Talmud for Today: A Series of Talmudic Readings for the Holidays
Sukkot: Reaching for the Heavens
The Symbolic Meaning of the Minimum Height of a Sukkah
The opening Mishnah of tractate Sukkah details the maximum and minimum heights for building a valid sukkah. Amidst its extended analysis of these legal technicalities, the Talmud at various points highlights the symbolic meanings underlying the details of measurements and materials. The short section analyzed here stands out in this regard for its poetic cadence and inspiring brilliance as it infuses the dry letter of the law with profound spiritual significance. At the heart of this Talmudic section (sugya), which bridges the gap between halakha and aggada, is the conception of sukkah as sacred space wherein its dwellers can glimpse the Divine Presence.
Earlier sources from Tannaitic literature already connect the Sukkah’s symbolism with the Sanctuary and God’s providential presence. For example, the Mishnah prescribes eating meals in the Sukkah in parallel with the sacrifices offered during the Sukkot pilgrimage in the Temple. Rabbi Akiva explains the Sukkah as a remembrance of the clouds of glory leading the Israelites in the desert. Even earlier, the Dead Sea Scrolls describe the elders sitting in the Sukkah in the Temple courtyard during the sacrificial offerings. Sukkot was the primary pilgrimage holiday making it the most fitting festival to connect to the symbolism of the Sanctuary. Especially after the destruction of the Temple, the Sukkah could be promoted as a small replacement for the function of the Sanctuary as a locus of God’s presence.
This Bavli sugya builds upon earlier sources and conceptions to create a literarily structured and almost poetic meditation on the possibility of human connection with the divine realm. Let us allow the text to first speak for itself by beginning with the first Mishnah and proceeding to the Babylonian Talmud. Click here for a video presentation
A sukkah that is more than twenty armlengths tall is invalid.
But Rabbi Yehuda rules it valid.
סוּכָּה שֶׁהִיא גְבוֹהָה
מֵעֶשְׂרִים אַמָּה פְסוּלָה
וּרְ׳ יְהוּדָה מַכְשִׁיר
If it is less than ten handbreadths tall,
or if it lacks three walls,
or if its sun is greater than its shade, it is invalid.
וְשֶׁחַמָּתָהּ מְרוּבָּה מִצִּילָּתָהּ פְּסוּלָה׃
sukkah a booth or hut. Leviticus 23:42-43 commands living in this temporary dwelling during the fall festival as a historic remembrance: You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.
twenty armlengths approximately 32 feet. A person sitting in a sukkah with such a high roof would not have the covering within their natural range of vision and so would not be continually aware of being present in the sukkah (see Bavli Sukkah 2a-b, which also includes other explanations). The Yerushalmi (Sukkah 41d, 1:1 and Eruvin 18b, 1:1) suggests that this maximum height derives from the height of the Temple which was also 20 armlengths high (Mishnah Middot 4:1). The latter derivation further supports the connection between the Sukkah and the Sanctuary encoded in the Bavli sugya analyzed below.
ten handbreadths approximately 30 inches, each handbreadth spanning the width of a fist. This is the standard height for a partition in various realms of halakha. The Talmuds derive this measurement as the minimum height of a sukkah from a comparison with the ark of the covenant, as we will see below.
three walls The Talmuds (Yerushalmi Sukkah 1:1, 52a; Bavli Sukkah 6b) derive the requirement for three walls from the three mentions of the word sukkah in Leviticus 23:42-43. Although not mentioned in the Talmud, it may also be relevant that the Mishkan had only three solid walls and an open entrance on the fourth side (Exodus 26:18-29).
sun is greater that its shade A sukkah is a hut that by definition must provide shade. The Talmuds (Yerushalmi Sukkah 52a, 1:1; Bavli Sukkah 2a-b, 6b) quote Isaiah 4:6: It will be a hut (sukkah) for shade from heat by day. Roofing that allows in more sun than shade cannot be called a protective covering at all.
[A] Step 1 of the answer that ark and cover reach 10 handbreadths
“If it is less than ten handbreadths tall” - How do we know this?
[A] It was said: Rav, Rabbi Hanina, and Rabbi Yohanan said—Rav Haviva taught that in the entire order of Festivals, whenever this pairing occurs, switch Rabbi Yohanan and insert Rabbi Yonatan—
The ark is nine handbreadths and the ark-covering is one handbreadth, together making ten. And it is written, I will meet with you there (Exodus 25:22).
