Sleeping In The Sukkah

A night in the garden

It might seem crazy, but there are people who sleep in a hut in the garden in October. We are familiar with the use of the Sukkah for Kiddush, family meals and even parties, but many Tabernacle enthusiasts go one stage further and camp out for the week of the festival.

Actually, the Talmud understands the main use of the Sukkah to be for sleeping. We are encouraged to teishvu k’ain taduru – live in the Sukkah in the way that we normally live in the house, which, of course, includes sleeping. Indeed, while a snack is permitted outside the Sukkah, one may not take even a short nap elsewhere. Of course, this only applies if the weather is dry; when there is enough rain to disturb the Sukkah-experience, one is not expected to live in it.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes this position on Sukkah-sleeping as normative. Its author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, lived in Sefat, where the autumn weather is generally clement. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rama), the author of the Ashkenazi gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, lived in Krakow, where the climate is rather colder. He notes that only those few who are ‘scrupulous in observance’ sleep in the Sukkah.

In trying to justify the common practice, he points out that the weather is too cold! One is not required to remain in the Sukkah if it is appreciably uncomfortable. If, for example, the Sukkah is invaded by wasps, or (as has happened in Israel recently) the weather is unbearably hot, one is exempt from living in the Sukkah. The same applies to cold.

However, Rama’s preferred explanation is that married couples should live together in the Sukkah, just as they do inside the house during the rest of the year. For those with a prurient interest, the Be’ur Halachah rules that marital intimacy is permitted in the Sukkah. Since (at least in 16th century Poland), most families didn’t have a private Sukkah, sharing instead with neighbours, the lack of privacy made this impossible. Rama recommends building a private Sukkah to obviate this problem. This justification was by no means accepted universally; indeed it was roundly rejected by the Vilna Gaon.

Of course, even if one accepts Rama’s reasoning, in warmer climes (or even elsewhere, armed with a heater and sleeping bag) and especially with the advent of private Sukkot, not sleeping in the Sukkah is hard to justify. In fact, even in England and the US, there has been an increased interest in sleeping in the Sukkah, whereas in Israel it is extremely common.

It is worth noting that despite the halachic normalcy of sleeping in the Sukkah, members of some groups (Chabad, for example) follow the tradition not to, even in ideal circumstances. This is because they understand the intense, all-encompassing holiness of the Sukkah to be incompatible with the state of sleep. Conversely, other mystical thinkers consider sleeping in the Sukkah to be the ultimate surrender of even our subconscious to God’s care. Better hope it doesn’t rain!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Of Rosh HaShanah And Monkeys

Of humans and animals

One of the most meaningful things we can do on Rosh HaShanah is to review what we are trying to achieve with our lives and whether we have met our goals in the past year. Perhaps we should also review those aims and perform a reality check. If we don’t do this on Rosh HaShanah, I think it’s safe to say that we will probably never will. There are many ways of achieving this, but my suggestion for this year is to consider the following.

It is clear that before the great flood, Man was intended to be vegetarian - he was not allowed to kill animals for food until afterwards. It seems that human nature was somewhat different before the deluge; perhaps more passive and contemplative than today. Actually, it was the act of killing animals that was prohibited – there are sources that suggest that Adam was allowed to eat carrion. Only after the flood were Noah and his family permitted to slaughter animals for food. The Torah strongly contrasts its authorisation to kill animals with the prohibition of killing people, which remains strictly forbidden. Man must not make the mistake of cheapening human life, although he may kill animals.

This is a rather interesting point, as these days, it is not uncommon for people to equate the value of animals and humans. A while ago, I heard a radio broadcast in which a Californian academic with quite impressive credentials noted that as monkeys have over 90% of the genes of humans, they should be accorded rights in the same proportion. By this he meant 90% of the healthcare facilities, social services etc. We may assume that in response, our simian friends will have to bear 90% of the responsibility of humans – i.e. taxation and service in the armed. Presumably, in the future, we can expect to share hospitals wards, army barracks and dole queues with monkeys. Criminal monkeys will serve 90% of the prison sentences of their human counterparts and will be required to attend 90% of their quota of schooling. It may also means that a human who steals a banana from a monkey will be condemned to 90% of the consequences of robbing a fellow human. An old joke comes to mind – a monkey that has escaped from its cage is eventually found in a library holding a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ in the other. When questioned about its behaviour it responds, ‘I am wondering if I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.’

