The matzahs must be guarded heavily. The home must be cleansed and every last speck of chametz obliterated. Why this dramatic distinction between Passover and Sukkos?

A story: One Sukkot, some Rabbis living in Mezibuzh, who opposed the Baal Shem Tov, decided to come inspect his sukkah. Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah was the most flawed sukkah you can imagine. It was filled with gaps and was problems of all sorts. When the Rabbis inspected his sukkah, they concluded it was invalid to use for the holiday. The Baal Shem Tov argued his case, trying to demonstrate that it was kosher—barely kosher, but kosher nonetheless. The Baal Shem Tov rested his head in his arms, in a trance. When he opened his hand, he was holding a note of parchment that stated: “This sukkah of the Baal Shem Tov is kosher. [Signed] Matat, the minister of interior.”

This seems senseless. Every simple Jew makes an effort to construct a Sukkah that is at least kosher without a doubt. Even if it is not the most beautiful and perfect sukkah, at least it should pass as kosher without a question. Why would the Baal Shem Tov, the greatest tzaddik of his day, and an unparalleled spiritual giant and leader, construct a sukkah that aroused doubts to its validity? Aside from all the above, why did the great master need this entire drama? If the rabbis said it was non- kosher, did he really need to resort to a supernatural miracle just to prove his point?

It was on the second day of Sukkot of the year 5727-1966, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe offered a moving insight into this story. It was uniquely connected, perhaps, to the special nature of that year, 5727, which just as this year, 5766, was a year of Hakhel.

The sukkah, says the Talmud, is the “space” in which every Jew feels that he belongs. But can that really be? There are so many Jews who feel that they are unwelcome in our collective “tent.” So many Jews don’t feel “safe” in our synagogues, in our communities, in our homes, in our “sukkah.” They feel judged, ridiculed, out of place, or at edge. They don’t feel loved, embraced, and hugged.

The story of Mosheleh the thief who was rejected by a great Rabbi and then came crying at the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov. “Everyone wants to be the Rebbe of perfect people; nobody wants to be the Rebbe of thieves!” The story of one of the greatest heretics in modern Israeli history who was given a Hakafah on Simchas Torah in “770,” and decided to die as a Jew. 

The Baal Shem Tov developed a new vision for the Jewish people—and it is the vision we must embrace on this special Sukkos of Hakhel.

Hebrew Lessons

This fellow, a very secular Jew, comes to the Rabbi asking to teach him Judaism. The Rabbi says, sure, come Monday at 8 and we will study.

How much is your fee? Asks the man.

The Rabbi says, it is for free. Moses did not charge him, he does not charge others. The man is impressed. “What a Rabbi you are!” he says.

The guy shows up on Monday at 8, and the Rabbi gives him a Hebrew Chumash and tells him to start reading.

The man says: I can’t read! That is why I am here to learn.

The Rabbi says: “Ah! Hebrew lessons? $200 an hour.”

Optional Section

Why So Many Loopholes?

The Torah states, [1] “You shall dwell in a sukkah over seven days,” beginning with the 15th day of Nissan. What is the definition and meaning of a sukkah? How do you construct a sukkah? That the Torah does not specify. As is the case with most mitzvos in the Torah, it came along with an oral commentary, later transcribed in the Mishnah and the Talmud. In this case, all of the details explaining the meaning of sukkah are articulated in Tractate Sukkah in the Mishnah and the Talmud, and in the Code of Jewish law, in the Laws of Sukkah.

Yet even the most basic student of the Laws of Sukkah will observe an anomaly—and it is a theme that pervades many pages of Tractate Sukkah: The sukkah laws allow for scores of “loopholes,” pun intended. Many strange and extreme leniencies exist when it comes to the construction of a sukkah.

I will cite a few examples of many. One is the law known as Dofen Akumah, “the curved wall.” We know that the roof of a sukkah, the sechach, must be made of raw, inedible produce from the earth, like bamboo poles, evergreen branches, reeds, corn stalks, narrow strips (1×1 or 1×2) of unfinished lumber, etc. and the sechach must be directly under the sky. An overhang on the sechach deems the sukkah invalid. However, say you have an overhang on part of your sechach, which comes in between your walls and the kosher sechach, then the law of curved wall allows up to four amos (around six feet) of an overhang to be considered an extension of the vertical wall below, as opposed to non-kosher sechach. (One could have a dofen akumah on all four sides of a sukkah, with an area in the middle of seven tefachim, seven handbreadths by seven handbreadths (about 21 inches) of kosher s'chach being enough for a kosher sukkah.[2])

Another major leniency in the construction of a sukkah is the number of walls creating the interior space of the sukkah. Although you might have thought one needs four walls for a sukkah, in reality, it is sufficient to have only two whole walls and the third wall may be one tefach (almost four inches) wide.[3]

Another loophole is that at you may have large patches of non-kosher sechach above your sukkah, as long as each patch is no larger than 4 tefachim (around 16 inches in both length and breath). You may also have open gaps in your sechach, as long as they are not larger than 3 tefachim (around 12 inches in length and breath). You can sit under this un-kosher sechach or under this empty space in your sechach. 

Then you have a law known as lavud. This law treats gaps of less than three tefachim (around 10-12 inches) as if they are enclosed. (This is why a board that is slightly bigger than one tefach can be placed within three tefachim of the corner to create a four tefach wall.[4]) This is why your sukkah walls can be removed from your sechach, on all four sides, even with close to ten inches of empty space! It is also why the drapes or walls of the sukkah do not have to reach till the ground, but there may be around 10 in. of space between the draping and the ground.

One more extraordinary leniency. The Mishna states,[5] and many people do this in practice, that the walls do not have to extend all the way up to the schach. It is sufficient if the walls are ten tefachim high (around 35-40 inches). But they can be far remove from the roof. This is based on a principal of gud asik mechitzta (the wall extends upwards), in which we project the walls upward.[6]

This law gets even more extreme: The Talmud cites an opinion, and this is the halachik view of the Rambam, that one can build a sukkah without ANY walls on the top of a flat roof. You can place four poles on the four corners of a roof, place sechach over them, and use this space as a kosher sukkah. The basis for allowing a sukkah that has no walls at the edge of the roof is this above principle of gud asik mechitzta (the wall extends upwards). Therefore, the walls of the house extend upwards to create the walls of the sukkah. One need not worry about building any walls for the sukkah. [7]

All these leniencies were transmitted by oral tradition from Moses.[8] Yet, the obvious question is why does the Torah allow for so many loopholes in the construction of a sukkah?

Particularly when we compare Sukkos to its partner holiday—Passover. There, the laws are extremely stringent with little compromise and loopholes. Even a tiny bit of chemetz is absolutely forbidden to consume on Passover. The matzahs must be guarded heavily. The home must be cleansed and every last speck of chametz obliterated. Why this dramatic distinction between Passover and Sukkos?

End of optional section

A Blemished Sukkah

There is a wonderful and bizarre Sukkot story[9] about Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement, one of the greatest thinkers and leaders in Jewish history.

The Baal Shem Tov lived in the Ukrainian city of Mezibuzh (people still go to visit his shul and final resting place.) One Sukkot, some Rabbis living in Mezibuzh, who opposed the Baal Shem Tov, decided to come inspect his sukkah.

Now, as mentioned, the construction of a sukkah has many laws, concerning its height, width, number of walls, nature of its roof made of greens (sechach). Each aspect is nuanced with many details and intricacies. [For example, if there is empty space in the roof of the sukkah around ten inches (in length and width), one can’t eat under that space. If the sechach is removed from the edge of the walls more than 10 inches, the entire sukkah is invalid. If someone uses drapes for the walls of a sukkah and they are not firmly fixed with pegs in the ground, again the sukkah is worthless. If the drapes or walls of the sukkah do not reach the ground, and there is 10 in. of space between the draping and the ground, the Sukkah is not kosher. If the sukkah does not have two complete walls and part of a third wall, it is invalid. If the sechach is above 30 ft., again it is invalid. If there is a tree draped over a sukkah, it can be very problematic. If a person opens the roof of their home to place sechach there, but between the sechach and the walls of the home there is on any side 20 feet of regular roof, or there is a balcony in the length of 20 ft. between the wall of the sukkah and the kosher sechach, that wall is not counted. ]

Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah was the most flawed sukkah you can imagine. It was filled with gaps and was problems of all sorts. It relied on many, if not all, of the above mentioned leniencies and beyond: From curved walls, to open gaps, from missing walls, to un-kosher sechach. When the Rabbis inspected his sukkah, they concluded it was invalid to use for the holiday. The Baal Shem Tov argued his case, trying to demonstrate that it was kosher—barely kosher, but kosher nonetheless. Yes, the walls were incomplete, there were gaps in the sechach, there were flaws right, left and center, but it passed according to Jewish law. It did not get a
66 mark, but it got a 65. Yet the distinguished Rabbis would not let go. They insisted it was not kosher for use: The Baal Shem Tov would not fulfill his sukkah obligation if he sat in his sukkah.

[Note: The following paragraph is not necessary for the theme of the sermon.] The Baal Shem Tov sat down and engaged in deep meditation and “deveikut,” in spiritual intimacy with the Divine. The Baal Shem Tov rested his head in his arms, in a trance. When he opened his hand, he was holding a note of parchment that stated: “This sukkah of the Baal Shem Tov is kosher. [Signed] Matat, the minister of interior.” (The “Matat” angel is one of the well- known in Talmud and the Kabbalah.)[10] The Rabbis were forced to embrace the view of the Baal Shem Tov that his sukkah was kosher.[11]

Why Create Such a Flawed Sukkah?

The story is profoundly bazar and perplexing. There is concept in Judaism known as “hedur mitzvah,” performing a mitzvah with beauty, and to the highest possible standard. We don’t just purchase any esrog, any mezuzah or any pair of tefilin. We make an effort to get ourselves a beautiful esrog, tafilin and mezuzos. Even if the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah was kosher, it barely passed as such. Why would this great man not construct a most beautiful, exquisite sukkah? Why build a sukkah using the minimum rather than the maximum requirements?

What is more, every simple Jew makes an effort to construct a Sukkah that is at least kosher without a doubt. Even if it is not the most beautiful and perfect sukkah, at least it should pass as kosher without a question. Why would the Baal Shem Tov, the greatest tzaddik of his day, and an unparalleled spiritual giant and leader, construct a sukkah that aroused doubts to its validity? Even had he prevailed in the argument over the Mezibuzh sages, why would the Baal Shem Tov put himself in such a compromising position, and simply not just have a sukkah that was impeccably kosher by at least the most basic standards?

[The question becomes even stronger based on the Talmudic explanation in the words of the prophet Ezekial,[12] “Non-kosher meat has not come into my mouth.”

חולין לז, ב: (יחזקאל ד, יד) ואומר אהה ה' אלהים הנה נפשי לא מטומאה ונבלה וטרפה לא אכלתי מנעורי ועד עתה ולא בא בפי בשר פגול... ולא בא בפי בשר פגול שלא אכלתי מבהמה שהורה בה חכם.

What does this mean? Asks the Talmud. Many other Jews have also not eaten non-kosher food? The Talmud explains[13] that Ezekiel meant, that if a doubt raised on the kosher status of a particular piece of meat, then even if a Rabbi ruled the meat kosher by all standards, Ezekiel would not eat from it because the kashrut was once in doubt! The very fact that there was a question, made it un-kosher for a man of the caliber of Ezekiel. Yet the Baal Shem Tov, whose fear of heaven and dedication to Torah was beyond what we can even imagine, sat in a sukkah whose status was not only in doubt, but one that even the Rabbis could not easily deem kosher even according to the most minimum standards!]

Aside from all the above, why did the great master need this entire drama? If the rabbis said it was not- kosher, why could he not fix it up a bit and make it kosher? Did he really need to resort to a supernatural miracle just to prove his point? Would it not have been more appropriate just to upgrade his sukkah from 0.1 to 1.0?!

A Hakhel Plot

It was on the second day of Sukkot of the year 5727-1966, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe offered a moving insight into this story.[14] It was uniquely connected, perhaps, to the special nature of that year, 5727, which just as this year, 5766, was a year of Hakhel.

Hakhel was a remarkable moment in Jewish life: Once in every seven years, during the Sukkos holiday right after the seventh shmitah/sabbatical year, the entire Jewish nation would come together, in one place, at one time, for one purpose. On the eve of the Second day of Sukkot, following the shmitah year, all Jews, men, women, children, even infants, would gather at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jewish King would address them by reading a few sections of the Torah. This did not happen annually, only every seventh year. It was, says Maimonides,[15] a reenactment of Sinai. The entire nation came together to recall who they are, where they come from, and where they are heading. Imagine: every single Jew alive was obligated to make his or her way to Jerusalem. No Jew was to be missing. No Jew was to be excluded

This present year, 5776 (2015-2016), is a Hakhel year. Though we don’t have the Temple and the King, it is a year charged with an extraordinary energy and opportunity to bring together people, to unite Jews, and inspire each other. It was this theme of Hakhel that guided, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the thinking of the Baal Shem Tov when he constructed his heavily flawed sukkah. It is this theme that allows us to understand the message behind the numerous leniencies in the laws of sukkah.

The National Umbrella

The Talmud in tractate Sukkah[16] teaches:

סוכה כז, ב: כל האזרח בישראל ישבו בסוכות מלמד שכל ישראל ראוים לישב בסוכה אחת.

The Torah states, "For seven days ... all who belong to the people of Israel will dwell in sukkot [thatched huts].”[17] This teaches that it is fitting for all of Israel to sit in one sukkah.

This is not only a legal statement, that all Jews may use one sukkah, for we may fulfill the mitzvah in a borrowed sukkah. The Talmud is saying something deeper: The sukkah, by definition, is a “space” in which every Jew ought to feel that he or she belongs.[18]

The structure of the sukkah is meant to contain and serve as a “home,” a haven, for every single Jew, and for every type of Jew. Every Jew must feel that he or she has a place in our sukkah. The sukkah represents the national umbrella of the Jewish nation, the collective space of Klal Yisroel. It is a space where every Jew must be made to feel “safe,” secure, welcome, comfortable, at ease, at peace.

The Kabbalah teaches that the Sukkah represents a Divine embrace, a G-dly hug.[19] The sukkah is G-d’s home, made of natural elements, outdoors. In G-d’s home, every Jew is welcome. The Divine embrace encompass, in the Talmud’s expression “kal yisroel,” all of our people, every man, woman and child, with no exception.

We Feel Judged

But can that really be? There are so many Jews who feel that they are unwelcome in our collective “tent.” Either it is we who make them feel that way, or it is perhaps their own perception, or a combination of the two, but the fact is that so many Jews don’t feel “safe” in our synagogues, in our communities, in our homes, in our “sukkah.” They feel judged, ridiculed, out of place, or at edge. They don’t feel loved, embraced, and hugged. They may have struggles other don’t have, they may be on a path others can’t relate to, they may be in a different space, religiously, socially, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. And they feel unwelcome. They—and we—sometimes feel that they do not really belong in the sukkah of “Klal Yisroel,” in the Divine tent of the Jewish people.

But the Baal Shem Tov, the great Rebbe of the Jewish people, would not allow this. He yearned to ensure, even at great personal spiritual risk and peril, that in his sukkah, every single Jew, every single type of person, was welcome. He purposefully compromised the high standards of a sukkah; he constructed a frail, blemished, flawed, unstable, flimsy, problematic, wounded, broken sukkah—so that every Jew could feel perfectly at “home” in his sukkah.  

Had he constructed a most perfect sukkah, with four complete walls, with perfectly kosher sechach,with  no gaps, spaces, and voids, some Jews might have felt very much at home in his tent; but how about those people who felt flawed, broken and confused? How about those who had many gaps in their lives? Those whose “walls” were broken, whose boundaries were violated, whose hearts were shattered, whose intimacy abused? How about those who still had some un-kosher aspects in their lives? Could they feel that the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah was their home? Was it a space where they can enter and be allowed to experience unconditional love, an unconditional embrace, and feel the infinite love G-d has to them, and be allowed to grow there according to their abilities and individual path?

And does this not apply really to each of us? Are we not all broken in one way or another? Do we not each have unresolved pain, wounds and challenges? Do we not each carry scars and anguish? Do we not each have something un-kosher in our lives? Here is the big question: Can we bring those parts of ourselves into the sukkah? Does the Jewish tent, does Judaism, do our synagogues, communities, homes, schools, social circles, welcome people in their full honest vulnerability, or must we all enter into the sukkah with our fake, “perfect” selves, leaving our broken pieces outside of the sukkah?

A Challenge to Our Community

As a community, I ask you and challenge myself and all of us: At our gatherings, as we sit together, pray together, study together, socialize together, are we open to real, honest, raw, conversation, communication and friendship? Or do we all feel we have to dress up in our perfect dresses or suits and display a most perfect identity? Does our collective “sukkah” welcome real people in their totality, or only fake people who know how to put on the right make-up and display the right “look?”

The Baal Shem Tov embodied a new vision for our people. I want every Jew to feel at home in my sukkah, he said. And even more, I want every Jew to bring in his or her entire being into my sukkah—not only his or her wholesome parts, but also their broken parts, their incompleteness, their fragments, their flaws, trials, questions, pain, vulnerability. My sukkah is “big” enough, warm enough, holy enough, and confident enough, to embrace, encompass and include each and every one of you, in the totality of your being.

Between Passover and Sukkos

This is the key distinction between Passover and Sukkos. On Passover, I bring G-d into my home; on Sukkos G-d welcomes me into His home.

When I bring G-d into my home, I must clean it up thoroughly. Even a tiny speck of dirt is inappropriate is I am to host the King of Kings. But on Sukkos? Gevald! Now the King invites me to His home. So my host says: I want every Jew in my tent! Everyone is welcome. Even the Jew who has gaps in his or her life, who needs to improve in this or that, even the Jew’s who roofs, walls, drapes, are incomplete, even that person belongs in My sukkah.

The Rebbe of Thieves

They tell the story about Moishele, the most successful thief of Mezibuzh, the city of the Baal Shem Tov. Every time the police were hot on Moishele’s trail, he knew exactly where to run. Moishele would come sweating and swearing through the study hall, rushing to the Baal Shem’s private study. He would confess his crimes and ask the Rebbe to give him a blessing. The Baal Shem tried to explain to him to choose another path in life, but still he always embraced him and blessed him.

One day Moishele pulls off the biggest heist of his life – 50,000 rubles! And sure enough the police are after him. But he’s not worried, he’s got the Baal Shem Tov.

He runs through the study hall and bangs on the Baal Shem’s door. No answer. Again. No answer. Getting nervous, he approaches the students and asks for their teacher. They silently stare at him. One of them finally answers in amazement, “Where have you been? Don’t you know the Holy Baal Shem passed away yesterday?”

It suddenly became painfully clear to Moishele just how precious the Baal Shem Tov was to him. He felt so alone, with no one there to run to, no one to bless him. “What can I do?” he asks the students, “Isn’t there anyone who can bless me? I need help fast.” “Go to Rabbi Yaakov Yoseph of Pulnah who is presently in Mezhibuzh,” they answer, “They say he may become the Baal Shem Tov’s predecessor – perhaps he can bless you.”

Moishele runs to Rabbi Yaakov Yoseph, bursts in, confesses his crime and begs for a blessing. Aghast, Reb Yaakov Yoseph replies, “You must be mad! You just stole 50,000 rubbles and you have the nerve to come into my study asking for a blessing! Get out, you thief!

Moishele, devastated, has nowhere else to turn. So he runs to the newly laid grave of his master. He falls onto the dirt, and in tears calls out these words:

“Rebbe! Holy Baal Shem Tov. All the great Jews want to be Rebbes for perfect, righteous people. They all want perfect students, wonderful disciples. Nobody want to be the Rebbe of the thieves. Only you were a Rebbe for thieves too!”

Friends, what deep words coming from a thief! We all want to be the Rebbes of the perfect Jew. It is fun and delightful to be a parent, a teacher, a mentor for the perfect ones. But we often do not want to deal with broken souls, crushed hearts, victims of abuse, fragmented individuals, who struggle and are torn? We don’t want to deal with people who may have made big mistakes and have “stolen” their own spark of G-d, or who may have found the wrong channels to express their energy.

But the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah embraced even the thieves. It was a place where even the thief can find his way back to G-d, back to truth, back to honesty, back to healthy, moral, deep living.

The Dream

Back to our story. Mosheleh fell asleep at the fresh gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov. And in his dream, his master appeared to him. The Baal Shem Tov equipped him with a sign and sent him to his grandson, Reb Moshe Ephraim, the Degel Machane Ephraim. The Baal Shem Tov gave him a sign (a special explanation in Zohar that he heard from the Baal Shem Tov), so that his grandson would know it was a real dream. Indeed, this grandson[20] became his Rebbe, and taught him the way back to his own soul.

The Baal Shem was the master of the “hidden thief,” in each one of us. We are all Moshele the Thief. We all have our demons, our addictions, skeletons, and moments of weakness. Each of us sometimes “steals” a piece of our souls. The sukkah of Yidishkeit has a sacred place for each of us in the totality of our being.

We Don’t Reject Anyone

It goes yet one step deeper. There is a sukkah that is barely kosher, but it is nonetheless kosher. Everybody agrees it is kosher. For the Baal Shem Tov that was not enough! How about the Jew whom even the Rabbis dismiss as “not belonging?” How about the Jew who can’t fit into even the minimally kosher sukkah? Even the lowest levels of a sukkah can’t house this human being?

The Baal Shem Tov wanted to include even this Jew! So he constructed a sukkah which even the Rabbis could not accept—it was too blemished, too flawed. It was not the Jewish sukkah any longer, they argued. It has too many gaps, too many holes; it not the Jewish tent any longer!...

The Baal Shem Tov did not back down. He refused to concede the notion that some Jews do not belong; that some Jews must be rejected, thrown out, and sent away. He made sure to build the sukkah that would encompass every single Jewish heart, every single Jewish soul; the sukkah that would embrace every single Jewish person. Even the most broken of the broken, would feel at home and at peace in the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah. Even he would discover that the tent of Judaism, the sukkah of the Jewish people, loves him, embraces him, cherished him, believes in him, welcomes him, and gives him the opportunity to find his or her path back to their deepest souls, and their G-d, heritage, faith, and history.

Heaven agreed with the Baal Shem tov. Heaven testified that his sukkah was halkachiky kosher. It was the real thing. This was no fake, diluted, Judaism. This was kosher.  

The Story of Chaim Cohen

Let me share with you a story,[21] which illustrates this type of “sukkah.”

Chaim Cohen (1911-2002), was a very prominent Israeli Judge. He served as the Minister of Justice, the Attorney General and was a member of the Israeli Supreme Court. He also defined himself as a bona fide heretic, an ‘apikoress.’

Chaim was born in Germany to a religious orthodox family, and both of his grandfathers were Rabbis. As a young man, he moved to Israel where he studied for years in the best Yeshivos in Israel, under the famous Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Kook. However he then abandoned the Yeshiva, became a lawyer and proclaimed himself a proud atheist.

He once said that the greatest compliment he ever got was from Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook who called him the “Elisha ben Avuyah of our generation”! Elisha ben Avuyah was the great Talmudic sage who became a heretic[22].

As a very influential member of the Israeli Judicial system, Chaim Cohen devoted most of his career to fighting anything that smelled even remotely of Torah and of Halacha (Jewish law) which he felt were repressive and inhumane.

[He was one of the leading advocates for expanding the “Law of Return,” also known as “Who is a Jew,” a law which classified even complete non-Jews as Jews, granting them automatic entry into Israel.

The greatest uproar and sensation he caused, though, was when, during his term on the Supreme Court, he left the country in order to circumvent the marital legal system in Israel. Being a Kohen he could not marry a divorcee, so the Rabbinate had refused to officiate the marriage. He traveled to the US to marry this woman. This caused international headlines and forced Cohen to resign from his seat on the Court.]

But then, on Simchas Torah 1975, he arrived at 770 Eastern Parkway to the hakafos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Chaim Cohen, the man who had devoted his life to fight Torah-Judaism, decided to join.

I will be honest. Chabad is famous for its all-inclusive and unconditional acceptance of any Jew. But there were those in the Synagogue that night who felt that Chaim Cohen was perhaps the only exception alive to even Chabad-style love. They felt indignant that he had the chutzpah to even show up, as if to mock once again all that they held sacred.