"ושאינה גבוהה עשרה טפחים"
מנא לן? 
[A] איתמר רב ורבי חנינה ורבי יוחנן — ורב חביבה מתני  בכל סדר מועד כל כי האי זווא  חלופי רבי יוחנן ומעייל רבי יונתן —
ארון תשעה וכפרת טפח הרי כאן עשרה. וכתיב ונועדתי לך שם  (שמות כה, כב).
[B] Step 2 of the answer that the boundary above the cover separates two realms
[B] Furthermore, it was taught: Rabbi Yose says, the Divine Presence never descended below, and Moses and Elijah never ascended upon high, as Scripture states, The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man (Psalms 115:16).
[B] ותניא רבי יוסי אומר מעולם לא ירדה שכינה למטה ולא עלו משה ואליהו למרום שנאמר השמים שמים ליי והארץ נתן לבני אדם (תהלים קטו, טז).
 Two challenges to [B] that God never descended
 Did the Divine Presence never descend below?
But it is written, The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:20)?
That was above ten handbreadths.
But it is written, On that day, He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4)?
That was above ten handbreadths.
 ולא ירדה שכינה למטה?
והכתיב וירד יי על הר סיני (שמות יט, כ)
למעלה מעשרה טפחים
והכתיב ועמדו רגליו ביום ההוא על הר הזיתים
(זכריה יד, ד)?
למעלה מעשרה טפחים
 Two challenges to [B] that humans never ascended
 Did Moses and Elijah never ascend upon high?
But it is written, Moses went up to God (Exodus 19:3)?
That was below ten handbreadths.
But it is written, Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11)?
That was below ten handbreadths.
 ולא עלו משה ואליהו למרום?
והכתיב ומשה עלה אל האלהים (שמות יט, ג)?
והכתיב ויעל אליהו בסערה השמים (מלכים ב ב, יא)?
 One last challenge to [B], the closest a human ever came to Divine contact
 But it is written, He encloses the face of His throne, spreading His cloud over it (Job 26:9). And Rabbi Nahum said: This teaches that the Almighty spread of the glory of his Divine Presence and His cloud over him. In any case, it is written, He enclosed the face of His throne – therefore he held it?
The throne was extended down to him and he held on to it.
 והכתיב מאחז פני כסא פרשז עליו עננו (איוב כו, ט) - ואמר ר' נחום  מלמד שפרש שדי מזיו שכינתו ועננו עליו. מכל מקום מאחז פני כסא כתיב אלמא נקט
דאישתרבב ליה כסא  ונקט ביה
Rav, short for Rav Abba, was a first generation (early third century CE) Amora who taught in the Babylonian city Sura. Rabbi Hanina bar Hama lived around the same time and taught in Sepphoris. Rabbi Yohanan bar Nafha was a central figure in Tiberias whose long life allowed him to overlap the above sages and continue to teach into the second generation.
Rav Haviva was a sixth generation Amora in the fifth century CE and could not have been present together with the earlier Amoraim in this list. Rather, his mention here introduces a parenthetical remark that any traditions by the previously mentioned three sages should include Rabbi Yonatan instead of Rabbi Yohanan. Rabbi Yonatan ben Eleazar was a first generation Amora in the Land of Israel who focused on teaching aggadah.
ark is nine handbreadths  Exodus 25:10 prescribes that the ark extend one and a half armlengths high. Each armlength (19 inches) consists of six handbreadths, making a total of nine handbreadths for the height of the ark.
ark-covering is one handbreadth Exodus 25:17 prescribes the width and depth of the ark-cover but not its height. Bavli Sukkah 5a-b, immediately following the current discussion, offers various derivations for this measurement. While that analysis considers the possibility that the ark-covering could be as thin as a sheet of metal, it ultimately concludes that it must have a face (Leviticus 16:14) like the face of the cherubs and of humans. The Talmud there (5b) points out that the cherubs, which are attached to the top of the ark-covering, are described as protecting (sokhekhim) over the ark (Exodus 25:20) and thus serve a parallel function to the sekhakh of the sukkah covering.
meet with you The verse, which is more fully quoted in some manuscripts, reads: I will meet with you there and I will speak to you from above the cover from between the two cherubim that are on top of the ark of the pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people. This demonstrates that the point of contact between God and Moses was just above the ark-cover.
Furthermore Rabbi Yose’s tradition adds that not only is the ten-handbreadth height the point of divine communication, it is an absolute boundary between the upper and lower realms. Therefore, the height of ten handbreadths represents the boundary between domains and the roof of the sukkah separates the human realm in the sukkah from the Divine Presence above it. The view of Rabbi Yose also appears in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (source #3).
Divine Presence Shekhinah is a nominal form derived from the verb meaning to dwell. The Bible describes God dwelling within the sanctuary, Zion, and the people of Israel (Exodus 25:8, 29:45, Numbers 5:3, Isaiah 8:18); The desert sanctuary is therefore called the mishkan (dwelling place). The term shekhinah is coined by the rabbis in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 6:5, Avot 3:2, 6) to refer to God’s anthropomorphized indwelling and intimate relationship with human beings.
heavens belong to the Lord The verse from Psalms paraphrases Genesis 1:28 where God grants dominion to humans over the earth. The Talmud learns that the world is divided into two separate realms: God in heaven and humans on earth. Neither may breach the border. This spatial analogy symbolizes the fundamental existential difference between mere mortals and the transcendent ineffability of the Divine, perhaps polemicizing against the Christian belief of incarnation. This verse teaches the same lesson in other midrashim cited at Source #3 and #4.
The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai While Exodus 19:20 says that God descended to the top of the mountain, the Bavli limits that descent to above the ten-handbreadth borderline, thus conforming to Psalms 115:16. Compare this response to that in sources #3, #4, and #5.
The verses just before Exodus 19:20 describe God’s descent in a fire causing a giant cloud of smoke. The Bible often depicts God’s presence in the form of fire, smoke, and clouds, objects that exist but are massless, ethereal and uncontainable. Fire provides light and warmth but is also dangerous and powerful. Clouds provide shade and rain but also conceal and hide, thus paradoxically revealing the presence of God’s hiddenness. The discussion of this midrash revolves around the ambiguity as to whether the fire and clouds themselves contain or manifest God’s physical presence, or whether they merely accompany God’s non-visible presence.
He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives Zechariah 14, the Haftarah reading for the first day of Sukkot (Bavli Megilah 31a), culminates with a prediction of an international pilgrimage to celebrate Sukkot. The chapter begins with God rising in battle against the nations of the world, standing as a warrior upon the Mount of Olives. God’s descent upon the mountain causes it to split in two (verse 4), reminiscent of the quaking of Mount Sinai. This verse as well as Exodus 19:20 appear in Avot d’Rabbi Natan A 34 in a list of ten descents of the Divine Presence. See below Source #5.
Moses and Elijah The thesis that Moses and Elijah never ascended to heaven has a Tannaitic source in the name of Rabbi Yose at Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro, baHodesh 4, see Source #3. Other midrashim take for granted that Elijah ascended to heaven.
That was below ten handbreadths The Talmud maintains that Moses and Elijah remined below ten handbreadths from the ground even as they ascended to God on Mount Sinai and to heaven. This implausible response affirms that the Talmud presents this measurement not as a literal physical boundary but rather as a figuration of the spiritual distance between human and divine realms.
He enclosed the face of His throne Job 26 describes the unfathomable power of God in nature, leading some modern scholars to revocalize “כִּסֵּה - throne” as “כֵּסֶה – full moon,” based on context. Thus, NRSV translates: He covers the face of the full moon, and spread over it his cloud. The Talmud, however, reads the word as throne as does the Masoretic vocalization and applies this verse to the experience of Moses at the Sinai theophany. Rabbi Nahum thus takes the cloud not as a concealing cover, but rather as a manifestation of Divine glory, which He extended down to Moses. This implies that the Divine Presence descended lower than the ten-handbreadth borderline in order to reach Moses. The implication from the second half of the verse is made explicitly in the first half of the verse if we take the subject of the verb enclosed (understood by the Talmud to mean grasped) to be not God but Moses, who took hold of God’s throne.
