Yeshiva University President Rabbi Ari Berman’s Opening Shiur

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Shlomo Zuckier

Below are my notes on the Shiur Petihah, the opening lecture that Yeshiva University’s new president, Rabbi Ari Berman, offered to the morning learning program students in the Glueck Beit Midrash on Wednesday, September 9, 2017, the fall semester’s first day of official learning.

YU is learning Tractate Sukkah this year, and thus the message tied together both the topic of study and the historic moment, “a new administration, perhaps a new era,” in President Berman’s words, as YU transitions into his leadership. These notes, I believe, retain the author’s voice and language, including more than a few Hebrew and Aramaic phrases. This is not a verbatim transcript, but a rendering of the content, along with some supplementation of sources in relevant places.


Good morning, and welcome to all the talmidim of the Yeshiva! You started learning this morning at 9 AM, so you probably covered a lot of ground, and at least got to the first dispute in the Mishnah (Sukkah 2a):

סוכה שהיא גבוהה למעלה מעשרים אמה—פסולה, ורבי יהודה מכשיר

The hakhamim say that a Sukkah higher than 20 amot is pasul, while Rabbi Yehudah says it’s kasher.

There are three reasons for this, and we’ll focus on the third, offered by Rava (Sukkah 2a):

ורבא אמר: מהכא בסכת תשבו שבעת ימים. אמרה תורה: כל שבעת הימים צא מדירת קבע ושב בדירת עראי. עד עשרים אמה אדם עושה דירתו דירת עראי, למעלה מעשרים אמה אין אדם עושה דירתו דירת עראי, אלא דירת קבע. אמר ליה אביי: אלא מעתה, עשה מחיצות של ברזל וסיכך על גבן הכי נמי דלא הוי סוכה? אמר ליה, הכי קאמינא לך: עד עשרים אמה, דאדם עושה דירתו דירת עראי, כי עביד ליה דירת קבע נמי נפיק. למעלה מעשרים אמה, דאדם עושה דירתו דירת קבע, כי עביד ליה דירת עראי נמי לא נפיק.

The pasuk says you should sit in Sukkot for seven days, that you should leave your permanent dwelling place and sit in a temporary dwelling place, a dirat arai, namely the Sukkah. Up to 20 amot people build temporary dwellings, the Gemara reasons, not higher. Abaye asks about putting sekhakh on mehitzot shel barzel, iron walls, which would be permanent but short. We resolve that such as Sukkah is still valid, since the determining factor is the height at which one would generally build a temporary dwelling. For the case of a building more than 20 amot, even if its structure is temporary, we argue that batelah da’ato etzel kol adam, and it is still invalid. The converse is true as well, that if it’s shorter than 20 amot then even if it’s solid there is no problem.

We find this idea that the Sukkah must be a dirat arai, a temporary dwelling, in several other places, not only in this dispute between Rabbi Yehudah and the hakhamim. One such example appears on 3b (עד כאן לא קאמרי רבנן התם אלא לענין סוכה, דדירת עראי היא.) This is an important principle, that the Sukkah be temporary.

The problem, however, is that we have a contradictory Mishnah, which actually uses similar language to that of our Mishnah (Sukkah 28b) but in the opposite direction:

כל שבעת הימים אדם עושה סוכתו קבע וביתו עראי

All seven days a person makes his Sukkah permanent and his house temporary.

On the basis of this principle that the Sukkah must be permanent, there are several halakhot that apply here—one must eat, sleep, learn, metayel in the Sukkah, bring in their nice kelim, utensils, and furniture. This is framed as positive obligations of what to do in the Sukkah, but it is also seen by Rishonim that keva, permanence, is definitional to Sukkah.

For that reason, one is patur from sitting in the Sukkah if one is not comfortable (Sukkah 26a):

שומרי גנות ופרדסים פטורין בין ביום ובין בלילה, וליעבדי סוכה התם וליתבו! אביי אמר: תשבו כעין תדורו.

Those guarding fields are exempt from Sukkah, and don’t need to set one up where they are, based on this principle of teshvu ke-ein taduru, that one sits in the Sukkah like one would live in a regular house. Since these huts would not be a normal mode of living, one is exempt from constructing them.

The idea of teshvu ke-ein taduru is a principle we find elsewhere as well, that we should treat our Sukkah like a regular house.

Rava says mitztaer, one who is uncomfortable, is patur from Sukkah (Sukkah 26a), and Rishonim generally (e.g., Tosafot to Sukkah 26a, s.v. Holekhei Derakhim) say it comes from the principle of teshvu ke-ein taduru. If you’re in pain at home, you would leave to go elsewhere, and the same is true for the mitzvah of Sukkah. This all comes from the core principle of making the Sukkah be keva, a set place.

So it seems like there are two fundamental principles that are in conflict with one another—to have the Sukkah be arai, but also to make it keva. Which is it? keva or arai? Must a Sukkah be set or temporary?

The answer is that it depends on your perspective. When it comes to the structure of the Sukkah, that must be a dirat arai, a temporary dwelling. But in terms of how we treat the Sukkah, it has to be in a mode of keva. This is implicit in the language already—Rava talks about living in a dirat arai, about the nature of the structure, whereas it’s adam oseh sukkato keva, that it’s your attitude and how you treat the Sukkah that makes it keva.

Why is this so? Why should this be our definition of Sukkah? First of all, Rachmana amar, it’s the Halakhah. But if we think about it further, what is the message of this Halakhah?

When I think about this, I think of a Maharsha in Avodah Zarah (3a):

והכונה שרמז להם במצות סוכה שהיה להם לקיים המצות בעוה”ז שדומה לסוכה ודירת עראי וק”ל:

He suggests that a Sukkah is similar to this world, that Sukkah is a metaphor for life. Our lives are arai, fleeting, our moments go quickly, we’re all here for only a short period of time. But we try to turn this world into Keva, to make our moments count, to make the time that we are here meaningful and important.

If we understand this as a metaphor for what we’re trying to do in life, and for the human condition, we can understand other aspects of Sukkah as well.

The Hakhamim teach us that, as opposed to lulav, a Sukkah sheulah, a borrowed Sukkah, is kesheirah (Sukkah 27b). Why? From the pasuk of כל האזרח בישראל ישבו בסכות (Leviticus 23:42), teaching that כל ישראל ראוים לישב בסוכה אחת, all of Israel can sit in the same Sukkah. We are all here together, all dwelling together, living in that same sense of arai, in the same human condition.

How do we do all of this? Through the sekhakh, the ikkar and central aspect of the Sukkah. The sekhakh represents the Shekhinah and ananei ha-kavod. What makes our Sukkah momentous, and what binds us, is that we are all ovdei Hashem, all trying to come close to the Shekhinah, to do God’s will and come close to Him. We know before whom we are standing, that Hashem is with us. With that sense of arai before God, we can make the arai into keva.

I mention this on the first day of the new year, of a new administration, perhaps a new era. Because Yeshiva University is in many senses like a Sukkah. We’re at a period that is arai. It’s fleeting. You’re here for only a few years, until you receive your degree, maybe you stay a bit longer for another degree, but your time here is short.

You could treat your experience like something that is fleeting—to get in and out, do it quickly, cut corners. People in Yeshiva University have been known to do that sometimes. You might move through this Yeshiva as quickly as possible. What I’d like to suggest is that the goal for each of us here, from this day moving forward, is to take advantage of your moment while you are here, to take advantage of your time at Yeshiva, to turn your arai into something keva.

And the way to do that is to follow the model of the Sukkah. We learn in the Sukkah, and you have an enormous opportunity to learn here at Yeshiva. You have perhaps the greatest group of Roshei Yeshiva in the world, all here for you to learn from in shiurim and other opportunities. You should take your learning seriously, your morning learning, and you should learn into the night, deep into the night.

Not only is turning arai into keva accomplished through the ikkar of learning Torah, but also through the secular studies, with the stellar faculty you have in the afternoon. You have the opportunity to broaden yourself and prepare for life through these classes, alongside the Torah learning.

But there’s also the akhilah and shetiyah and linah of the Sukkah, and you should make sure to eat, drink, and sleep here. You shouldn’t run out of Yeshiva University at every opportunity. You should stay here for Shabbat, rather than run out Thursday night before night seder. You should be here, dwell here, make this place keva, turn this place into your home

Moreover, Sukkah sheulah is kesheirah, a borrowed Sukkah is Kosher, because כל ישראל ראוים לישב בסוכה אחת, we can all sit in the same Sukkah. You will never have this opportunity again, to be with a thousand different types of Jews in one place. I encourage you, deeply, to view this institution as a yeshiva where we not only speak to each other but also learn from one another. We have a gathering of people from all different parts of the world—Ashkenaizim, Sefardim … we even have some Jews who aren’t from the Five Towns! And we can learn from them, from speaking to them, from their thoughts and perspectives. Each person is different, created be-tzelem Elokim, which makes him kadosh, and we can connect to that holiness.

It won’t necessarily be easy to do. We have a tendency to be divided. We sit at different tables, attend different shiurim, different Torah studies programs, but we need to come together as a Yeshiva—to come together and to learn with one another. You’re going to set up havrutot deep into the night, but you should also take some time to set up havrutot with people not in your shiur, not in your morning studies program. JSS, IBC, BMP, The Yeshiva Program—we should all be learning not only with but from one another. We are one Yeshiva, and we are all one tahat kanfei ha-Shekhinah.

Yeshiva University is here to bring Hashem into this world, to give you a chance to develop and mature in a profound way, to develop a relationship with Ha-Kadosh baruch hu. The Shekhinah needs to be present in this room. And when you’re finished with Yeshiva University, you’ve turned this arai into keva, taken advantage of each moment you are here, and benefited greatly, you will leave the Sukkah and go into the outside world. And you will take everything you have learned here and spread it to the world—spread our values, our message, that כל ישראל ראוים לישב בסוכה אחת, and not only kol Yisrael but all of humanity, can learn from the messages of Torah, and connect to Hashem. And it is upon you to gain from the Sukkah and ultimately to leave the Sukkah and have a wonderful impact on the world.

This is the first day of a wonderful journey. I look forward to thinking together with each of you about how we can grow, both to come closer to Ha-Kadosh barukh hu, and to spread His message to the world.

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.