Single women and the Mitzvah of Succah
Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman
She'elaWhat I want to ask is not really a specific halakhic question but more a question about halakha and I was hoping someone could give me their input or some sources to read.
As a Jewish woman committed to Torah, I believe that men and women have different roles, therefore different obligations. This time period from 17th of Tammuz until Simchat Torah is an emotional journey. It's a very special time of year that I'm fully participate in. However, as a single Jewish woman, when it comes to Succot, I feel literally and figuratively out in the cold. I know there are mitzvot that I may do but my obligations seem to be tefilla. I would appreciate any thoughts on the issue, thank you.
You ask an important question, which can be broken down to several components.
- Why are women exempt from positive time-bound commandments (mitzvot aseh she-hazman grama)?
- Should women (or anyone) go out of their way to perform mitzvot (commandments) they are not obligated to do? What if any significance is there for women who fulfill such mitzvot?
- What are a Jewish woman’s obligations on Succot?
- What can a fulfilling Succot look like without a succa?
Background – the mitzvot of Succot:
There are several mitzvot that apply specifically to Succot. As you mentioned, the most prominent is the Torah commandment to dwell in a succa for the entire festival. The Torah also commands the taking of the arba’at ha-minim, the four species, on the first day of the festival. The rabbis extended this command throughout chol ha-moed (the intermediate days of the festival). Both these commandments are considered mitzvot aseh she-hazman grama (positive time-bound commandments). As your question mentioned, women are exempt from these commandments. We also add Hallel, mussaf, and hoshanot into our prayers, and while I encourage women to say these prayers when they are able, many authorities hold that women are exempt from these as well. Finally, there is a Torah commandment to rejoice in the festival, and women are obligated in this mitzva.
Value of fulfilling voluntarily performing mitzvot:
Let us begin with the mitzvot of the holiday; as a woman you are exempt from most of these. Without getting into the reasons for the exemption, which you can read about in the sources below, there is value in trying to perform them when possible. Ramban writes that “One who performs a Torah commandment as it was established, even though they were not commanded, like a woman or non-Jew, receive reward for it, for all “[the Torah’s] ways are pleasant.” (Kiddushin 31a) While there are fundamental differences between obligatory and voluntary mitzvot, voluntary mitzva observance is an important form of serving and connecting to G-d.
There are even some who state that women should only rely on the exemption when they are actively busy with the fulfillment of mitzvot they are commanded to do; if it does not conflict with an obligatory mitzva or Torah value women should strive to mitzvot aseh she-hazman grama. (Rav Yisrael Gustman, Kuntrusei Shiurim, Kiddushin pg. 254)
This seems to be the case with the mitzvot of Succot. Therefore, I urge you to attempt to try and fulfill these if you are able.
Succot without a succa
Succot is called “The time of our rejoicing,” and “The festival of gathering.” It is a time to remember that just as G-d protected our people and provided all our needs throughout our sojourn in the desert, G-d continues to do so now. (Vayikra 23:43) When we gather our produce for the year we affirm that it is not “My strength and the might of my hand that made me this great thing,” but rather “the Lord your
G-d gave you strength to do this great thing.” (Devarim 8:17-18) As my teacher Rav Alex Israel explains, the succa is a balance between a temporary and permanent structure, natural and man-made; we dwell in it “to experience the limited-ness of man, and the graceful protection of G-d.”
It seems from your message that you will not have a succa of your own. As a woman you are not obligated to dwell or even eat in a succa, and this year may be a good year to rely on this exemption and look for other ways to connect to the mitzvot of Succot. On a “normal” year I would encourage you to look for some way to spend time in a succa – be it a public succa, such as those provided by municipalities in Israel, or synagogues, or that of friends or neighbors – even if it’s just for kiddush and hamotzi, the occasional snack, or really anything. Even if you don’t know your neighbors personally, you can introduce yourself or leave a note on the entrance to their succa with your address or phone number asking them to get in touch if you can use their succa when they are not around. Many people are more than happy to share their succa with others.
Even when the above isn’t possible there are mitzvot of Succot that are more readily available. I encourage you to get your own set of arba minim and use them when davening. While many women have the custom of taking arba minim into the succa, this is unnecessary.
There are beautiful explanations given for the commandment of arba minim, many connected to their place in prayer. The midrash in Ta’anit 2b states that these four species are highly dependent on water, just as people need water to survive. Succot is the holiday when we pray for water. Thus, the arba minim can be used as a tool for supplication, such as in hoshanot and in hallel when we sing: “Ana Ha-Shem hoshiya na” “Please G-d, grant us salvation.”
The arba minim are also a tool for rejoicing. Vayikra Rabba 30 describes them as symbols of celebration, an expression of our confidence that G-d judged us favorably on Yom Kippur. Therefore, we also wave them in Hallel while we sing: “Hodu la-Hashem ki tov…” “Give thanks to the Lord for [the Lord is] good, His kindness is eternal.”
The arba minim fulfill two complementary roles when we wave them during Hallel – they are symbols of supplication and thanksgiving. These two themes are also combined in the simchat beit ha-shoeva, the Joy of the Drawing House – every day of Succot a water libation was poured on the altar in Temple, this was accompanied by great displays of joy, music, dancing and acrobatics. Many communities continue these celebrations today. The original ceremony could be seen as both a prayer for rain and a celebration of G-d’s providence.
Sefer HaChinuch relates that women are obligated to rejoice in the festivals:
And [concerning] the offering of peace offerings, they, may their memory be blessed, said (Chagigah 6b), “Women are obligated in joy” – meaning that even they are obligated to bring peace offerings of joy. And they, may their memory be blessed, also said (Chagigah 8a), “Rejoice in all types of rejoicing.” And included in this is the eating of meat and the drinking of wine, to wear new clothes, the distribution of fruit and types of sweets to the youths and the women and to play musical instruments in the Temple alone – and that is the joy of the drawing house (simchat beit hashoeva) that is mentioned in the Gemara (Sukkah 50a).
(translation and source https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_HaChinukh.488.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en)
Based on the Gemara that says that different types of people rejoice in different ways – some with meat and wine, other clothes and jewelry, and children with treats, Yereim explains that each person should express their joy in ways that they find enjoyable. (Pesachim 109a, Yereim 427)
Sefer HaChinuch continues to explain that people need joy like they need sleep. G-d commands us to rejoice for our own sake, but that happiness has a deeper meaning, it is a happiness in the miracles and goodness that G-d grants us as a people. Shir HaShirim Rabba (1) explains the verse “’This is the day that G-d made, we will rejoice and be gladdened in it:’ We will rejoice and be happy in the Holy One, blessed be He, in Your salvation, in Your Torah, in Your awe.” This is a time to enhance the aspect of joy in our relationship with G-d, the joy of closeness with G-d.
While there is a commandment to rejoice in all festivals, Succot is seen as the epitome of this joy and known as Zman Simchateinu, the Time of Our Joy. It is also referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Gathering. In the Land of Israel it is right before the rainy season. In an agrarian society this is the time one looks at their yield for the year, to take stock of what G-d has provided them for the coming winter. In Judaism it is the finale of the Days of Awe, when we ask G-d for rain and sustenance for the coming year, and also a time we take stock of everything G-d has given us to this point. A time we affirm that this is all from G-d.
We learn in Pirkei Avot “Who is rich? One who is joyous in their lot.” G-d has chosen what to provide for us – the gifts and the challenges. During Succot, when we take stock of all these things, and we accept them with joy and gratitude, affirming that G-d has given us what we need to survive, to thrive, and to serve G-d in this world. We rejoice in all this as we rejoice in our relationship with G-d.
During this difficult time we need this joy more than ever. As rejoicing in the festival is the one mitzva of Succot you are obligated to fulfill, I urge you to follow the opinion of Yereim and figure out a way to make this joy your own. What brings you joy? How can you find joy in your relationship with G-d? How can you express joy with your lot in life?
With prayers of a year filled with blessings and goodness, and with the hope that this Succot brings you and all of Israel joy.
This is your space to make the joy of this festival your own.
For further study see:
Women and mussaf: https://www.deracheha.org/mussaf/
Women and hallel: https://www.deracheha.org/hallel/
Women and positive time-bound mitzvot: https://www.deracheha.org/positive-time-bound-mitzvot/
Voluntary mitzva observance: https://www.deracheha.org/voluntary-mitzva-performance/
Rabbanit Chana Henkin has a wonderful article on the significance of women’s voluntary mitzva observance: https://www.nishmat.net/Uploads/files/Rabbanit_Henkin_Womens_Issues1.pdf
Women and simchat yom tov: https://www.deracheha.org/simchat-yom-tov/#in_practice
Sefer Ha-Chinuch on laws and reasons for Four Species: