Occasionally Chazal seek to impart a message by relating a story. The message of a Mishnah that relates a story is often more powerful and memorable than a Mishnah that teaches only pure Halachah. The Mishnah’s story is even more powerful when the characters are great sages whose words we regularly study and whose actions we now have the opportunity to learn form from as well. In this essay we shall analyze a story that is presented in the Mishnah towards the end of the second chapter of Masechet Sukkah. This analysis will greatly enhance our appreciation of the Mitzvah of Sukkah.
Eating a Snack Outside the Sukkah
The Mishnah (Sukkah 25a) teaches that one is permitted to eat a snack (“Achilat Arai”) outside the Sukkah. The subsequent Mishnah (Sukkah 26b) relates that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai was given a small quantity of food to taste and that he asked that the food be brought to the Sukkah for him to eat. Similarly, Rabban Gamliel was offered two dates to eat and some water to drink and he requested that these items be brought to the Sukkah for him to eat. On the other hand, when Rabi Tzadok was offered a snack to eat on Sukkot he chose to eat it outside the Sukkah in accordance with the rule articulated in the previous Mishnah.
The Gemara (Sukkah 26b-27a) explains that the stories in the Mishnah teach that one has options regarding snacking outside the Sukkah. One option is to follow the baseline Halachah and eat snacks outside the Sukkah. Another legitimate and Halachically meaningful action is to be Machmir (strict) and refrain from consuming even small amounts of food outside the Sukkah. The Rambam (Hilchot Sukkah 6:6) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 639:2) codify these both approaches as entirely legitimate Halachic options.
It is important to note that the Halachah presents both obligatory activities and optional tasks. This is important to note as the Chumash presents two models regarding Mitzvot. One model is Moshe Rabbeinu relaying to us Hashem’s command us to observe various Mitzvot. The second model is the Avot voluntarily observing Mitzvot. Rav Kook refers to these phenomena respectively as Torat Moshe and Torat Avraham.
Rav Yehuda Amital once stated in a talk to alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion that the Halachah presents us with these two models within many Mitzvot that we observe. For example, we must keep Shabbat from sunset on Friday evening until nightfall on Saturday evening. However, the Halachah also requires that we supplement Shabbat by adding Tosefet Shabbat. Although there are some basic parameters regarding the requirement of Tosefet Shabbat, every individual is essentially given the option to decide how much he should add to Shabbat. Similarly, in regards to the Mitzvah of Sukkah, there are both non-negotiable obligations and areas of options for each person to decide what is appropriate for him.
The Mishnah’s Connection to Churban Bayit Sheini
When studying this Mishnah with the TABC Y9 Gemara Shiur of 5763, we noticed that the characters in this Mishnah are central rabbinic characters involved in the stories surrounding the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (see Gittin 55b-56b). We wondered about the connection between the issue of eating snacks outside the Sukkah and Churban Bayit Sheini.
I suggested that perhaps this Mishnah implicitly presents a remedy to the spiritual malaise that was responsible for Churban Bayit Sheini. Chazal (Yoma 9b) state that the sin of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) caused the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash. The Netziv in his introduction to Sefer BeReishit elaborates on this point. He writes that the Jews of the time were very pious and assiduously studied Torah. However, they regarded anyone who differed from them in their style of Yirat Shamayim as a heretic. Our Mishnah presents a remedy to this spiritual malady as it presents two equally legitimate and viable options in the manner in which one may observe the Mitzvah of Sukkah. We do not regard either option as “too frum” (Mechzei KeYuhara) or “too liberal” or “too modern”.
Joshua Strobel suggested another approach to this Mishnah. He noted that the aforementioned Gemara in Gittin records that Rabi Tzadok fasted for forty years before the Churban in an effort to convince Hashem to relent and not destroy the Beit HaMikdash. He also noted that Raban Gamliel and Raban Yochanan Ben Zakai did not fast in the manner of Rabi Tzadok. The Mishnah in Sukkah, on the other hand, presents a contrasting situation where Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai were strict about a matter of eating and Rabi Tzadok was lenient about a matter of eating.
The Mishnah might be teaching a lesson regarding balancing our actions and emotions. Rav Yosef Adler cites Rav Yosef Soloveitchik’s explanation of the Shvil HaZahav (moderate path) that the Rambam vigorously advocates in Hilchot Deot. The Rav explains that the Shvil Hazahav is not achieved by being moderate about every issue. Rather one is considered a moderate if the sum total of his actions represents a moderate path. In other words, even a moderate is sometimes aggressive and sometimes passive. One achieves the desired status of a moderate if the aggregate of his actions represents a balanced approach to life’s challenges.
Our Mishnah presents such a model of moderation as Rabi Tzadok who was strict in the context of fasting before Churban Bayit Sheini was lenient regarding eating a snack outside the Sukkah. On the other hand, Rabban Gamliel and Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai who were lenient regarding fasting before the Churban were strict regarding eating a snack outside the Sukkah.
In matters of secular law only the technical arguments made by judges and legal scholars are relevant. The scholars’ and judges’ personal behavior has no impact in the determination of the law. Thus, for example, if the nine Supreme Court justices were to sell Cuban cigars on the steps of the Supreme Court Building in Washington one afternoon, selling the cigars would not thereby be rendered a legal activity. However, seeing Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik drinking “non-Chalav Yisrael” milk in the Yeshiva University cafeteria, or scrupulously adhering to the Rambam’s ruling that one wash his hands before engaging in Tefillah, or teaching women Gemara at Yeshiva University’s Stern College does establish a precedent for his Talmidim regarding these matters. Similarly, the stories told about our great sages from all generations teach us volumes on how to think and conduct ourselves as Torah Jews.