[There were few issues which grieved the Lubavitcher Rebbe as painfully as the issue of “Who is a Jew.” The Rebbe felt that to break down the Halachik definition of a Jew threatened our very existence as a people. Chaim Cohen fought the Rebbe on this issue head on.]

Someone asked the Rebbe whether they are permitted to give Chaim Cohen the Torah to dance with?

The Rebbe said: “A Jew wants to accept upon himself the yoke of Torah and you want to stop him!?”

The Rebbe honored him. First, the Rebbe gave him to read aloud one of the verses we recite prior to Hakafos. Then, the Rebbe asked him to hold a Sefer Torah for a Hakafa, the greatest privilege of the night. One of the attendants gave him a heavy Torah Scroll. Now he was not a young man at the time—he was 65 years old. Someone said, “It’s too heavy for him!” (Siz tzu shver far em!); let’s give him a lighter one.

And the Rebbe replied: “For a Jew, the Torah is never too heavy.” (Far a yid iz di Torah nisht tzu shver.)

And then the impossible happened: Justice Chaim Cohen, the self-proclaimed heretic, held on to that Torah for the entire hakafa, never relinquishing it, never tiring, never stopping his dancing. The average hakafa in 770 lasted fifteen minutes; this one went on for not ten, not twenty, not thirty, but for forty-five full minutes.

[And what is more, they sang ‘vechol karnei reshoim agadea.’ There was exceptionally tremendous emphasis on the ‘oy oy oy oyvav albish boshes…’ (you can sing this out loud)]

And Chaim Cohen danced, and danced, and danced. And the Rebbe stood there, waving his hands, and encouraging him on and on and on.

The night was over. Chaim Cohen went back to Manhattan to the home of his friend where he was staying. No, he never openly changed his ways. He did not become an observant Jew. But something even deeper happened.

After returning from 770 on Simchas Torah, Chaim Cohen told his close friend, his host, “I am too old to change my ways, but please make sure that after I die, I am buried according to Jewish Law, according to Torah.”

When he died in 2002, the Israeli newspapers wondered why would Cohen ask to be buried in a religious manner when his entire life was devoted to fight religion?

Very few people knew that it was because of that Simchas Torah experience with the Rebbe in 770.

For the Rebbe always yearned to build a sukkah just like the Baal Shem Tov—a sukkah in which even the Jew who others would dismiss would be able to return to his innermost sacred space.

This is one of the great messages of Hakhel. It is easy to be there for perfect people. It is easy to be the parent, the mentor, the teacher, the lover of the “usual suspects,” the people who fit nicely into our Sukkah. But the Baal Shem Tov taught us to be “the rebbe for the thieves.” And who of us is not a thief in our own way?

May each of our “sukkahs” become like sukkah of the Baal Shem Tov. This is our calling during this special year of Hakhel—to bring together every Jews, and all Jews, for the heart of every Jew belongs in G-d’s sukkah.

 


[1] Leviticus 23:42

[2] The classic case of dofen akuma in Mishnah Sukkah 17a is that if there is a hole in the roof of a house, one may place schach on the hole and use it as a sukkah provided that there are less than four amot from the walls of the house to the hole. The Gemara, Sukkah 4a, states that the Mishna is based on the principle of dofen akumah (crooked wall) that allows us to view the ceiling of the house as part of the wall.

Rabbeinu Nissim, Sukkah 2a, explains that the principle of dofen akumah is that we view the wall and the ceiling as one unit that is bent towards the schach.  Based on this explanation, Rabbeinu Nissim contends that this principle is only applicable if the wall extends up to the ceiling. If there is a gap between the wall and the ceiling, one cannot apply dofen akumah. Rabbi Yosef Karo, Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim no. 632, notes that Tur, Orach Chaim no. 632 has a different understanding of dofen akumah.  According to Tur, we view the ceiling as an extension of the schach.  Rabbi Karo notes that although Tur agrees with Rabbeinu Nissim that one may not fulfill the mitzvah sitting under the ceiling portion, Tur will disagree and maintain that dofen akumah is valid even if the wall does not extend to the ceiling.  Magen Avraham 632:1, codifies the opinion of Rabbeinu Nissim.  R. David HaLevi Segal (c.1586-1667), Taz, Orach Chaim 632:1, codifies the opinion of Tur.

(A more common scenario relevant to this discussion is the case of an overhang that is above the level of the schach. R. Meir Eisenstat (1670-1744), Panim Me'irot rules that Rabbeinu Nissim would not apply dofen akumah and one should not count that wall as one of the walls.  Mishna Berurah, Bei'ur Halacha 632:1 cites R. Eisenstat's comments.  R. Avraham D. Wahrman (1771-1840), Eshel Avraham no. 632, contends that as long as the wall extends to the schach, Rabbeinu Nissim will apply dofen akumah, even if the overhang is above the level of the schach.)

[3]  Sukkah 6b. The conclusion of the Gemara, Sukkah 7a, is that if one wants to construct a shorter third wall, that side must have a tzurat hapetach (a representative door frame) spanning the length of the third side.  This means that there is a post on each side and a beam on top of the posts.  (See Rama (1520-1572), Orach Chaim 630:2 and R. Yisrael M Kagan (1838-1933), Mishna Berurah 630:13, regarding the use of the schach as the top post.)  Furthermore, one should use a board slightly bigger than a tefach and place it slightly less than three tefachim from the corner to create a wall of four tefachim.

