| Fundamentals |

Succos: A Tale of Two Voices 

On Succos, we're here because we want to be


Where is the Jewish woman on Succos?

You might find her squished in the corner seat under the overhang, leaving the kosher part of the succah for the menfolk. She may be sprinting from the kitchen with a steaming soup tureen, a bag of soup nuts and extra napkins dangling from her fingers. You probably won’t find her in shul with her daled minim, and certainly not dancing with the sefer Torah on Simchas Torah.

Woman’s role in Judaism is definitely on the front burner — my book on the topic, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, just went into its fifth printing — and with the uptick of negative portrayals in the popular media, we sometimes begin to feel defensive. Indeed, where is the Jewish woman on Succos?

But don’t let the media hijack your mind! It’s so important to have clarity on this issue.

Why Two Roles?

Men and women have different roles in Judaism for a reason. Clearly, Hashem was interested in having two different perspectives on the world, two different ways of being, two contrasting narratives. These two poles, male and female, ideally create a synthesis, granting access to a truth that would not have been accessible to either side on its own.

It is true that women’s obligations in relation to some of the mitzvos on Succos fall into the category of reshus (optional), while men’s obligations to the same mitzvos fall into the category of chovah (required). But instead of breathlessly trying to convince detractors that we actually love running back and forth with the soup tureen and are so grateful we don’t have to sleep in the succah, maybe we can ask a more focused, less defensive question.

If it isn’t the patriarchy and it isn’t a mistake, what is the spiritual benefit of having half the population in a category of reshus and half in a category of chovah?

Perhaps it’s to keep two languages of love alive. Men would uphold one dimension of love, and women would uphold the other. The goal, as always in Judaism, is to create a synthesis, allowing each approach its own expression at the right time and place.

What are these two languages of love?

On the one hand, there’s a free-flowing love, spontaneous and effortless with no judgment of faults or foibles. Like a mother’s love for a baby, it doesn’t address the worth of the recipient — the baby doesn’t do anything to deserve this love. He is mine and I am his.

This free-flowing love requires no formal commitment. In fact, trying to squeeze it into a commitment mode borders on the ridiculous: whether an anxious mother is obligated according to her contract to get up for her baby at night is irrelevant to her experience as a mother.

That free-flowing love is beautiful, but when fitted into the template of the male-female relationship, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of staying power. Exhibit A is Western culture, which suffers from the abject failure of disconnecting love from formal obligation.

The second love language — male — understands that commitment, obligation, formalized rules and regulations are what transforms warm and fuzzy feelings into engaged, enduring love.

With exquisite sensitivity to the balance between these two voices, at a Jewish wedding, the man gives the woman a kesubah, delineating his commitment to honor and care for her (even as the romantic may cringe at the attempt to monetize and quantify the intrinsically non-monetizable and unquantifiable). His is the voice of chov, of commitment and obligation.

The woman offers no document delineating her obligations to him — for example, how she will respond when he has a cold and acts as if he’s on his deathbed — who represents the other voice, the voice of reshus. Her very presence and acceptance of the ring says, I am here — unequivocally. For the feminine energy, a formal commitment would be redundant.

The Marriage to Torah

These two voices were also evident at Har Sinai. We take eternal pride in having said naaseh v’nishma, symbolizing the feminine love and commitment that involved no careful reading of the fine print. Like the woman under the chuppah, the message of those famous words were: Whatever it takes, we’re in.

Yet, we know that the “mountain was held over our heads” because, as the Maharal explains, such a crucial relationship needed to have an element of obligation (represented by coercion) as well.

As Jews, our lives resonate with both the male voice and the female voice. There are the obligations — the ins and outs of what and how and when — and then there’s how much subjective heart we choose to bring to each mitzvah we do.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who studied children’s play, found that little boys were sticklers for rules. Little girls, on the other hand, tended to gloss over infractions when relationships were threatened — insisting that their best friend wasn’t really out or pretending they hadn’t seen her cross the line. The girls, it seemed, played out the Talmudic dictum: “Ahavah mekalkeles es hashurah — love overturns rules.”

Of course, as Jews we know that every little dot of halachah — the endless deliberations over what does or doesn’t invalidate a succah or does or doesn’t constitute a k’zayis — is of utmost importance with eternal ramifications. Getting our actions right is crucial. Yet, as the Sfas Emes notes, our actions are only garments for our souls; each of us has a pure, inner core that never gets sullied by sin.

Cherished as We Are

The Arizal sees this pure, unadulterated love — not about what we do but about who we are — in the very structure of the succah. A kosher succah must have, at minimum, two complete walls and one small third wall (of at least one amah), which the Arizal sees as a representation of the verse from Song of Songs: “And His right arm will embrace me.”

