The Elephant in the Room (Sukkah)

Los Elefantes by Salvador Dali

Los Elefantes by Salvador Dali


When I was a kid I used to watch The Simpsons religiously. In the Fifth Season, there’s a wonderful episode, called “Bart Gets an Elephant,” where Bart wins a radio contest and is awarded a full-grown African elephant that he names Stampy. Recently this episode came to mind when trudging through plethora of articles, sermons, news, and video clips that are published on Facebook daily. Yet, one in particular caught my attention: “11 Reasons You Wish You Had An Elephant For A Pet” For obvious reasons I clicked on it and was not disappointed.

1. Elephants are all about the family. And, a matriarch “lady BOSS” rules every herd (I can fully relate)

2. They can recognize themselves when looking in the mirror

3. Their memory is incredible. It stretches back years and years. They remember us!

4. They have their own language. They communicate in movement and the way their trunks be swangin’

5. They are emotional creatures, understanding grief, joy, anger, and the desire to get down and play.

6. They are vegetarian and spend up to 16 hours of their day eating (sign me up)

7. They are great at swimming, using their trunks as snorkels

8. Elephant pregnancies last 2 years, the longest of any animal (not sure why this is a plus, but okay)

9. Elephants conduct funerals for their own, gathering as a community to mourn

10. They have the largest brains in the world

11. They have natural air conditioning. Their ears are filled with millions of veins that release heat

And so, when I got done reading (and looking at pictures of happy elephants), I decided that maybe I would stick to dogs. But then I had a thought. A Jewish one this time! Since it’s Sukkot, a time we are told in the Book of Leviticus, to “Dwell in Sukkot seven days, every citizen in Israel,” [1], I wondered what else besides PVC piping, chicken wire, or tarps could be used to build a wall for the Sukkah? If I did indeed have an elephant as a pet, could my elephant be used for the sukkah? I mean, they’re certainly big enough? Well, according to the Talmud, as explained by Adam Kirsch:

“If necessary, a sukkah can be built on a ship, if perhaps you were traveling on the holiday. But one of the rabbis’ debates stands out for its oddity. ‘Can one of the walls of a sukkah’, they ask, ‘be an animal?’ Could you attach the roof of the sukkah to the side of an elephant and use the elephant’s bulk as a wall? It is hard to believe that anyone would actually try to do this, but the possibility excites the rabbis’ legal imagination since it allows them to speculate about what exactly constitutes a wall’” [2]

“Rabbi Yehuda says that you can use an elephant this way, while Rabbi Meir says you can’t, on the grounds that your sukkah might get up and walk away. In the Gemara, Rabbi Zeira suggests that you could always tie the elephant down, to make escape impossible; and with ‘a tied elephant, everyone agrees that a sukkah is fit.’ Even if your elephant dies in the middle of the holiday, you could continue to prop up its corpse and it would be a valid wall, since ‘its carcass still has a height of 10 handbreadths,’ [the required height for a sukkah wall]. The vision of Jews celebrating Sukkot in the shade of a rotting elephant carcass is absolutely surreal, but a tolerance for the bizarre is one of the distinctive features of Talmudic reasoning. As long as the principle is established, it doesn’t matter how odd the examples might be.”

And so. All of this is simply to say, maybe don’t use an elephant in your Sukkah. That’s one takeaway. But another takeaway underlying this carnivalesque (and outright grotesque) conversation about elephants and Sukkot brings us back what the rabbis are truly addressing: support, commitment, and foundations. Throughout this peculiar dialogue, there exists a thread of sincerity - the assurance, or rather, the need to feel confident about retaining a reliable dwelling space for one’s community.

The principle established by the rabbis is how one goes about fortifying a stable foundation - a place where one’s family and friends feel comfortable, relaxed - a place where one can enjoy time spent with friends and family under the light of the stars above. Literally, “the elephant in the room,” is a placeholder to address the value and significance of having fixed pillars that hold up the walls of our community spaces.

As a rabbi, I am constantly engaged in a conversation about creating atmospheres where families come to their home-away-from-home - our Sukkah, our temple, our community, and feel at ease. This responsibility falls on myself, as well as our lay-leaders and committed community members. For Sukkot, we reminded that we are the walls that fortify our Jewish communities. We are the strength that provides shelter for our community to dwell together. Please don’t use elephants.

[1] Leviticus, 23:42
[2] Bavli Sukkah 23a-b

Aaron Sataloff