The Mishnah legislates that the minimum height of a sukkah is ten handbreadths. This measurement is in fact the standard height throughout halakhic literature for something to be considered a valid wall or partition. Whereas the ten-handbreadth standard is taken for granted in other legal realms, the Bavli’s inquiry into its biblical source specifically in the context of the sukkah’s height suggests a search for a deeper reason for this architectural detail.
The Bavli [A] answers the question with an early Amoraic tradition already cited in the Yerushalmi (see Source #2) that the Ark of the Covenant and its covering together made up ten handbreadths. Exodus 25:22 describes that height as the meeting place at which God prophetically communicates, between the cherubs just above the Ark covering. Significantly, Exodus 25:20 (cited in the Bavli’s next response at Sukkah 5b) states: “The cherubs shall have their wings spread out shielding (sokhekhim) with their wings over the Ark-cover,” using the same root as the word Sukah and its roofing (sekhakh). The teaching of Rabbi Yose [B] clinches the proof with Psalms 115:16, which describes heaven and earth as two separate realms. Since the purpose of the sukkah roof is to separate the human residents below from the heavens above, it too cannot be any lower than ten handbreadths.
We can hardly consider this a legal source considering that these verses do not speak about a sukkah, their relevance to minimum heights is far from clear, and one of these verses is from Psalms, which the Talmud does not consider a legal source. Rather, the Talmud picks up a detail of the legal requirements of the sukkah, easily explained in terms of the general halakhic requirements for boundaries, and builds upon it an elaborate philosophical exposition about the spiritual significance of the sukkah. The sukkah reminds its dwellers of God’s providence throughout the desert wanderings when the Israelites enjoyed His protective clouds of glory. The sekhakh and the shade it provides serve as a physical representation of that Divine Presence for those celebrating the spirit of the festival.
The discussion could end here, as does the Yerushalmi parallel. However, the citation of Rabbi Yose’s application of Psalms 115:16 about the impenetrability of the two domains prompts the Bavli to deepen the analysis. Rabbi Yose’s teaching helps resolve the opening question but also sets up a tension that links to the continuation of the Bavli sugya. If indeed the realms can never meet, then what hope is there to feel the divine presence in the sukkah. If the goal of this festival is to greet God and appreciate His providence, the sekhakh serves only as a barrier to that achievement.
Sections  and  challenge Rabbi Yose’s statement and thereby attempt to pierce through that boundary to find some path to a Divine encounter. First, the Talmud sets forth two proofs that God did and will descend to earth, only to be rebuffed that those descents come close but ultimately stop at the border. Second, the Talmud knocks in the other direction to try and break through from below. The two greatest exemplars of humans who reached divine heights, Moses and Elijah must surely have transcended to the divine realm. But they too are put in their place, below ten handbreadths. Obviously, this spatial marker only symbolizes the spiritual divide between humble human beings and the majesty of the cosmic Creator.
We are nearly ready to give up, resigned to reside in separate domains that can never meet. However, one last attempt succeeds. For a single moment at Sinai, the Divine throne stretched down just enough for Moses to grab hold of it and experience a direct experience of God’s protective glory. Reading this optimistic and nearly mystical conclusion back into the analysis of the sukkah’s architecture, we learn that the sekhakh is not an absolute barrier but a porous one. The tiny cracks between the branches leave open the faintest hope to glimpse the Divine Presence.
The Talmud constructs the sukkah such that its sekhakh roofing becomes its primary defining feature. The sekhakh has unique requirements that it be made of natural raw materials and must provide shade, but it also must be porous enough to allow rain and ideally a small amount of light to pass through. Its dwellers are at once protected but also vulnerable. The sekhakh hides the heavens and blocks access to the upper realms but still permits a small glimpse of the light of the sun. This dialectical tension within the architecture of the sukkah plays out in the Talmudic dialogue.
The sense of isolation and removal from the divine realm that runs through most of the sugya would have resonated during the post-biblical age when people could only read and dream about the great miracles of the Bible and the direct communication given to the prophets. For these generations, the border between the heavenly and earthly realms was closed with no possibility of passage. Nevertheless, sitting in the Sanctuary-inspired space of the sukkah and peering up at the sekhakh offers the slightest glimpse of the Divine providence pushing sunlight through the dark shadows, and promising rain, sustenance and life for the upcoming season.