The Gemara also distinguishes between a sukkah whose two whole walls are adjacent and a sukkah whose two walls are opposite each other.  If the two walls are adjacent, a tefach is sufficient on the third wall if there is a tzurat hapetach.  If the two walls are opposite each other, the third wall must span seven tefachim, which can be accomplished by placing a board slightly bigger than four tefachim within three tefachim of the corner. Rambam (1135-1204), Hilchot Sukkah 4:3, requires a tzurat hapetach for the wall of seven tefachim and Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1328), Sukkah 1:6, does not require it.

[4] Tosafot, Sukkah 16b, note that one cannot create a wall completely based on lavud.  Therefore, one cannot construct walls of vertical or horizontal strips within three tefachim of each other.  In order to construct a valid wall, the wall must extend horizontally and vertically across the required length and width of the wall.  R. Avraham Gombiner (c. 1633-1683) Magen Avraham 630:1, understands that the opinion of Tosafot is that one can only create walls of vertical or horizontal strips if the strips enclose four walls.  Mishna Berurah, 630:7, codifies the opinion of Tosafot as understood by Magen Avraham.  Nevertheless, Mishna Berurah, Sha'ar HaTziyun 630:49, does allow vertical or horizontal strips on a three-walled sukkah when there are other mitigating factors.

[5] Sukkah 16a

[6] In Kesser Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov explains Gud Asik, Gud Achis and Lavud in terms of the spiritual design of the universe, which then results in halachik matters as far Shabbos and Sukkah. This is an incredible explanation, but requires a separate essay.

[7] Sukkah 4b cites a Beraita that records a dispute as to whether one can build a sukkah without walls on the top of a flat roof.  There is further dispute in the Gemara whether the Beraita is dealing with a case where the schach extends across the entire roof and the walls of the house are aligned with the schach, or whether the Beraita is dealing with a case where the schach is not aligned with the walls of the house.

Rambam, Hilchot Sukkah 4:11, rules that if the schach is aligned with the walls of the house, the sukkah is valid.  If the schach is not aligned with the walls of the house, the sukkah is invalid.  Rabbeinu Asher, Sukkah 1:6, rules that in either case, the sukkah is invalid.  R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575), Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 630:6, quotes both opinions but seems to side with the opinion of Rabbeinu Asher.

The Gemara states that the basis for allowing a sukkah that has no walls at the edge of the roof is the principle of gud asik mechitzta (the wall extends upwards).  Therefore, the walls of the house extend upwards to create the walls of the sukkah.  As such, those who do not accept the validity of such a sukkah seem to reject the application of gud asik mechitzta to the laws of sukkah.  Yet, the Mishna, Sukkah 16a, states that the walls do not have to extend all the way up to the schach.  It is sufficient if the walls are ten tefachim high.  If one does not apply gud asik mechitzta to the laws of sukkah, how does one explain why a sukkah does not require walls that extend to the schach?

Commentaries explain (see Rabbi Ya'akov Yisrael Kanievski (1899-1985), Kehillot Ya'akov, Sukkah no. 4 and other Acharonim), that there are two ways to understand why a sukkah does not require walls that reach the schach.  First, the principle of gud asik mechitzta projects the walls up to the schach.  Second, there is no requirement for the walls of the sukkah to reach the schach.  The walls of the sukkah don't need to enclose the sukkah, but rather to demarcate the sukkah.  As long as the sukkah contains three walls of ten tefachim, they are effective in demarcating the sukkah.

Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher (1269-1343), Tur, Orach Chaim no. 630 and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 630:9, rule that if the walls are not directly under the schach but are within three tefachim of the schach, the sukkah is valid, even in a situation where the walls are only ten tefachim tall. [See figure 6.] R. Akiva Eger (1761-1837), in his responsa (no. 12) questions this ruling.  He infers from a comment of Rabbeinu Nissim (1320-1380), Sukkah 9a, that one cannot combine the concept of lavud with another leniency.  As such, one cannot project the walls vertically using gud asik mechitzta and then project them horizontally using lavud.  R. Kanievski notes that one can resolve the leniency to allow a ten tefach wall that is not directly under the schach by asserting that allowance of a ten tefach wall is not based on gud asik mechitzta, but rather on the lack of a requirement for the sukkah walls to enclose the sukkah.  There is no special leniency allowing a ten tefach wall and therefore, lavud may be applied.

[8] Sukkah 5b

[9] The story is related in Sefer Baal Shem Tov Al Hatorah Umoadim, Sukkos.

[10] The note remained in the possession of the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, Reb Moshe Ephraim of the city of Sedlikov, the author of Degel Machne Efraim (he is buried near his grandfather). Whenever a sick person came to him, he would instruct that the note be placed under the head of the ill person, and he would be healed. This went on for two years, during which time no person in the town died. After two years the note disappeared. The Degel explained, that it was not the natural order to prevent death, therefore the note was taken back.

