Have you ever wondered why women are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah?
Besides commemorating Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the mitzvah of sukkah has spiritual and educational significance. We are commanded to leave the comforts of our permanent home and move into a hut without routine luxuries, prompting us to reflect upon the spiritual aspects of existence. This is the reason we are commanded to perform mitzvat sukkah in the autumn when rainstorms threaten our physical comfort in a dwelling made of flimsy fabric and with a roof of loosely set foliage. It is designed to render the stars visible from the interior, enabling us to raise our eyes to heaven, to seek security in faith rather than in sturdy construction. It is in the sukkah that the Jew learns the true realities of existence—the transient quality of this world and life’s spiritual essence.
Then why are women exempt from this mitzvah?
The Maharal of Prague (Drush Al HaTorah, 16th century) cites the Talmud (Berachos 17a) in explaining that these mitzvot were given primarily to men to help them overcome aggression and aspire to spiritual perfection. Women, however, because of their inherent potential for spiritual growth, are capable of achieving greater levels of perfection without the rigors of mitzvah training.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Commentary to Leviticus, N.Y. 1972, 23:43) reaches the same conclusion, proceeding from a premise based on men and women’s differences of lifestyle: “The Torah did not impose those mitzvot on women because it did not consider them necessary to be demanded of women,” he argues. “All time-bound positive commandments are meant, by symbolic procedures, to bring certain facts, principles, ideas and resolutions, afresh to our minds from time to time to spur us on afresh and to fortify us to realize them, to keep them. G-d’s Torah takes it for granted that our women have greater fervor and more faithful enthusiasm for serving their G-d and that their calling runs less danger in their case than that of men from the temptations which occur in the course of business and professional life. Accordingly, it [the Torah] does not find it necessary to give women those repeated spurring reminders to remain true to their calling, and warn them against weakness in their daily lives.”
Rav Aaron Soloveitchik summed up women’s spiritual imperative by his interpretation of the Rabbinic commentary on the verse “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel” (Shemos 9:3) — identifying the “house of Jacob” with women and “the children of Israel” with men — by pointing out that the primary duty of both men and women is to hand down the Divine Revelation at Sinai to their children. Whereas men’s task is to hand down the contents of the Revelation, women’s task is to hand down the reality of the Revelation.
And so we are given to understand that the Divine Revelation is an integral part of Jewish women’s “reality.” Women do not require the commandment of dwelling in the sukkah in order to comprehend the spiritual lesson it is meant to teach. It is they who light the Shabbat candles every week illuminating the home with the light of the Torah; it is they who teach the young child the first tentative steps in halacha and mitzvot and set the stage for their performance by the whole family. It is they who by the painstaking observance of kashrut transform the dining room table into an altar and the meals into sacred offerings. Spiritual reality is a major ingredient of women’s daily tasks, they do not merely perform – they live the mitzvot.
The Jewish women do not have to learn the message of sukkah for a symbolic seven-day period. It is part of their world all year round.