A thought occurred to me on this theme – since bananas share some genes with humans, would it not be logical to accord them say 30% of the rights of people? Where is the line? Some people might even prefer sharing a prison cell with a banana than a monkey, although I think we can assume that the monkey would prefer to share with the banana! I recall a conversation a number of years ago with a prominent academic who asked me if I would eat a monkey, were it kosher. I answered in the affirmative. (I don’t know if monkeys taste good, and many Hollywood adventure films feature the apocryphal monkey-brain feast, but that wasn’t the point). He said that the higher functions of monkeys are so sophisticated that it seems morally wrong to eat them. They are just too human. When challenged about chicken and fish, which he seemed comfortable eating, even though they express certain humanoid faculties (such as thought and pain), he acknowledged that drawing the line can be very difficult.

The Torah is unequivocal about this – the line is drawn between humans and animals. Of course, we are obliged to respect animals and be sensitive to their needs and pain, but there is a dimensional gulf between us and them. It lies in something I mentioned above – the notion of responsibility. What divides us from the animals (and thereby makes us human) is that unlike them, we can be altruistic, focus on the needs of others and if, necessary, delay our need for immediate gratification to achieve higher goals. Animals live deterministic lives; they feed, reproduce, run from danger and migrate in instinctively. We, in contrast, have the freedom of choice that allows every moment and experience to be invested with meaning. Monkeys may share 90% or more of our genes, but they share none of our potential and or capacity to change ourselves and our world. In this regard, there is no distinction between a monkey and the banana he eats. The only cogent place to draw a line is between the free-choosing and the deterministic; between we humans and everything else in God’s creation.

This notion helps us to formulate our life-goals at Rosh HaShanah. What makes us truly human is our capacity to live life in the presence of God, constantly aware that every action counts, that each thought and feeling is significant and can, quite literally, change the world. Regrettably, during the year we often lose this sensitivity, forgetting that we can dedicate ourselves to lives of altruism, focused on the needs of other human beings, tuned in to higher, spiritual concerns. Instead of a life in the spiritual fast lane, in which we transform ourselves and our world, we may favour the lazy and banal, relegating personal growth and the elevation of every experience to the bottom of our agenda.

Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world; as such it the annual chance to ensure that we are living up to God’s expectations for us and His creation. Do we deemphasise our needs in preference to those of God? Do we grab every opportunity to set aside our own desires to bring happiness other human beings? Does our behaviour in private reflect the same high standards as those we exhibit in public? These things define who we are; they not only distinguish us from the animals, but validate God’s decision to create the world in the first place. This is the theme of Rosh HaShanah – reawakening the God awareness in all of us that so fundamentally expresses the purpose of creation. So on Rosh HaShanah we crown God, paying homage to His majesty and limitless might through our renewed commitment to implementing His will with every act.

Let us celebrate our true human potential on Rosh HaShanah; may this be a year in which we take full advantage of every precious moment that God grants us.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.

Shavuot And True Spirituality

A Meaningful Shavuot

Pesach has Matzah, Rosh HaShanah the Shofar and Sukkot the four species and the Sukkah, but Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, seems to be lacking in specific observances. It has been suggested that while the other festivals commemorate seminal historical moments through the observance of the Torah, Shavuot is about the Torah itself, and, as such, it needs no ceremony. Instead of the externality of ritual, Shavuot invites us to focus on the significance of the origin and ideology of the Torah system itself, and to admire its momentous impact on humanity. Sadly, perhaps as a result, it is the least understood and observed of the festivals.

In reality, the Torah does describe special observances for Shavuot, but they are restricted to the Temple era. One of them affords us a remarkable insight into the deeper meaning of Shavuot, as well as a glimpse of the Torah’s attitude to the use of the material world. Two distinctly shaped loaves of bread were brought to the Temple on Shavuot in a special celebration. This may seem of academic interest, except for the fact that most unusually, the Torah prescribes that they are baked from chametz – leaven, the villain of Pesach. Shavuot falls seven weeks after Pesach; the intervening forty-nine day period is known as the omer, during which the days that are counted in anticipation of the coming festival. It is understood that physical redemption, celebrated at Pesach, is only the start of a process that led to its goal – the revelation at Mount Sinai. As such, the spiritual journey starts with Pesach and climaxes at Shavuot. It is a matter of great interest that such vigorous efforts are required to remove chametz from the Pesach environment, yet the omer period concludes by placing leaven loaves in the Temple, the locus of Jewish spirituality.

This resolution of this discrepancy reveals a great deal about the significance that Judaism attributes to physical pleasure. Pesach, during which chametz is strictly forbidden, seems to represent the limitation of physical enjoyment, whereas Shavuot signifies its ultimate sanctification in the Temple itself. As such, the omer period, which bridges the gap between the two, offers an opportunity to develop from the radical position represented by Pesach to the more mature one offered by Shavuot. The extent of the role played by physical pleasure in religious life has been the subject of extensive theological debate throughout history. Some systems of thought adopt the position that religious achievement is only possible when it is divorced from material experience. Celibacy, cessation from normal life and even quite extreme ascetic acts are not uncommon amongst religious groups, which have concluded that these offer the only route to true spirituality. Judaism addresses this issue, but reaches a quite different conclusion. Abstinence is never an ideal, but in various forms, may sometimes be used as a very temporary device for achieving a higher goal.

Perhaps the most significant example of this idea is the observance of Yom Kippur, when, since the pleasures of food and marital intimacy are proscribed, one ‘afflicts’ oneself by disengaging from the physical world. Yet the Torah requires us to abstain in this way for only one day near the start of each year; this serves as a way of reawakening our spiritual lives at the year’s outset. This is not the ideal, but a powerful kick-start to spiritual growth. The mystical thinkers hint to this notion in observing that Yom Kippur, which we are accustomed to considering the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is somehow inferior to Purim, the day on which we rejoice and imbibe alcohol to excess. The observance of Yom Kippur may be essential, but its self-denying nature means that it can never be more than a powerful, yet short-term instrument. In contrast, Purim, when properly celebrated, enables the Jew to reach the heights of ecstasy using the most physical means at his disposal, and hence articulates a Weltanschauung much closer to the Torah’s ultimate model.

It seems that the human tendency to become immersed in material pleasure must be addressed by a temporary emphasis on its ephemeral nature and thus comparative insignificance. This is achieved by a strong, albeit brief involvement in spiritual-only pursuits.

The process that leads the Jew from Pesach to Shavuot is now clear. The requirement to abstain from chametz on Pesach is reflective of the nascent moments of Jewish nationhood that the festival commemorates. A group of ex-slaves with the potential for spiritual greatness, yet still beset by the mentality engendered by centuries of deprivation, was likely to abuse the newly accessible pleasures of the material world. Thus at the moment of their national genesis, it was necessary to forbid the consumption of chametz, which represents selfish use of the physical world. Yet the goal is not the rejection of physicality, but its integration into the Divine system. The seven weeks that elapse from Pesach to Shavuot enable a personal transformation to take place, hopefully culminating in a mature attitude to the use of the material world. All physical pleasures may be used - indeed must be used, but in a context and within a framework. These are defined by the Torah, the guidebook to the meaningful use of everything. This, the purpose of the Jewish mission, could not be given to the embryonic nation when they left Egypt, but by Shavuot, they were capable of understanding and implementing it.

This concept is represented by the two loaves of chametz that were the focus of the Divine service in the Temple on Shavuot. The two loaves are said to represent the twin passions that drive so much of human enterprise – material success and sexual satisfaction. These ambitions, so frequently eschewed by religious systems, are brought, as it were, right into the Temple on Shavuot, assuring us that the elevated use of every physical experience lies at the heart of true Jewish living.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.