Sukkot 5776

Dvar Torah given at Ohr Kodesh Congregation, September 28, 2015

Do you know the minimum size of a sukkah? What is the smallest a sukkah could be and still be kosher?

What I find interesting about this question is that for many halakhot with physical parameters some of the minimum requirements are quite well known. What you need for a kosher lulav and etrog, how much matzah we have to eat or what constitutes the basic components of mishloah manot.

Yet the minimum size of a sukkah is not as commonly known.

If you didn’t know, I won’t leave you in suspense, the smallest size a sukkah can be is 7 tefahim by 7 tefahim and 10 tefahim in height. A tefah is the width of the fist. So this size comes to just a little under two feet by two feet with a height of 2.5 feet.

I have to say that, though I can imagine the possibility, I don’t know anyone who has ever built their sukkah to fulfill the minimum obligation. In most observant communities, sukkot are built big enough to host lovely yom tov meals.

But why is a sukkah so different from any other case when we do just as much as we need to to get by?

We read in the Talmud (Shabbat 133b) when the rabbis interpret the biblical phrase:

:זה אלי, ואנוהו –

אנוהו is a difficult word to translate and there seems to be a debate as to what it means.

It either means to make beautiful or to make a home for.

For this teaching when the rabbis interpret זה אלי ואנוהו they understand it (either literally or midrashically) to mean- This is my God and I will beautify Him.

The text continues implicitly asking the question- how can an individual make God beautiful?

התנאה לפניו במצות;

Make yourself beautiful before God with mitzvot;

עשה לפניו סוכה נאה, ולולב נאה, ושופר נאה, ציצית נאה, ספר תורה נאה…

Make a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzizit, a beautiful sefer torah etc…

This teaching is usually understood to be the source of the concept of hidur mitzvah. Beautifying a mitzvah.

One could make a small sukkah and fulfill their obligations, or you could build a סכה נאה- a beautiful sukkah. One that is big enough to fit your family and yom tov guests- one you’ve decorated and enjoy dwelling in.

With respect to sukkot, we have definitely internalized this teaching. This community builds beautiful sukkot and generously welcomes guests into them. I’m certain this fulfills what the Talmud means by hidur mitzvah and makes the fulfillment of the mitzah of sukkah more beautiful.  

Another traditional and well known example of hiddur mitzvah is with respect to lighting hanukkah candles. Technically the minimum requirement for hanukkah candles is for each household to light one candle each day. To light one candle per night per person is considered “mehadrin”- . And to light one hanukkiah per person/adult — the standard practice today — is actually classified as “mehadrin min hamehadrin”.

Generally “mehadrin” is translated today as “strict” or “stringent”.  If you look it up in a modern Hebrew dictionary, this is often the listed definition. However, the root of the word mehadrin is hey. dalet. reish. The same as hidur mitzvah. It’s actually not about being mahmir / strict. We chose to be mahmir when we are not sure what the correct practice is. However with hiddur mitzvah, we know that we could fulfill our obligation by doing less. Instead we go out of our way to do more than the minimum, to make the fulfillment of the mitzvah more beautiful.  

There is story after story in rabbinic literature of this or that rabbi going far out of his way for purposes of hiddur mitzvah. Saving money all week to spend to buy something special for shabbat is one more common example. In fact, the Talmud (Bava Kama 9b) says that with respect to hidur mitzvah, one should spend up to an additional ⅓ of the original value of a ritual item. This gives you some of the sense of the scale of what it could mean to go beyond the minimum obligation.

And with hanukkah candles and building our sukkot, we’ve totally integrated the custom of hidur mitzvah. We craft sukkah decorations and purchase artistic hanukkiyot and special hanukkah candles. Yet when it comes to some other mitzvot, we are sometimes less enthusiastic. Who among us has not complained about the cost of kosher food, the length of a synagogue morning service?  

I’d like to challenge us all to extend the category of hiddur mitzvah beyond its traditional scope of aesthetic beauty. For which other mitzvot do we tend to just do the minimum? When are we itching to check off the box, be yotzeh, and move on with our lives? When we catch ourselves feeling that way, perhaps we can remind ourselves about the concept of hiddur mitzvah and think about what we can do to go beyond the minimum. To add beauty to our practice of mitzvot.

True,  we cannot do this all of the time. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 28b) notes that mitzvot do not need to always be performed with deliberate intention. But if this is how we regularly approach mitzvot, are we not just building for ourselves the smallest size sukkah possible?

The cost of living a Jewish life in our society can, for some, already be prohibitively expensive. As we expand our sense of hiddur mitzvah, we should extend it beyond spending more money. I’m also not talking about the ever increasing list humraot that some communities set as expectations for themselves. Instead I’m suggesting that we shift our approach.

When we catch ourselves going for the minimums, think about what it would mean to be מהדר- to go beyond the basic expectations. To catch ourselves when we start to wonder how we can tie up this or that obligation and instead ask how we can bring more kavvanah and beauty to the performance of the mitzvah. Could we make someone’s experience more pleasant by greeting them warmly? Could we linger over our own prayers instead of rushing? Could we plan a thought provoking conversation for our shabbat or seder table? Can we shift our approach to find opportunities for hiddur mitzvah?

We’ve just finished the process of looking back at our actions from last year and hopefully have some ideas of ways that we  want to change. As we enter sukkot- also called זמן שמחתנו- A time of our happiness, let us ask ourselves what it would look like for us to approach all mitzvot as joyful actions that bring  beauty to the world and glory to God.

Hag Sameah.