[11] Even though halacha cannot be decided in Heaven, but only by persons here on earth (see Talmud Bava Metziah 59b, how the sages rejected the heavenly voice stating that the law followed Rabbi Eliezer. Cf. Kesef Mishnah to Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas end of ch. 2), one can argue that the note was simply supporting the logic behind the Baal Shem Tov’s view, not stating a halacha (Sichas Sukkos 5725-1964).

[12] Yechezkel 4:14.

[13] Chulin 37b; 44b.

[14] Sichos Kodesh and Toras Menachem Sukkos 5727 (1966). Two years earlier, on the second day of Sukkos 5765 (1964), the Rebbe offered an alternative explanation. 

[15] Laws of Chagigah ch. 3

[16] 27b

[17] Leviticus 23:42

[18] See at length Likkutei Sichos vol. 19 Sicha to Sukkos. According to the Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, this sense of unity is the very essence of the mitzvah of sukkah. He wrote in Likkutei Halachot (7:3) that one should fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah with the following meditation: "One should concentrate on being part of the entire people of Israel, with intense love and peace, until it may be considered as if all of Israel dwells together in one sukkah.”

[19] Likkutei Torah Derushim Lesukos.

[20] This is the same person who received the note about the Baal Shem Tov’s Sukkah. Maybe the two stories are connected!

[21] I heard the story from Rabbi Shmuel Butman and Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi. Rabbi Yoel Kahn shared the following detail: When Cohen’s friend was once invited for hakafos in 770 he refused to come. Why? “I saw what happened to Chaim Cohen after he came. He changed his mind on lots of things. And I don’t want that to happen to me,” he said.

[22] Chagigah 13a

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    Sukkos 5776

    Rabbi YY Jacobson
    • September 24, 2015
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    • 11 Tishrei 5776
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    Class Summary:

    Every student of the Laws of Sukkah will observe an anomaly—and it is a theme that pervades many pages of Tractate Sukkah: The sukkah laws allow for scores of “loopholes,” pun intended. Many strange and extreme leniencies exist when it comes to the construction of a sukkah. The sukkah allows for a “curved wall,” for large empty spaces, for large patches of un-kosher sechach, for a sukkah with few or no walls, for drapes that don’t reach the ground, and many more loopholes.

    These leniencies were transmitted by oral tradition from Moses. Yet, the obvious question is why does the Torah allow for so many loopholes in the construction of a sukkah? Particularly when we compare Sukkos to its partner holiday—Passover. There, the laws are extremely stringent with little compromise and loopholes. Even a tiny bit of chemetz is absolutely forbidden to consume on Passover. The matzahs must be guarded heavily. The home must be cleansed and every last speck of chametz obliterated. Why this dramatic distinction between Passover and Sukkos?

    A story: One Sukkot, some Rabbis living in Mezibuzh, who opposed the Baal Shem Tov, decided to come inspect his sukkah. Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s sukkah was the most flawed sukkah you can imagine. It was filled with gaps and was problems of all sorts. When the Rabbis inspected his sukkah, they concluded it was invalid to use for the holiday. The Baal Shem Tov argued his case, trying to demonstrate that it was kosher—barely kosher, but kosher nonetheless. The Baal Shem Tov rested his head in his arms, in a trance. When he opened his hand, he was holding a note of parchment that stated: “This sukkah of the Baal Shem Tov is kosher. [Signed] Matat, the minister of interior.”

    This seems senseless. Every simple Jew makes an effort to construct a Sukkah that is at least kosher without a doubt. Even if it is not the most beautiful and perfect sukkah, at least it should pass as kosher without a question. Why would the Baal Shem Tov, the greatest tzaddik of his day, and an unparalleled spiritual giant and leader, construct a sukkah that aroused doubts to its validity? Aside from all the above, why did the great master need this entire drama? If the rabbis said it was non- kosher, did he really need to resort to a supernatural miracle just to prove his point?

    It was on the second day of Sukkot of the year 5727-1966, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe offered a moving insight into this story. It was uniquely connected, perhaps, to the special nature of that year, 5727, which just as this year, 5766, was a year of Hakhel.

    The sukkah, says the Talmud, is the “space” in which every Jew feels that he belongs. But can that really be? There are so many Jews who feel that they are unwelcome in our collective “tent.” So many Jews don’t feel “safe” in our synagogues, in our communities, in our homes, in our “sukkah.” They feel judged, ridiculed, out of place, or at edge. They don’t feel loved, embraced, and hugged.

    The story of Mosheleh the thief who was rejected by a great Rabbi and then came crying at the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov. “Everyone wants to be the Rebbe of perfect people; nobody wants to be the Rebbe of thieves!” The story of one of the greatest heretics in modern Israeli history who was given a Hakafah on Simchas Torah in “770,” and decided to die as a Jew. 

    The Baal Shem Tov developed a new vision for the Jewish people—and it is the vision we must embrace on this special Sukkos of Hakhel.

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