The Tale of the Esrog and the Wooden Coffin – A Vort for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos

One of my students once commented to me, “Don’t we look weird shaking this lemon look-alike and sharp green thing like our life depends on it?”  I myself always wondered what my neighbors think of me when I go in to my tent in my backyard to eat.  In any event, the mitzvos of sukkos require further analysis.

The two primary mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot are sitting in the Sukkah and taking the four minim.  Yet we find a very fundamental halachic difference between these two laws.  One can fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in a borrowed sukkah (sukkah 27b). In fact, the gemara goes as far as to say that the entire Jewish nation can even dwell in one sukkah and fulfill their obligation.  However, by the mitzvah of esrog we find the opposite to be true.  In order for one to fulfill the mitzvah of the four minim on the first day of sukkos, one must completely own their esrog.  What makes this even more puzzling is that the wording of the commands for these two halachos are very similar.  By the mitzvah of sukkah the Torah says: חג הסוכות תעשה לך – “You shall make the holiday of sukkos for yourself” (Devarim 16:13)  By the mitzvah of etrog the Torah says: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון – “And you shall take for yourself on the first day etc.”  Two halachot that both underscore the fact that the mitzvah should be done for yourself – yet the gemara learns out from different pesukim that one must be your own and one not.

What is it about the mitzvah of the four minim that requires one to own their set of minim?  On the other hand, what is the nature of the mitzvah of sukkah that allows it to be fulfilled when it is only borrowed or not belonging to you at all?

A fascinating explanation is suggested by Rav Chaim Kalman Gutman, a very well respected posek in the Chasidic world whose sukkah I had the honor of visiting this week.  In his work, Chaim L’Chag (pg.570), Rav Gutman advances the following theory:  The very nature of the mitzvah of sukkah is that one derives physical and material benefit from the mitzvah.  You can only fulfill the mitzvah by dwelling in the sukkah like you would in your house.  It is a mitzvah to eat, sleep, relax, and learn in the comfort of one’s sukkah.  In fact the entire reason that an individual who is ill, cold, hot, or bothered by the weather is permitted to leave the sukkah is because they are not enjoying themselves there.  On the other hand, the four minim are totally different.  One derives no physical benefit from the mitzvah at all.  There is no mitzvah to eat, smell, or even look at the four minim.  The only mitzvah is to use them in the way prescribed by the halacha.  Any benefit we derive from this mitzvah is spiritual in nature.  It is solely the joy of knowing we are performing an act that G-d commanded us, no matter how strange it might seem, that makes us feel good after shaking our minim

Rav Gutman explains that this crucial difference is the reason for the variance in the halacha of ownership.  Physical benefit and pleasure are all borrowed in this world.  They do not belong to us.  We don’t take them with us from one place to another and we certainly do not take them with us when we leave the world.  In truth, material pleasure does not belong to us at all.  Therefore, the mitzvah of  sukkah may be fulfilled in a sukkah that does not belong to you – to underscore the fact that no material benefit belongs to you.  Yet the four minim, which are completely spiritual in nature are different.  Our spiritual accomplishments and spiritual rewards belong to us completely.  We take them from place to place and they are the only thing that comes with us when we leave the world. An individual’s mitzvot – whether it be the meaning they bring one’s life or the legacy they leave – are the only absolute possession of a Jew.  Therefore, the mitzvah of esrog is fulfilled only when you completely own it – to underscore that the spiritual benefit you derive from life is yours and yours alone.

In fact, this could also be the reason why we read the book of Koheles on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos.  More than any other book in Tanach, Kohelet underscored this message for the Jew: Only love and awe of G-d and his Torah will lead anywhere in the end.

In our material-driven world we tend to forget just how fleeting wealth and possessions are.  Jewish communities throughout history tried to create customs that would remind them of this all important point.  The Rabbeinu Bechaye relates (Commentary to Parshat Terumah) that there was a custom of Chasidei Tzorfat, the pious Jews of France, to make their coffins out of the wood in their dining room tables.  This was done in oder to show that no matter the possesions one collects in the world, it is only the mitzvot they performed at their table (hachnasat orchim, seudat shabbat, divrei torah) that will come with them to the next world.

Perhaps this is the deep and profound message of sukkos.  As we begin our year anew after the Yomim Noraim, we are reminded of this key theme of Judaism.  There is more to life then a nice car, a nice house, and even a nice sukkah.  The halacha of lachem, present only by esrog, informs us of the incredible power of not just the mitzvah of the four minim but all mitzvot and observance in general.  The meaning cultivated in our lives by our loyalty to the Torah is our sole possession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *