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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Sukkah and the Lulav--A Feminist Perspective on a Jewish Holiday

I found out about the existence of a series of books called A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud while I was researching my blog entry on Women in the Talmud which I reviewed in March. The volume on Massekhet Sukkah by Shulamit Valler,  a section of the Talmud dealing with the holiday of Sukkot, was available to me through interlibrary loan.  I feel fortunate that any of these books are available through public libraries in the U.S. because these are books published in Germany which would be extremely expensive for me to obtain.


   Considering that Sukkot is a family holiday, Valler wondered why the Talmud would exempt women from dwelling in the huts constructed for Sukkot.  The singular of hut in Hebrew is a Sukkah, and oddly enough the validity of  the Sukkah belonging to Queen Helene of Adiabene is discussed in the Talmud.  Valler deduces that women were not exempted from dwelling in the Sukkah during the Second Temple period when Helene of Adiabene lived.   See Helene of Adiabene on the Jewish Women's Archive for more information.  This Queen was a convert to Judaism and very devout.   She would not have built a Sukkah if she hadn't been encouraged to do so by the Rabbis who instructed her.  They evidently had no problem with her Sukkah and used to visit it on Sukkot on a regular basis.

Another piece of  evidence that women weren't always exempt from living in the Sukkah includes Shammai putting a Sukkah like covering over his daughter in law when she was giving birth on Sukkot.  If she wasn't required to be in a Sukkah, why would she need the covering?  My only question about this as evidence, is that it's known that Shammai was stricter than other Rabbis. Yet he was not unique in including women in the commandment of the Sukkah.  In the Talmud it's described how Abbaye found Rav Josef sleeping in his Sukkah with his new wife under the wedding canopy.

Then there was the case of Rabbi Eliezer's ruling about an Epitropos (overseer) employed by King Agrippa that he must eat two meals with each of his two wives in her Sukkah.  This was also in the Second Temple period.  The requirement was that two meals per day should be eaten in a Sukkah. It seems to me that the requirement should attach to the practitioner, not to the Sukkah.  A Sukkah is a structure.  It doesn't have religious obligations.  So it should be two meals regardless of how many Sukkot you visit per day.  Modern Talmudic scholar Adriel Schremer said that Rabbi Eliezer made this ruling that the Epitropos with two wives needed to eat four meals because he believed that men should be monogamous, and he wanted to make it more burdensome to be polygamous. This case is yet another indication that women had Sukkot, and that they lived in them during the holiday.   

There is mention in the Talmud of a type of Sukkah not built for the holiday called a Women's Sukkah.  Valler thinks that this is a menstruation hut. There were never any menstruation huts in the land of Israel, but there were in Babylon due to Zoroastrian influence.  This is shown in the novel Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton.  Not all Jewish families in Babylon confined menstruating women to huts in Anton's book, but some did. 

Even more interesting to me is the issue of  what is valid as a lulav.  A lulav is a branch that is shaken on Sukkot to bring rain.  It is said in the Talmud that a Ba'al branch is valid, but an Asherah branch isn't.  Ba'al and Asherah are both Pagan deities.  One would think that neither would be valid because they are associated with Pagan worship.  Valler wants us to know that a plant that didn't need watering was called a B'aal plant, so they weren't actually recommending something associated with Pagan practice.  Yet she also tells us that they were called Ba'al plants because whether or not they received water was up to Ba'al.  So it seems to me that the terminology was Pagan, and so was the lulav.  Ba'al was a rain god.  It's said in the Talmud that the lulav is phallic.  This is why an Asherah branch isn't valid.  Asherah was a goddess.  Valler doesn't say that Judaism adopted the lulav from the Pagans, but it does seem like an inescapable conclusion.

Finding substantiation of Pagan borrowings in Judaism is important because it shows that Judaism was probably more like other ancient religions than the Rabbis want us to believe.

I found reference to an essay on whether Huldah might have been a prophet of the goddess Asherah in this book, and a book called The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah by Judith M. Hadley.  This is the direction in which I will now be taking my research.


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