Shoftim: Succah 27 - 33
Did He Ever Fulfill the Mitzvah?
Beit Shammai said that the earlier Sages had said to him, “If this is the way you were in the succah (i.e. with the table outside of the succah), you have never fulfilled the mitzvah of succah in your life!”
The mishna on our daf teaches an important requirement for fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in a succah. What if a person’s body is inside the succah, but the table he eats from is outside of the succah? Beit Shammai teaches that this is problematic, and from Beit Shammai we learn two halachas: the minimum size of a succah must be large enough to contain a table within the succah, and the table must actually be inside the succah. The halacha follows these rulings of Beit Shammai, as codified in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 634:4.
Beit Shammai’s reason for disqualifying a succah when the table is outside of the succah is as follows: Although the person’s body is sitting inside the succah, since the person is eating food from a table that is outside the succah, the Rabbis were concerned that the person might also move to where the outside table is located and thereby not fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling and eating inside the succah. Therefore, a succah with the table outside is disqualified.
The commentaries grapple with a fascinating question that arises from the wording in the mishna, “If this is the way you were in the succah (i.e. with the table outside of the succah), you have never fulfilled the mitzvah of succah in your life!”
Granted, they note, the person with the outside table is taking a risk of even unintentionally moving outside the succah to where the table is with the food. But are we really meant to take Beit Shammai’s statement literally, meaning that a person sitting inside a succah while eating from a nearby table that is just outside the succah does not (or possibly ever in his life) fulfill the Torah mitzvah to dwell in the succah during Succot?
The answer to this question appears to be a dispute between the Rishonim. One view is that Beit Shammai was not actually saying that the person does not fulfill the Torah mitzvah. Rather, the person is in fact fulfilling the Torah mitzvah, but he has failed to fulfill the mitzvah in accordance with the will of the Rabbis who decreed that the table must be inside the succah. (Rabbeinu Nissim)
There is another view on the Beit Shammai that posits Beit Shammai’s words to be quite literal, and perhaps may even sound somewhat “extreme” at first glance. According to this view, the fact that this person did not follow the rabbinical decree to have the table inside the succah actually prevented him from fulfilling the Torah mitzvah to dwell in the succah. Although the person seemed to technically fulfill the requirements set forth by the Torah for fulfilling the mitzvah, since he failed to follow the decree of the Rabbis, his Torah mitzvah is considered “tainted” — and his act of dwelling in the table-less succah is therefore disqualified from being considered as a mitzvah. This view is based on the teaching of the students of Rabbeinu Yona regarding the status of a person who says Kriyat Shma after midnight. The Torah sets dawn to be the deadline for saying the night Kriyat Shma. Yet, the Rabbis decreed that it be said earlier, by midnight, due to the concern that a person who waits until it is later into the night might fall asleep — and result in his failure to say the Shma that night. According to this view, a person who says it after midnight has violated not only this rabbinical decree, but has also failed to fulfill the Torah mitzvah altogether! A decree that was instituted to help insure that a person will fulfill the mitzvah in time can end up seemingly doing just the opposite — disqualifying his saying the Shma from being a mitzvah when said after the rabbinically set deadline.
Such is the power of the words of our great Rabbis — not following their will can invalidate a Torah mitzvah, and not be viewed as “merely” a lack of compliance with their wise decrees.
- Succah 28a