Why You Can't Build a Religious Symbol on a Camel's Back (and Why You Should Care)


This Wednesday night marks the start of the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. One of the holiday's primary symbols, the temporary dwelling called a sukkah, comes with unexpected and surprisingly insightful technical laws.

The sukkah must have four, three or two and half walls. It must be temporary, according to a wide variety of criteria. It must offer a partial view of the sky. It must be at least ten hand-breadths in height (a bit less than three feet), but not more than about ten yards. These and other regulations come primarily from the mid-first millennium compendium of Jewish law called the Talmud.

The Talmud (on page 23a of a section called "Sukkot," for readers who want to follow along at home in the original Aramaic) also asks if a sukkah can be built on top of a camel. The answer is no, because (1) the sukkah is intended for the entirety of the week-long holiday; (2) travel is prohibited during part of Sukkot; and (3) sitting on a camel is likely to involve travel. It's a no brainer.

The next question in the Talmud is whether an elephant can be used for the wall of a sukkah. And, again, the answer is no, because the elephant might walk away. That leads to a follow up: What about a dead elephant? Sure! Just double check that the deceased pachyderm is at least ten hand-breadths tall.

Smaller animals are easier to restrain, so they can be used while still alive. But, being smaller, they might rise to the required ten hand-breadths only when standing. These animals, according to the Talmud, should therefore be suspended by rope when they serve as the wall of a sukkah. (Please don't try this at home.)

Now, felony animal cruelty is not a new concept, and the Rabbis of the Talmud — Meir, Yehudah, Zeira and others — knew that it was illegal and immoral to suspend an animal by rope. Other obvious considerations make it impractical to use a beast of burden as a structural support.

So what's going on? The Talmud is one of Judaism's primary defining works. Why does it engage in such apparent whimsy alongside weightier and better-known matters like human dignity and God's role in our lives?

And this isn't the only place. Another example comes from a section called "Bava Kamma" that deals largely with what we would now refer to as torts law: liability, due caution, damages, compensation, etc. A detailed excursion about fines — itself only part of a more general legal discussion of damages — winds up on page 37a with the case of a scoundrel who is fined half a dinar for hitting a man in the ear. Having only a battered one-dinar coin, and unable to get change, the scoundrel hits the man in the other ear and pays the full dinar.

Again, Bava Kamma is a serious discussion about no less than our responsibility to each other as creatures of God. Is it really the place for a joke about assault?

I see a lesson: We should try to enjoy whatever we do. We don't have to be somber to take something seriously. Sanctity doesn't have to be solemn. Serving God is joyous.

So the next time you're slogging through the trivial details of something or caught up in important but mind-numbing minutiae, take a lesson from the Rabbis. Have a little fun.

Dr. Hoffman is author most recently of The Bible's Cutting Room Floor. He can be reached through his website at www.lashon.net.