WOMEN’S EXEMPTION FROM THE MITZVAH OF DWELLING IN THE SUKKAH
בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת. לְמַעַן֘ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהקיכֶֽם
You shall dwell in booths seven days…In order that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. [Vayikra 23:42-43]:
Halacha exempts women from the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah because this mitzvah is a time-limited positive commandment from which women are generally exempt.
The question that we will address is: Why this mitzvah does not fall under the category of commemorative mitzvos, such as reading (or, for women, hearing) the Megillah on Purim, participating in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, and the Rabbinically ordained rituals connected with the Passover Seder, which, although they are time-limited and positive, women are nevertheless obligated to observe? Women’s obligations with respect to these mitzvos stems from the fact that they memorialize miraculous events from which women benefited. The Rabbinic dictum in this regard is, “They, also [i.e., as well as the men] were [included] in that miraculous event.” [שאף הן היו באותו הנס Pesachim 108b]
In the verses quoted at the beginning of this essay, the Torah states that the mitzvah of Sukkah commemorates God’s having provided ongoing protection to the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert. Since women, no less than men, were beneficiaries of this protection, why does the Halacha not obligate them as well to commemorate that Sukkah experience?
Tosefos [Pesachim 108b s.v. Sh’af] explain women’s exemption from this mitzvah by positing that the principle of “They were also beneficiaries of that miracle” is relevant only to Rabbinically ordained commemorative mitzvos. Torah-based mitzvos, such as Sukkah, lulav, shofar and tefillin, therefore, would not be included, and therefore women remain exempt.
Tosefos offer an alternative explanation, in the name of Rashbam. The dictum that “Women were also included in that miraculous event” means that they should be obligated not because they were beneficiaries of a miraculous event, but rather, because they were (at least partially) precipitators of that event by means of their heroic, meritorious behaviors. Women are thus obligated to hear the Megillah not because God delivered them, as well as the men, from Haman’s decree, but rather because of Queen Esther’s brave deeds, which were the immediate cause of the salvation. Likewise, women are obligated to observe the laws of Chanukah because of the heroism of Judith. They also are required to observe the Passover Seder rituals because, according to tradition, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt due to the meritorious devotion of the “righteous [Israelite] women”. These women insisted that the nation must continue to propagate, despite the abusive conditions of the servitude and despite Pharaoh’s decree against newborn males – both of which factors had caused their husbands to despair of having children.
Regarding the miracle of Divine protection in the desert, however, it may be that the women, like the men, were beneficiaries but not precipitators of this miracle. Therefore, since this dwelling in the sukkah is a positive, time-limited commandment, women are exempt.
I want to suggest an alternative explanation as to why women are exempt from the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. This explanation would be acceptable even according to those authorities who are of the opinion that women are obligated to observe positive time-limited commandments simply by dint of their being beneficiaries of the miracle, even if they did not contribute to its occurrence.
According to this approach, the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah is not a commemorative mitzvah at all; it does not memorialize any specific historical miracle. The reference to the desert sukkah-experience in Vayikra 23 serves merely as a prototype – a case in point – which illustrates the reality of Hashem’s enduring Presence throughout our history, as well as our ongoing radical dependence upon Him. Five possible supports for this approach are as follows:
1. The Halacha does not present us with a Hagaddah shel Sukkos. Despite the Torah’s admonition, …in order that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, Jewish tradition never established an obligatory liturgy, analogous to the Passover Hagaddah, which would inform Jews of the specific event which the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah commemorates. In contradistinction to the Passover Seder rituals, therefore, a person who dwells in a sukkah without any awareness of its commemorative significance nevertheless fulfills the mitzvah.
2. In our liturgy: the Sukkos Amidah and Kiddush present a generic, non-specific characterization of the holiday – as zeman simchasainu, meaning, “the season of our rejoicing” – making no specific reference to the historical booths. In contrast, the liturgies of the two other pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Shavuos, do refer to the specific historical events which these holidays commemorate, characterizing them, respectively, as zeman chayrusaynu [“the season of our freedom”] and zeman matan Torasainu [“the season of the giving of our Torah]. Evidently, the liturgy views the Holiday of Sukkos not as commemorating a specific event even but rather as a time to joyously celebrate Hashem’s ongoing presence.
3. We do not recite the beracha of She’asah Nissim on Sukkos. Contrast the requirement to recite that beracha on Chanukah and on Purim, as well as the beracha of Asher Ga’alanu at the Pesach seder. Consider as well the obligation to recite similar blessings upon viewing places where overt miracles occurred in our personal or collective histories (as delineated in the final chapter of Mishnah Berachos).
4. According to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva [Tractate Sukkah 11b], the verse regarding the sukkos in the dessert refers to man-made – i.e., non-miraculous – booths [sukkos mamash], and not to the miraculous Clouds of Glory [which is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer]. The stress here, once again, is upon the Divine Presence – whether that Presence had been manifest through the Clouds of Glory in the desert or through the ability He has given us to design and build our own protective structures – both then and now.
5. During the Second Commonwealth, the most joyous and intensive celebration of the year was Simchas Bais Hashoevah, which occurred during the intermediate days of Sukkos. The rejoicing took place in the courtyard of the Bais Hamikdash. The songs all celebrated Hashem’s presence as manifest through the existence of the Temple and the Temple service [See Mishnah Sukkah 4:5; Talmud Sukkah 45a]. Nowhere in this celebration is there any reference to the booths of our desert experience.
According to this suggestion. therefore, there is no specific miracle which we commemorate on Sukkos. Women are exemptfrom the mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah, therefore, because it is a positive time-bound command.