S.A.L.T. - Sukkot 5778

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            The Midrash, in a brief, startling passage (Tanchuma, Emor 22), comments that the first day of the holiday of Sukkot is “rishon le-cheshbon avonot” – “the first [day] of the account of sins.”  What the Midrash appears to be saying is that after we’ve earned atonement for our wrongdoing on Yom Kippur, we begin a new account of sins immediately following that observance, on Sukkot.  In the interim days between Yom Kippur on Sukkot, the Midrash writes, the flurry of activity preparing for Sukkot, prevents sin, or at least makes it unlikely, such that the new “account” begins only on Sukkot.  The Midrash here appears, at least at first glance, to be presenting a most discouraging, gloomy outlook on the otherwise joyous festival of Sukkot, describing it as the beginning of our new “year of sin,” so-to-speak.
            Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in Kedushat Levi (Haazinu), suggests a creative reading of the Midrash’s comment which effectively turns it around, into a source of encouragement.  He draws upon the Gemara’s famous teaching in Masekhet Yoma (86b) that when a sinner repents “out of love,” as opposed to merely out of fear of punishment, his repentance has the effect of retroactively transforming his sins into sources of merit.  Whereas the lower level of repentance merely allows the sinner to escape punishment, the higher level, the level of “teshuva mei-ahava” (“repentance out of love”), has the remarkable ability to have one’s misdeeds count as mitzvot.  Rav Levi Yitzchak thus suggested – somewhat amusingly – that with the onset of the festive, joyous holiday of Sukkot, when we transition from the fear of the High Holidays to the higher level of joy and genuine feelings of love for the Almighty, He retrieves the sins that had been removed from our record on Yom Kippur.  Now that we rise to the higher level of “teshuva mei-ahava,” which enables us to actually receive credit, as it were, for our sins, God graciously goes back to count anew the sins of the previous year which had been erased.  And thus the onset of Sukkot marks the beginning of our new account of sins – as the sins of the previous year are brought back into the ledger, so-to-speak, so we can receive credits for them now that they transform into sources of merit.
            We might question whether this was the Midrash’s actual intent in making this remark, but nevertheless, Rav Levi Yitzchak’s explanation offers us insight into the nature of the transition which we undergo as we proceed from the Yamim Nora’im to Sukkot.  During the High Holiday period, we reflect upon our mistakes and shortcomings with feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation and anxiety, recognizing our failures and understanding that God holds us accountable for them.  The Yamim Nora’im experience is characterized by a degree of tension and angst, by pangs of remorse for the past and concern about the future.  After this stage, however, we proceed to the joyous festivity of Sukkot, when, Rav Levi Yitzchak teaches, we look back at our mistakes from a much more positive perspective.  We reflect upon how our failures actually served to propel us forward, and appreciate the fact that they, too, are part of the lifelong process of growth.  Rather than feel frustrated and anxious about our shortcomings, we view them as “sources of merit,” in the sense that they serve as catalysts of change and growth.  The joy of Sukkot stems, at least in part, from this optimistic view of life, the perspective that sees the potential latent deep within every moment of failure and shame, our ability to transform our lowest moments into sources of profound inspiration and promoters of real change. 
            Rav Levi Yitzchak’s message is that whereas on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the memory of our misdeeds causes us great anguish and dread, on Sukkot, these memories bring us joy, as we happily reflect upon how we are able to grow from every mistake and use them to propel us to greater heights of achievement.
            The Tur, introducing the laws of sukka (O.C. 625), famously writes that when the Torah commands us to reside in a sukka on Sukkot to recall the “sukkot” in which our ancestors dwelled in the wilderness (Vayikra 23:43), it refers to the ananei ha-kavod – the miraculous “clouds of glory” that encircled Benei Yisrael during that period.  This interpretation follows the view of Rabbi Eliezer, cited by the Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (11b).  Rabbi Akiva disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, and maintained that the Torah refers to the actual makeshift huts which Benei Yisrael built for themselves.  The Bach, in a well-known passage commenting to the Tur’s discussion, asserts that this point is mentioned in the Tur, a halakhic work, because the commemorative function of the sukka is integral to the mitzva.  Since the Torah commanded us to reside in a sukka in order to remember the “sukkot” in the wilderness, this command, by definition, includes reminding ourselves of those “sukkot.”  As such, the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva as to the nature of those “sukkot” is a matter of vital halakhic import, as we need to know precisely what we commemorate when we reside in the sukka on Sukkot.  The Tur therefore found it necessary to take a position on this subject, which affects the practical halakhic observance of the mitzva of sukka, and he sided with the view of Rabbi Eliezer, interpreting the word “sukkot” as a reference to the ananei ha-kavod
            In accepting Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, the Tur follows the view of Rashi, who in his Torah commentary interprets “sukkot” as a reference to the ananei ha-kavod.  Even earlier, Onkelos, in his Aramaic translation of the Torah, deviates from his usual policy of accepting the plain, simple meaning of the text and translates “sukkot” to mean “clouds of glory.”  Rashi follows Rabbi Eliezer’s view also in his commentary to the Talmud (Sukka 2b, s.v. ha-hu).
            The Tur’s view is codified by the Shulchan Arukh (625:1).
            Numerous later writers raised the question of why the Tur would embrace the view of Rabbi Eliezer over that of Rabbi Akiva.  As a general rule, Halakha does not follow Rabbi Eliezer’s halakhic rulings in his disputes against the other Sages, and Halakha normally follows Rabbi Akiva’s rulings when he argues against another Tanna.  Why, then, does Halakha suddenly adopt Rabbi Eliezer’s position in his dispute against Rabbi Akiva concerning the “sukkot” in the wilderness?
            One simple answer emerges from Torat Kohanim, which records this debate in the converse.  According to Torat Kohanim’s version of this debate, it is Rabbi Akiva who interprets “sukkot” as a reference to the miraculous clouds, whereas Rabbi Eliezer follows the simple reading, explaining the term as a reference to actual huts.  Rav Yehuda Tzadka, writing in Kovetz Ha-moadim (p. 299), noted that Torat Kohanim’s version would appear to be more accurate, as in other exegetical debates between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer generally adopts the straightforward interpretation, whereas Rabbi Akiva tends to prefer more creative readings.  In this instance, therefore, we would expect Rabbi Eliezer to interpret “sukkot” to mean actual huts, and Rabbi Akiva to adopt the less intuitive reading, whereby the term refers to miraculous protective clouds.  Hence, we have reason to prefer Torat Kohanim’s account of the debate over the version that appears in the Talmud Bavli.  Rav Tzadka relates that he mentioned this theory to his rabbi, Chacham Ezra Attiya, who added that this explains the Tur’s ruling, as the Tur in fact follows Rabbi Akiva’s view, in accordance with familiar halakhic principles.
            The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, assumes the version of the debate which appears in the Talmud Bavli, and offers a different theory to explain why the Tur accepted Rabbi Eliezer’s position.  Although Halakha generally follows Rabbi Akiva’s rulings against those of Rabbi Eliezer, nevertheless, in this instance, other sources in Chazal appear to embrace Rabbi Eliezer’s view.  The Gaon draws our attention to the discussion in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sukka 1:5) regarding the source of the halakha requiring using for sekhakh specifically material that grew from the ground.  Reish Lakish claimed that this rule is rooted in the fact that the sekhakh commemorates the miraculous clouds, and clouds originate from mist that rises from the earth, as stated in Sefer Bereishit (“ve-eid ya’aleh min ha-aretz” – 2:6).  Since the clouds we commemorate through the sekhakh originated from the earth, we must use materials from the ground for our sekhakh.  Rabbi Yochanan, the Yerushalmi tells, did not accept this source, because he felt that the miraculous clouds of the wilderness originated from the heavens, and not from the earth, and so he cited a different source for the requirements of sekhakh.  The clear underlying assumption made by both Amora’im is that the sukka commemorates the ananei ha-kavod.
            The Gaon also notes the comment of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 48:10) that God rewarded Avraham for his hospitality towards the angels who visited him by protecting his descendants with clouds in the wilderness, and then later in Eretz Yisrael, in the form of the sukka.  The clear assumption is that the sukka is to be viewed as a different form of the ananei ha-kavod which protected our ancestors in the wilderness.  Therefore, the Gaon explains, as Chazal generally seem to work off the assumption that the sukka commemorates the “clouds of glory,” the Tur felt that this is the accepted position.
            Yesterday, we noted the well-known comment of the Tur, cited later by the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 625), that the sukka commemorates the ananei ha-kavod (“clouds of glory”) that encircled Benei Yisrael as they traveled in the wilderness.  The Torah commands residing in a sukka to commemorate the “sukkot” in which Benei Yisrael resided in the wilderness, and the Tur and Shulchan Arukh follow the view of Rabbi Eliezer (Sukka 11b), that this refers to the ananei ha-kavod.  As we saw, many writers raised the question of why Halakha in this instance accepts Rabbi Eliezer’s view, which is disputed by Rabbi Akiva, who maintains that the sukka commemorates the actual makeshift homes constructed by Benei YisraelHalakha normally does not follow Rabbi Eliezer’s rulings that are disputed by his peers, and yet in this instance, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh indeed accept his opinion.
            One of the theories proposed to explain the Tur and Shulchan Arukh’s position is offered by Rav Moshe Greenwald, in his Arugat Ha-bosem (O.C. 1:188), where he references the famous story told about Rabbi Eliezer by the Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (59b).  Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues were embroiled in a dispute concerning the halakhic status of a certain type of oven vis-à-vis susceptibility to tum’a, and Rabbi Eliezer invoked a number of supernatural “signs” to prove that his position was correct.  These signs all seemed to support his ruling, and in fact a heavenly voice even announced that Rabbi Eliezer’s rulings cannot be disputed, because they are always correct.  Nevertheless, his position was rejected, as Rabbi Yehoshua stood in the academy and reasserted the fundamental halakhic principle of “lo va-shamayim hi” (“It is not in the heavens” – Devarim 30:12), that halakhic matters are decided by the scholars through the process of reasoning, debate and deliberation, and not through prophetic or quasi-prophetic revelations.  Matters of Halakha are ruled upon here in this world, based on the knowledge and tools that we’ve received by tradition, and are not determined based on explicit heavenly guidance. 
            Rav Greenwald boldly asserts that this rule of “lo va-shamayim hi” refers only to matters of practical halakhic observance, but not to issues that do not pertain to practical Halakha.  When it comes to questions involving Biblical interpretation or philosophy, we indeed follow the “heavenly” directive to accept Rabbi Eliezer’s position.  It is only with regard to matters of practical Halakha that we disregard this directive and utilize the familiar principles of halakhic jurisprudence. 
            Accordingly, Rav Greenwald explains, we might suggest that when it comes to the question surrounding the commemorative function of the sukka, which does not involve practical halakhic observance, we indeed follow Rabbi Eliezer’s position against Rabbi Akiva.  For this reason, perhaps, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh wrote that the sukka commemorate the miraculous “clouds of glory,” in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer’s view.
            However, Rav Greenwald immediately dismisses this possibility, noting the well-known comments of the Bach, which we cited yesterday, claiming that this issue does, in fact, affect our practical observance of this mitzva.  The Bach explains that the Tur and Shulchan Arukh made a point of mentioning this point – that the sukka commemorates the ananei ha-kavod – because the sukka’s commemorative function is integral to the mitzva.  The Torah explicitly stated that we must reside in a sukka in order to remember our ancestors’ “sukkot,” implying that this must be our intention as we reside in the sukka.  Accordingly, the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva has crucial practical implications, as we need to know what precisely we commemorate when we reside in the sukka, and for this reason, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh took a position on this issue.  If so, Rav Greenwald writes, then we should, seemingly, apply the principle of “lo va-shamayim hi” to this debate, and accept Rabbi Akiva’s view over that of Rabbi Eliezer, as we always do when matters of practical halakhic observance are concerned.  (Rav Greenwald therefore proceeds to suggest that the Tur and Shulchan Arukh followed the version of the debate that appears in Torat Kohanim, where the positions are reversed, as we discussed yesterday.)
            We might, however, suggest upholding this theory, by distinguishing between disputes that directly relate to matters of practical Halakha, and those which affect practical Halakha indirectly and tangentially.  Rav Greenwald himself, in establishing his distinction between disputes involving practical Halakha and others, cites the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (27a) regarding the debate as to whether the world was created in Tishrei or Nissan.  In our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we refer to the day of Rosh Hashanah as “techilat ma’asekha” – the time when the world was created, and the Gemara states that this liturgical text follows the view of Rabbi Eliezer, that the world was created in Tishrei.  This is in contrast to Rabbi Yehoshua’s position, that the world was created in Nissan.  Although Halakha generally does not follow Rabbi Eliezer’s view in his disputes with his colleagues, in our liturgy we clearly accept Rabbi Eliezer’s position that Rosh Hashanah – the first of Tishrei – marks the anniversary of the world’s creation.  This would seem to prove that Halakha accepts Rabbi Eliezer’s views in his non-halakhic disputes, even when it comes to issues that indirectly affect halakhic practice.  The question of whether the world began in Tishrei or Nissan is, fundamentally, not a halakhic issue, and so we follow Rabbi Eliezer’s view even with respect to its practical halakhic application.  We might therefore suggest that with regard to sukka, too, we accept Rabbi Eliezer’s view concerning the interpretation of the verse which explains the sukka’s commemorative function – a fundamentally non-halakhic position – and we therefore follow this view even as it affects halakhic practice.
            As we’ve discussed in our last two editions of S.A.L.T., the Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (11b) famously cites a debate among the Tanna’im as to what precisely the mitzva of sukka serves to commemorate.  The Torah (Vayikra 23:43) commands residing in a sukka during Sukkot to commemorate the “sukkot” in which our ancestors dwelled in the wilderness, and according to one view, this refers to the crude, makeshift homes which Benei Yisrael needed to construct while traversing the uninhabitable desert.  The other view, however, maintains that the term “sukkot” here refers to the miraculous ananei ha-kavod (“clouds of glory”) that encircled and protected Benei Yisrael in the wilderness.
            Rav Moshe Greenwald, in a fascinating responsum exploring several aspects of the sukka obligation (Arugat Ha-bosem, O.C. 1:188), creatively suggests that these two views do not actually disagree with one another.  In truth, Rav Greenwald asserts, the sukka commemorates both Benei Yisrael’s physical accommodations as they traveled, as well as the special “clouds” which offered them miraculous protection.  To explain this theory, Rav Greenwald cites the Gemara’s famous comments cited by Rashi (Bamidbar 24:5) that when Bilam saw the Israelite camp, he was moved by the sight of the arrangement of Benei Yisrael’s tents.  The tents were positioned such that the entrances did not face one another, thereby ensuring one another’s privacy and respect, and this sight is what led Bilam to exclaim, “How good are your tents, O Israel!”  Perhaps, Rav Greenwald writes, Benei Yisrael earned the great miracle of the ananei ha-kavod in this merit – their treating one another with respect, guaranteeing each other’s privacy and living peacefully without prying into each other’s affairs.  Tradition famously associates the ananei ha-kavod with the merit of Aharon, and Rav Greenwald suggests that this refers to Aharon’s quality of being an “oheiv shalom ve-rodeif shalom” (“lover of peace and pursuer of peace” – Avot 1:12).  It was through the nation’s ability to live together in peace and harmony, a quality reflected by the arrangement of their tents, their “sukkot,” that they were deemed worthy of the special protection of the ananei ha-kavod.
            Accordingly, Rav Greenwald posits, these two views regarding the commemorative function of the sukka complement one another.  On Sukkot we commemorate the peace and harmony that prevailed among the nation during (at least most of) their periods of traveling through the wilderness, in the merit of which God offered them His miraculous protection.
            The Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (27b) establishes that, according to the majority opinions, one fulfills the mitzva of sukka even by eating or sleeping in somebody else’s sukka, citing as its source the verse, “all citizens of Israel shall reside in sukkot” (Vayikra 23:42).  This verse, the Gemara explains, implies that “all Israel are capable of residing in a single sukka” (“kol Yisrael re’uyim lei-shev be-sukka achat”).  One of the themes of Sukkot is our ability to all live together peacefully in a single sukka, under the same roof, sharing the same limited space and resources.  The sukka commemorates not only our ancestors’ meager rations and crude living conditions in the wilderness, but also their living all together in peace and friendship, showing each other sensitivity and consideration rather than competing and struggling with one another.  Our fulfillment of this mitzva, then, must be geared towards enhancing our ability to live peacefully and joyously together with one another, without strife and conflict, just as our ancestors did as they traveled through the desert.
            The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 629:6) addresses the question of whether a mat made from attached reeds or pieces of straw made be used as sekhakh to cover one’s sukka.  Although these materials originate from the ground, and are thus inherently valid as use for sekhakh, a mat could, potentially, be invalid for use as sekhakh because something used for resting or sleeping is considered a functional “utensil.”  One of the requirements of sekhakh is that it must not have the status of a functional utensil which is susceptible to tum’a, and a mat used for lying has this status.  In light of this, the Shulchan Arukh rules that a small-sized mat, which can be presumed to have been earmarked for sleeping, is disqualified for use as sekhakh.  A larger mat, however, can be presumed to have been made for shade, and is thus valid as sekhakh
            In discussing the status of a small mat, the Shulchan Arukh mentions that if a mat was made to serve as a covering, for shade, and not for lying, then it is valid for use as sekhakh.  A large mat is disqualified only because it must be presumed to have been made for sleeping; therefore, if one made a mat specifically for the purpose of providing shade, then it may be used as sekhakh.  However, the Rama, citing the Rosh, clarifies that this leniency applies only in a place where this kind of mat is used by many people as a covering.  In a place where such mats are generally used for sleeping, then they may not be used as sekhakh – even if one made a mat with the specific intention of using it for shade.  The Rosh feared that people who see such a mat used as sekhakh will naturally conclude that all such mats are valid as sekhakh, even those made for lying, and thus mats made for shade may be used as sekhakh only in places where they are not commonly used for lying.
            The Magen Avraham noted that in his day, all mats were to be presumed made for the purpose of lying, regardless of their size.  Therefore, in light of the Rama’s ruling, it would be forbidden – in that time and place – to use mats made from attached pieces of vegetation for sekhakh.  Citing the Magen Avraham’s comments, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, in his Bikkurei Yaakov (cited by the Chafetz Chayim in Bi’ur Halakha), condemns the practice that had become common his day to use mats made of willow for sekhakh.  Although these mats were made specifically for use as sekhakh, they are nevertheless invalid according to the position of the Rosh codified by the Rama.  Rav Ettlinger further notes that many willow mats were made as cushions for wagons, and such mats, which were made for this purpose, are susceptible to tum’a and hence invalid as sekhakh on the level of Torah law.
            Nowadays, of course, it has become very common to use as sekhakh wooden mats made of small, narrow pieces of wood tied together.  The obvious benefit of these “sekhakh mats” is that they can be easily placed over the sukka without having to spread an array of different pieces of vegetation, and, moreover, they can be stored and used every year, thus obviating the need to cut branches each year.  The general consensus among the halakhic authorities is that since in modern society nobody uses such mats for sleeping, the Rosh’s ruling does not apply, and they made be used as sekhakh.  (However, some halakhic authorities raised concerns about “sekhakh mats” for other reasons, as we will discuss iy”H tomorrow.)
            Yesterday, we noted the practice observed by many to cover the sukka with “sekhakh mats,” which consist of thin pieces of wood tied together, which is far more convenient than cutting branches each year for sekhakh.  As we saw, there is considerable discussion among the halakhic authorities of earlier generations surrounding the suitability of such mats for sekhakh, as years ago it was common to use them for sleeping and as cushions in wagons.  A mat used for these purposes is disqualified for use as sekhakh on the level of Torah law, as materials used for sekhakh may not have the status of a functional utensil.  Moreover, the Rama (O.C. 629:6) ruled that in places where such mats are used for sleeping or as upholstery, they should not be used as sekhakh even if they were made specifically for shade, in order not to mislead people.  Nowadays, of course, such mats are not used for any functional purpose, and thus they should, seemingly, be perfectly valid for use as sekhakh.
            Nevertheless, some halakhic authorities questioned the validity of “sekhakh mats” in light of the halakha known as “gezeirat tikra.”  The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 629:18), based on the Mishna and Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (14a), ruled that it is forbidden to use as sekhakh wooden planks that are four tefachim (approximately 12 inches) wide, since such planks are commonly used as rooftops in permanent homes.  Although such wooden planks meet the basic criteria for sekhakh, as they are made from vegetation and are not susceptible to tum’a, Chazal disqualified them as sekhakh given the concern that people might remain in their homes rather than move into sukkot.  The Shulchan Arukh then writes, based on the Semak (cited by the Tur), that it is customary not to use even planks that are narrower than four tefachim.  The Semak forbade narrow planks out of the concern that people might cover their sukkot with planks in a manner which prevents rain from entering the sukka, which Halakha does not allow.  The Mishna Berura (629:49) cites those who maintain that nowadays, narrow planks are forbidden not merely by force of custom, but even on the level of strict Halakha, because people use narrow planks as rooftops for their homes.
            Clearly, the narrow wooden poles in modern-day “sekhakh mats” are themselves permissible, as they allow rain to penetrate, and are not used as ordinary roofs.  However, some halakhic authorities noted that once the poles are attached, they become invalid in light of the position of the Rashba, in one of his responsa (cited by the Beit Yosef, 629; and Magen Avraham, 626:6 and 632:1), that narrow planks attached to one another may not be used for sekhakh due to the rule of “gezeirat tikra.”  Even though each plank is less than four tefachim, nevertheless, if several planks are attached and have a combined width of four tefachim or more, we must treat the group of planks as a four-tefach plank, which may not be used as sekhakh by force of the Sages’ decree.  This was the position of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in a letter printed in Rav Binyamin Zilber’s Az Nidberu (2:66).  (Interestingly, Rav Eliezer Melamed cites a source claiming that Rav Elyashiv approved of “sekhakh mats.”)
            The consensus among halakhic authorities, however, permits the use of these mats for sekhakh.  Already Rav Avraham Borenstein, in Avnei Neizer (473), writes that the Rashba’s stringency does not apply to mats, in which the pieces of vegetation are not tightly attached, such that rain can easily penetrate.  Likewise, Rav Shmuel Wosner, in a responsum in Sheivet Ha-levi (6:74), writes that as “sekhakh mats” can be folded and rolled, they bear absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to planks used in rooftops, and thus do not fall under the rule of “gezeirat tikra.” 
            It appears that as all views concede that these mats are valid on the level of Torah law, and the question surrounds the application of the rabbinic enactment of “gezeirat tikra,” the accepted practice has become to rely on the lenient position and permit the use of these mats.
            The Minchat Chinukh (325) advances a surprising theory regarding the definition of the sukka obligation on Sukkot, viewing this mitzva as fundamentally a prohibition against eating or sleeping outside the sukka.  According to the accepted Halakha, one is not actually obligated to eat or sleep in the sukka; rather, one who wishes to eat or sleep during Sukkot is required to do so in a sukka (except on the first night of Sukkot, when one must eat a ke-zayit of bread in a sukka).  In light of this, the Minchat Chinukh adopted a drastic formulation, casting the mitzva of sukka as more of a prohibition than an obligation: we are not obligated to eat and sleep in the sukka, but merely forbidden from eating or sleeping outside the sukka.
            The Minchat Chinukh seeks to answer on this basis the question raised by Tosafot (Sukka 9a) as to why the Gemara cites a textual source for the disqualification of a stolen sukka.  Seemingly, the general principle of mitzva ha-ba’a ba-aveira, which disqualifies a mitzva performed by way of a sin, should suffice to invalidate such a sukka for the mitzva.  And yet, the Gemara found it necessary to infer this rule from the Torah’s formulation of the sukka obligation (“…ta’aseh lekha” – Devarim 16:13).  Apparently, the Gemara worked off the assumption that the rule of mitzva ha-ba’a ba-aveira would not disqualify a stolen sukka.  The reason, the Minchat Chinukh suggested, is that this rule serves to disqualify a religious act performed via a transgression.  It establishes that an act of service of God is invalid if it involved forbidden activity.  In the case of sukka, however, one does not, technically speaking, perform an act of service of God by eating or sleeping in the sukka.  He merely avoids the prohibition against eating or sleeping outside a sukka.  Therefore, if the Torah had not specifically indicated that a stolen sukka is invalid for use, one might have assumed that it sufficed to avoid violating this prohibition.  Since one who ate in a stolen sukka did, after all, make a point of eating in a sukka, we might have thought that he has avoided the prohibition of eating outside a sukka.  The textual inference teaches that this is incorrect, as a stolen sukka is inherently invalid, and one who eats in such a sukka is thus no different from one who eats in his house.
            A possible earlier expression of the Minchat Chinukh’s controversial theory is the discussion of the Ba’al Ha-ma’or, in the end of Masekhet Pesachim.  The Ba’a Ha-ma’or raises the question of why we recite a berakha each time we eat in the sukka during Sukkot, but do not recite a berakha each time we eat matza on Pesach.  Both mitzvot are not obligatory, except on the first night of the holiday.  After the first night of Pesach, there is no obligation to eat matza, unless one wishes to eat bread, in which case he must eat unleavened matza; and after the first night of Sukkot, there is no obligation to eat in the sukka, unless one wishes to eat a meal, in which case he must eat it in the sukka.  Hence, after the first nights of these festivals, the mitzvot of sukka and matza appear identical.  Why, then, do we recite a berakha when eating in the sukka on Sukkot, but not when eating matza on Pesach?  The Ba’al Ha-ma’or answers that the distinction lies in the fact that sleeping is forbidden outside the sukka, and it is physically impossible for a person to avoid sleeping for seven days.  The practical necessity of sleep has the effect of making the sukka obligation unavoidable, and this elevates this mitzva to a level of significance warranting the recitation of a berakha.
            The Ba’al Ha-ma’or’s comparison between sukka and matza is revealing, in that it reflects a perspective similar to that of the Minchat Chinukh, viewing the sukka requirement as more of a prohibition than a ritual obligation.  Just as matza is the means by which one partakes of grain products on Pesach without violating the chametz prohibition, similarly, the sukka is the means by which one sleeps and eats meals during Sukkot without violating the prohibition of sleeping or eating outside the sukka.  The difference between these two mitzvot lies purely in the practical reality that one cannot avoid the sukka on Sukkot due to the physical necessity of sleep, whereas one can avoid matza on Pesach if he chooses not to eat grain products.
            In any event, many later writers took strong issue with the Minchat Chinukh’s formulation, and insisted that eating in the sukka constitutes a mitzva, and not merely a means of avoiding a prohibition.  One such writer is Rav Yosef Engel, who discusses the Minchat Chinukh’s theory in his work Atvun De-orayta (Sukka 25a).  Rav Engel asserts that the mitzva of sukka is defined, fundamentally, as a requirement to treat the sukka as one’s home.  Practically speaking, this means that whenever one wishes to eat a meal or sleep, he must do so in the sukka.  As such, eating and sleeping in the sukka are the practical fulfillment of the mitzva, not merely a means of avoiding a violation.  When we eat or sleep in the sukka, we do not merely avoid a prohibition, but rather perform a bona fide mitzva act, as this is how we reside in the sukka as the Torah commands.