The two complete walls of the succah represent the “hugger’s” arm. From the upper arm to the elbow is the first wall. From the elbow to the wrist is the second wall, and the hugger’s hand is represented by the last little wall.

Note that the two sections of the hugger’s arm are wrapped around the “huggee’s” back. The back of a person represents the darker side — yet a hug grabs you, all of you, even the dark side, and brings you close for an embrace.

On Succos, we come lugging bags of merits from the last few weeks — our kabbalos from Elul, our increased davening, our getting up early for Selichos, the shofar, the toil for the holiday. We straighten our shoulders, rearrange our accomplishments yet again, trying desperately to make them look more impressive.

But as we step over the threshold into the succah, all our machinations — valid and courageous as they may be — become irrelevant as we are engulfed in a wave of all-encompassing love, grabbed into a hug that covers even our backs, melt into the awareness that we are loved, we are cherished, we are desired, we are… perfect. Just as we are.

Perhaps this feminine love is the reason for the strangely subjective qualification of one’s obligation to sit in the succah. If you are made uncomfortable by the elements (mitztaer), you are not only relieved of your obligation, you are not allowed to stay in the succah. Even though suffering for a mitzvah (mesirus nefesh) is treasured in Judaism, powering through just to get it done isn’t “succah” language. Like the earnest young chassan, who doggedly puts a check mark on “spending 45 minutes with wife during shanah rishonah,” “suffering” through the rain misses the point, so maybe it’s best to go inside for now.

From Below to Above

When one is the recipient of no-holds-barred, heart-overflowing love, that engulfing of your entire essence in a hug of acceptance, it frees you to touch on the deep visceral joy of connection.

The Maharal connects the word hod, which follows the word netzach, in the verse enumerating Hashem’s attributes, to Succos. Netzach can be translated as victory, which by definition, implies two sides. One side won, and the other lost. Hod is the step after victory, and it means concession or surrender. There are no longer two sides, because one side has completely merged with the other side.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of judgment and atonement. We stand before our King in judgment over our struggles to make His will our will. On Succos, the holiday of hod, there’s no longer a struggle. No more right against wrong, good against bad, soul against body — or even You against me. On Succos we enter that feminine bonding, where one side converges with the other. Ishto k’gufo.

This Succos hug, this waterfall of acceptance, peaks on Hoshana Rabbah, the day that centers around the banging of the willow branch. The ordinary aravah, which claims no smell and no taste, standing completely alone — no regal lulav, magnificent esrog, or fragrant hadas to prop him up — represents the Jew stripped down to his very essence.

And in a fascinating continuation of the interplay between chov and reshus, we learn that the Jewish calendar is especially arranged so that Hoshana Rabbah can never fall out on Shabbos, so that every year we will be able to bang the aravah on Hoshana Rabbah.

Let’s sit with this halachah for a minute. The first day of Rosh Hashanah, when we are Biblically obligated to blow the shofar, sometimes falls out on Shabbos, and that year we miss out on the obligation of shofar blowing.

The first day of Succos, the only day we are Biblically obligated to take the four species, is allowed to fall out on Shabbos, and when that happens, we miss out on the Biblical obligation to take the daled minim.

But taking the aravah, which is a minhag neviim, a custom instituted by our Sages, is never allowed to be displaced. The yearning for closeness that surges from below to Above, the precious free-flowing feminine “reshus” love, is carefully guarded and protected in the Jewish calendar.

Here Because I Want to Be

This voice of chov, where love is translated into obligation, is the underpinning of all of Judaism and how it’s practiced here in This World. Indeed, we’re told that here in This World, “greater is the one who is obligated and does than the one who is not obligated and does.” And — it’s important to note — Jewish women, like Jewish men, spend most of their life in a world of chov (of the 613 mitzvos, there are only around six in which women fall into the category of reshus).

Yet the Divine plan calls for a synthesis between two voices, and for that we need someone to uphold that other voice, the feminine voice of intrinsic, desired connection — here because I want to be, loved because of who I am not what I do — that flows unenforced straight from the heart. And it’s this reshus love that has been upheld by holy Jewish women throughout the history, yes, even as they sit under the overhang in the succah. (Of course, we’re all a synthesis of both male and female, so just as women are mostly obligated, men, too, have many opportunities to uphold the “reshus” voice.)

So where is the Jewish woman on Succos?

Thanks for asking.

In a startling insight, Rav Kook ztz”l is quoted as having seen significance in the fact that on Succos, the specially instituted ezras nashim placed “women sitting above and men below” (Succah 52b).

While the technical reason was to prevent the intermingling of men and women during the festivities, the Beis Hamikdash always reflected spiritual reality. On Succos, which hints to a perfected future world, all of us, men and women, are invited into a feminine world, where love, rooted in essence, flows freely.


Miriam Kosman is the author of Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism and is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an Israeli campus outreach program.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 760)

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