Gershom Scholem one wrote: “In the tension between the two aims – the insistence on the purity of the monotheistic idea on the one side, and on the vitality of faith on the other – is comprised the history of Israel’s religion.” This tension forms the skeleton of this short but profound sugya, which draws out the symbolic experience of the dweller in the sukkah as an annual playing out of that spiritual yearning to connect to that which is above us, even while recognizing our limitations from ever achieving the (nearly) impossible goal of grasping the Divine throne.
The opening question as well as parts [A] and [B] have a close parallel in the Yerushalmi (source #2). Both cite Exodus 25:22 to teach that the point just above the ark-covering is the meeting place for prophecy and both include the calculation of nine handbreadths for the ark plus one for the covering. However, there remains a significant difference. The Yerushalmi in the name of Resh Lakish derives from Exodus 20:19 only that God speaks from the realm of heaven. The Bavli instead incorporates Rabbi Yose’s reading of Psalms 115:16 [B] to make a broader statement about the absolute separation between the two realms. The Bavli also does not make explicit the relevance of this point to the proof for the limit of ten handbreadths. Rather, the Bavli editors, who likely had before them the Yerushalmi sugya or something similar to it, incorporate Rabbi Yose in order to set up a pivot to the next part of the discussion about the possibility of penetrating that barrier.
Rabbi Yose’s statement derives from the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (Source #3) where his opinion argues with another view that allows for slightly more interaction with the divine domain, which bends down to the top of the mountain. Rabbi Yose sets out an ironclad rule that the divine and human realms remain forever apart and impenetrable, the borderline symbolized by a ten-handbreadth measurement above the ground. Other contrasting sources to this Talmud (see Source #4) echo a primordial split between the upper and lower realms, however they enthusiastically admit a fundamental change in the spiritual order that occurred at the Revelation of Sinai. Avot d’Rabbi Natan A 34 (Source #5) lists ten occurrences of the Shekhina descending to the world, among them are the two verses in  that this sugya cites to challenge Rabbi Yose’s thesis. This Talmud, in contrast, makes a great effort to defend Rabbi Yose's proposition that the two worlds never did (with one possible exception) and never could cross over in either direction.
The sugya, in its balanced structure, presents two challenges from each direction and successfully refutes each one. Just as we think we have concluded, one last challenge breaks the even balance and proves that there was indeed a single moment when, not God Himself, but His throne elongated, as in a Lorenz transformation, and managed to push through into the human dimension just enough for Moses to grab hold. This exceptional event is a one-time occurrence (unlike the fundamental change in Source #4 or the repeated descents in Source #5). It is barely even a break, just an extending from one boundary to the other for a single point of contact, similar to the intimate communication described in Source #3’s anonymous opinion.
This sugya furnishes the first of three responses for the source of the minimum height of a sukkah in the continuation of the Bavli. The second response quite literally builds on the first to derive the ten handbreadths from the airspace between the ark cover and the outstretched wings of the cherubs, based on Exodus 25:20. These two responses are linked through a discussion of the height of the ark cover and the suggestion that it is one handbreadth high like the face of the cherubs. The calculation of ten handbreadths for the ark and its cover is not only a prerequisite for the calculation of the second response, but also sets up the theological foundation for the sukkah’s providential symbolism. The third and final response, that these measurements are simply an oral tradition from Sinai with no textual basis, may have been the simple legal explanation that the sages assumed all along. However, the editors of the sugya wanted to first introduce the aggadic significance of the sukkah as a location to experience the divine Presence like cherub’s wings protecting (sokhekhim) its inhabitants.
The comparison of this sugya to its sources, parallel texts, and context within the Bavli discussion all conjoin to confirm the conclusions of the literary analysis. The editors consciously and carefully craft each line of the sugya so as to set up a tension regarding the impossibility of interaction with the divine realm, only to resolve it as a remote but real possibility. The Bavli combines the Yerushalmi discussion of ten handbreadths with the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael as well as echoes of other midrashim about the Sinaitic theophany. It can thus incorporate the fundamental tension and question as to the extent of divine providence and human transcendence into the symbolism of the sukkah. The result is a magnificent, artistic mosaic made up of various sources to create a profound meditation on human striving to encounter the Divine through the ritual practices of the festival.