The week of Chol Hamoed Sukkot I threw a soirée for my girlfriends that I proclaimed to be a “Simchat Beit Nekeivah.” Since theme-based sukkahs are all the rage, I channeled my creative side and selected a butterfly and crystal interior with tabletop selections from Altoona, Amazing Savings and all the dollar stores I could find! Of course, I couldn’t come near the creativity and execution of my dear friend Shevy Shanek, event planner extraordinaire, but I gave it my best effort to set the tone for my wonderful, accomplished, iconic collection of female superstars of medicine, real estate, law, education, matchmaking, and Torah – all of them queens in their own right.
What’s so special about a bunch of women in a sukkah? It’s really “our holiday,” besides the preparations of cooking, serving, and cleaning...or is it?
Women are halachically exempt from sitting or eating in the sukkah, but are permitted to fulfill it voluntarily all because of one very special and dedicated woman!
The Talmud, Masechet Sukkah, explains that women have been sitting, eating, resting, and teaching in the sukkah as far back as the times of the Tanach during the era of the Second Holy Temple. A very famous wealthy Hasmonean queen by the name of Helena (or a possible convert) is known to have had a grand sukkah frequently visited by very important rabbis. In fact, it was her personal oversized sukkah of 20 amot (cubits) that was a highly discussed halachic debate. Was it too tall for the proper structure designed for the Feast of Tabernacles?
Rabbi Yehudah did not find it halachically problematic. However, different sages agree that women are not required to dwell in a sukkah since it is a time-bound commandment, and therefore the rabbis made no comment on the height of her sukkah because they thought the point was moot. Rabbi Yehudah argued that had Queen Helena’s sukkah been problematic, the rabbis surely would have addressed the issue because she had seven sons who were required to dwell in a sukkah.
An additional explanation submitted is perhaps the Sages would argue that Queen Helena’s sons were still too young for the requirement. Since she was a mother to seven sons that was highly unlikely. Rabbi Yehudah delivers the second explanation to clarify that Queen Helena was a woman who conducted herself in a manner that followed the rabbinical code of the Sages.
From her royal sukkah story we understand the greatness of Queen Helena, who exemplified the sacred task endowed to Jewish mothers throughout the ages: to envelop their children with the love of Torah. Queen Helena was not required to dwell in a sukkah; she nonetheless ensured that a proper sukkah was erected for her children, and she joined them in the mitzvah of the holiday.
Helena HaMalka is an ancient role model for women and mitzvot participation. She took on this voluntary mitzvah and this act was eternalized in Jewish law.
Besides the grilled chicken with dates, figs, and apricots, my soirée included a lecture by Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz. She said, “Sukkot is one of the most family-oriented holidays. Yet, when it comes to the principle mitzvot of the holiday – dwelling in a sukkah and lulav and etrog – as these are time-bound mitzvot, women are halachically exempt. However, today, more and more women have taken upon themselves these mitzvot. What a beautiful sight it is to see different generations of women making the brachah while sitting in the sukkah, or making the brachah over the lulav and etrog. Sukkot is that perfect blending of home and heart, beautifying the sukkah and festive meals while at the same time connecting to the mitzvot of the holiday through their observance. Each evening as we welcome the Ushpizin, our forefathers, some have added a custom of inviting in female ancestors as Ushpizahn – for example, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel, and Leah, Miriam, Chana, Avigayil, and Esther. How wonderful it is for the sukkah to be a sukkah filled with the role models of our mesorah, including female ones.”
I think my Simchat Beit Nekeivah might be the best soirée of the season.
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.