This week’s daf begins by explaining the derivation for the minimum height of a sukkah—ten handbreadths.
The underlying assumption of this section, one which is unstated, is that the place in which we sit in the sukkah is the realm of humanity. We sit on “earth” and God doesn’t descend all the way to earth. The midrash claims that the meeting point for God (the Shekhinah—God’s immanent presence) was immediately above the ark of the covenant and its cover. The ark was 9 handbreadths high and the cover (the kaporet) was another handbreadth high, meaning that God spoke to Moses from right at the level of 10 handbreaths. This means that the skhakh must be at least ten handbreadths high, thereby in a sense reenacting the meeting point between God and Moses in the Tabernacle.
The midrash is based on the verse in Psalms that claims that God has given the earth to humanity. There is a realm into which God does not enter, however we might understand that concept.
There is an interesting ramification in this piece for our experience of sitting in the sukkah. The skhakh separates us from God, but it is right at the point of the skhakh in which we encounter the divine. The skhakh which symbolizes protection is also a meeting place between the human realm and the realm of God.
The Talmud now critiques the notion that God never came down to earth. There are indeed verses that, at least according to their simple meaning, show that God did indeed come down to earth.
For both of these and in the following section the Talmud offers strained solutions, a phenomenon not at all atypical in rabbinic literature. God did not really come all the way down to earth, according to this passage. God stopped right at the ten handbreadths limit. Thus even when the Bible seems to say that God did descend to earth, the rabbis interpret it to mean that God still didn’t really enter the human realm.
After having shown that God doesn’t descend to earth the Talmud now tries to prove that people don’t go up to heavens, despite the fact that the Bible seems to occasionally describe humans ascending to heaven. In each of these cases the rabbis say that the person, specifically Elijah or Moses, didn’t really go to the heavens. They always remained ten handbreadths away from heaven.
Some of you may be a bit bothered by these passages—if the Bible says that God came down to earth or that man went up to the heavens, who are the rabbis to deny it.
I think this is a classic demonstration of how the rabbis impose their own thoughts upon biblical readings. While in the biblical view, the realms of God and humanity are not totally separate, in the rabbinic view they are. This is not really the place to discuss why this is so. What I wish to demonstrate is that when we read these types of passages we should appreciate that we are seeing the dynamic changes that occurred between the world view of the Bible and that of the rabbis.
The Talmud now uses another midrash, this time from a difficult verse in Job, to show that man can ascend to heaven. The verse implies that man went up into the heavens so that God could spread some of his cloud upon him.
The resolution only solves the second half of the verse. God lowered his radiant cloud to a level lower than ten handbreadths. But what about the throne? That too according to the Talmudic resolution was lowered into the human realm where man can grasp it.
Thus, if we were to summarize, God and the Divine meet, but only right at the threshold. God never comes into the human realm and humans never enter the divine realm. At best, God lowers some of his accoutrements, his cloud and his throne, into the human realm. But true meeting on an equal level within the same realm, does not seem to occur.
In the previous section the Talmud stated that the ark was nine handbreadths high and that the ark covering was one handbreadth high, bringing the total to 10, the minimum height of the sukkah. In today’s section the Talmud tries to show how we know this.
The Torah specifically says that the height of the ark was 1.5 cubits. Since 1 cubit is 6 handbreadths, the ark was 9 handbreadths high.
The Torah does not say how high the ark-cover (the kaporet) was. Therefore, the rabbis need to derive it somehow midrashically. The first attempt is to compare it to the smallest of vessels which is the border of the table. Although we might consider this border to be part of the table, the rabbis and maybe the Torah itself seem to consider it to be at least an accessory to a vessel.
The Talmud now asks why we shouldn’t derive the height of the ark-cover from a real vessel and not just the border, which is really just an accessory to a vessel. This would mean that the ark-cover would have to be at least the height of one of the real vessels.
The answer is a principle somewhat similar to “don’t bite off more than you can chew” in English. When one derives something from elsewhere the derivation should be minimalistic. So if the smallest possible measure is one handbreadth because there is an accessory to a vessel that is this height, then that should be the determined height of the ark-cover. By the way, this idiom is still used in modern Hebrew.
The Talmud now asks why we can’t derive the height of the ark-cover from the height of the “tzitz,” the golden headplate that the high priest wore on his forehead.
There is a debate exactly what was written on the tzitz. Interestingly, according to this story, R. Eliezer b. R. Yose saw the tzitz in Rome. Assumedly it got there when it was carried off by the Romans when they destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E.
Deriving the height of the ark-cover from the tzitz is not possible because the tzitz is not a vessel, as is the ark-cover. It is an ornament, otherwise translatable as a piece of jewelry.
Today’s section continues to attempt to learn the size of the ark-cover from other vessels that existed in the Temple.
The “zer” or “crown” refers to various crowns that were on the Ark, Table and Incense altar (Exodus 25:11, 24, 30:3). These “crowns” needed to be only the smallest possible measure. Meaning they had no minimum height. Why then can we not derive that there is no minimum height to the ark-cover?
We don’t derive the height of the ark-cover from the crowns because the ark-cover is a vessel and the crowns are only accessories to vessels.
f we can’t derive the measurement of a vessel from something that is an accessory to a vessel, then how can we derive the height of the ark-cover from the border of the table which is also an accessory (see yesterday’s section)?
The answer is that the border was below the table and not above. Since the table was placed on the border, the border is considered more than a mere accessory. It too is a vessel.
The Talmud now notes that there is a dispute as to whether the border was above or below the table. The one who holds that it was below the table can derive the measure of the ark-cover from it because both are vessels. But the one who holds that it was above the table cannot derive from there the height of the ark-cover because the border would be an accessory and the ark-cover is an actual vessel.
The Talmud now explains why we can’t learn the height of the ark-cover from the height of the crowns or the headplate. The Torah gave some of the measures for the ark-cover and it gave measures for the border of the table, but since there are no measures for the headplate or the crown, we can’t use them as a basis to derive the height of the ark-cover.
The Talmud continues to find various places in the Bible from which we can derive the height of the ark-cover.
R. Huna provides a new source for the height of the ark-cover. The Torah uses the word “face” in reference to the ark-cover. Therefore the ark-cover must at least be the minimal size of a face. The minimum size of a normal human face is one handbreadth.