A Home for the Divine

Building our own personal Temple and living in it all year round

By Dovid Samuels

It’s the end of a long fast. After drinking that first cup of water and enjoying the taste of food for the first time in 26 hours, we can chalk up another successful Yom Kippur. Instead of flopping into bed, the halacha calls on us to muster up some superhuman strength and do the last thing that would otherwise be on our minds: go outside and build a sukkah! The Rema[1] notes that those who are meticulous in their mitzvah performance would start building their sukkah at this time so that they can go immediately from one mitzvah (fasting on Yom Kippur) to another mitzvah. What is interesting to point out is that, not only is sitting in the sukkah during the festival of Sukkos a mitzvah, but even building it is considered a mitzvah, hence we try to start it right after the departure of Yom Kippur.

The source for this mitzvah of building a Sukkah is found in the verse itself when it says[2]: “Make for yourself a festival of Sukkos, seven days.” Instead of telling us simply to sit in sukkahs, it instructs us to make a festival of Sukkos. The She’iltos[3], one of the earliest halachic commentators, explains that this verse is instructing us to make sukkahs and to live in them; two separate mitzvos.

The question the commentators[4] ask is, if it is true that building the sukkah is itself a mitzvah, why do we wait until after Yom Kippur to start? Wouldn’t it be wiser to start building the sukkah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so that the merit of the mitzvah of building the sukkah will stand us in good stead for the holy day of repentance? Afterall, that one mitzvah could tip the scales in our favour! In fact, some rule that, where possible, we should purchase our lulav and esrog between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for this very reason: to add to our merits. Now, purchasing a lulav and esrog in itself isn’t a mitzvah, yet it could tip the scale for us on Yom Kippur, so why not build the sukkah then too?

One of the answers given to this question is based on a Midrash that teaches us that the reason the festival of Sukkos takes place after Yom Kippur is so that anyone who was supposed to go into exile because of his sins can fulfil that decree by dwelling in his sukkah – a sort of mini-galus (exile). In truth, the words of the Midrash appear to refer not just to the festival of Sukkos falling out after Yom Kippur, but actually the building of the sukkahs. So, there we have it, the reason why we refrain from building the sukkah before Yom Kippur is so that we can keep it as a ‘get out of jail free card’, or rather a ‘get out of galus free card’ if our judgment is not favourable.

But what is perplexing is that surely the fulfilment of our potential exile would only be achieved by actually living in the sukkah, not merely by building it. Afterall, building a sukkah doesn’t entail sleeping outside of your house under the stars. That being the case, we could kill two birds with one stone by building the sukkah before Yom Kippur, thus increasing our merits for the big day, and then living in the sukkah after Yom Kippur, to fulfil the possible exile that we might deserve. So…why don’t we?

To answer this question, we will begin with an unbelievable revelation from the Shem MiShmuel[5]. He teaches in a number of places in his commentary that the sukkah which we build and are commanded to dwell in for seven (or eight) days is a replication of the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, the House of G-d. Now this is obviously more of a spiritual replication than a physical one, but he refers to it as Hashem bringing us, so to speak, into His house, and he makes a hint to this lofty concept by noting that the numerical value of Sukkah (91) adds up to the name of Hashem, both how it is written and how it is pronounced by us: Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey (26) and Ad-noy (65). It is not surprising, then, that during the festival of Sukkos, our sukkah is considered “holy” and cannot be used for anything other than the mitzvah of living in the sukkah, since we are dealing with a mini-Beis Hamikdash. He goes on to explain that for this reason we are not allowed to use anything that was stolen to build the sukkah. Since building the sukkah is like building a Beis Hamikdash, any act of sin involved in its creation will prevent the sukkah from being inhabited by the Divine Presence, thereby rending it nothing more than just another little hut.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger[6] explains further that on Yom Kippur we pray for the rebuilding of our Holy Temple as a means to provide Hashem with the delight of our more perfect service of Him. As a reward for our efforts on that holy day, Hashem rewards us with an opportunity to build our own little Beis Hamikdash, and, if we do it correctly, we become hosts to Hashem and we experience a closeness akin to that of the Temple itself. In fact, others[7] point out that the Beis Hamikdash itself is referred to as the “Sukkah of Peace”. Likewise, the Gemora[8] tells us that just as the Divine Presence doesn’t go below 10 tefachim (hand-measurements), so too the s’chach of the sukkah must not be below 10 tefachim, meaning that the sukkah is built with dimensions to fulfil the purpose of housing the Divine Presence, just like the Beis Hamikdash.

With this, we can perhaps understand why the halacha advises us to build the sukkah after Yom Kippur and not before, which might have seemed more logical. Concerning the building of the Mishkan, the Seforno[9] tells us that there was a vast difference in holiness between the Mishkan, the First Temple, and the Second Temple. After listing several differences between the Mishkan and the Temples that superseded it, he explains why the Mishkan, unlike the Temples, never fell into enemy hands. One of the main discrepancies between these structures was that the Mishkan was made solely by the absolutely righteous members of the generation, led of course by Betzalel. The First Temple, in contrast, was constructed primarily by labourers from Tzor, and, even though the Shechinah came to rest on it, it was eventually destroyed. Even during its standing it needed constant repairs and upkeep, thus highlighting its comparative inferiority. The Second Temple was lacking in even more areas, as it didn’t even house the stone tablets from Har Sinai. Its building wasn’t even prompted from Hashem Himself, but rather from a dream by the non-Jewish King Cyrus and, coupled with this, the construction included pagan labourers called Tzidonim and Tzurim.

From this observation of the Seforno we can learn a hugely important lesson: the quality of the building (or in fact any action) is very much dependent on the purity and righteousness of the builder (or the one performing the action). So much so that the extreme holiness of those involved in the building of the Mishkan ensured that it would not fall into enemy hands, whereas the First and Second Temples, made in part by men of lower stature, were eventually destroyed.

When we build our sukkah – our mini-Beis Hamikdash, we want to make sure that it houses the Divine Presence in the most appropriate way possible. Were we to engage in this holy task before Yom Kippur, it would certainly set us in good stead for the Day of Repentance, but something would be severely lacking. Before the holy day of Yom Kippur, we are still weighed down by the sins of the year. We haven’t achieved a full cleansing until we afflict ourselves and cry out to Hashem, and the effects of the day wash away our iniquities. If we would build our sukkahs before Yom Kippur, before we have been totally cleansed of our sins, we wouldn’t be able to imbue them with the holiness that a House of G-d requires. But, after Yom Kippur, we are angelic, pure, and righteous. Any structure we build will be worthy of housing the Shechinah (Divine Presence), and not only that, we get to spend an entire festival living with the Shechinah in our very own mini-Beis Hamikdash.

With this, we might also be able to understand the celebration of Simchas Torah on a day when we leave the sukkah. This should strike us as peculiar; after all, we have now learned that our sukkah is really a Temple with the Divine Presence, so why on earth would we even want to leave it, let alone celebrate? But, in truth, the directive of building a sukkah is to train a person to bring the holiness of the Beis Hamikdash and the reality of living with the Shechinah into our every-day lives. We celebrate leaving the sukkah as much as we celebrate entering it, because now that we have learned to exist with the Divine, we can go back into our homes and turn them into a Sanctuary of G-d too. And with the celebration of Simchas Torah, we reinforce the invaluable mindset that our existence with the Divine is entirely dependent on our connection to Hashem’s Holy Torah.

May we merit to see the rebuilding of the Third Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days.

  1. O.Ch 624:5
  2. Devorim 16:13
  3. Rabbi Achai Gaon – 8th Century Babylon
  4. Elya Rabbah 625:1
  5. Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, Rebbe of Socatchov, 1855-1926
  6. Prolific author of 160 volumes. 1785-1869
  7. Kav HaYashar: 95
  8. Sukkah 5a
  9. Medieval commentator. Shemos 38:21

Related posts