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Welcome to My Sukkah! Sorry About the Mess

I am not ready for Sukkot, not at all. A mere five days after the marathon of prayer and repentance on Yom Kippur and our Jewish community, Havurat Shalom, will be trying to lure us back to pray.

It's true that I am starting to get excited to take my son to help build the sukkah on the Sunday after Yom Kippur. Last year when he was 4, he had a blast. I'll bet this year he can even hammer in some nails. While he enjoyed mastering the apples and honey song for Rosh Hashanah, and I know he loves the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, those holidays are a little too mature for a kindergartner, with their long services and serious themes. Sukkot is a holiday designed to make the whole family happy.

A family sukkah in Herzliyah, Israel with palm leaves on the roof and around the door. Photo: Flickr/Ron Almog.

What is Sukkot? Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals celebrated by the Israelites in antiquity. The other two are Passover and Shavuot. These holidays are important to observant Jews, who take off work on the first and last days of the the eight-day holiday. Sukkot was the time when ancient Israelites used to bring their harvest to Jerusalem and have a big week-long party. The sukkot (Hebrew plural of sukkah), or booths, were temporary shelters, meant to evoke the temporary dwellings of the Israelites in their 40 years in the desert as they went from Egypt to the Land of Israel. In the Bible, we learn that it was supposed to be fun, as in Deuteronomy 16:14, "And you will rejoice in your holiday, and you will be very happy."

Here's what's fun about Sukkot, especially if you have children in your life. You get to build a temporary little building, decorate it with plants and fruit and then camp out in it. A lot of families in Israel run an electrical cord out to the sukkah and put up flashing lights. In North America Jews usually decorate their sukkot with colored corn, pumpkins and gourds, though last year some friends of ours bought grape-shaped strobe lights for their sukkah. Last year my son made paper cut-outs of fruit, which we laminated and hung in the sukkah using velcro tape. The roof of the sukkah has to be open to the sky, so many people use branches with leaves on them, or cornstalks or evergreens. It's back to nature! (Except for the flashing lights, I guess.)

What gives this holiday a super-ancient Near Eastern feel is the custom of shaking the lulav and etrog. The lulav is a bundle of leaves from the willow, the myrtle and the palm tree, and the etrog is a citron--a fruit from the citrus family that looks like a bumpy lemon and smells heavenly. Together they comprise an impenetrable and atavistic yet enjoyable and great-smelling custom that probably has its roots in fertility rituals. We are going to buy our lulav and etrog from one of the Jewish day schools in the area--they sell them as a fundraiser--and this year, I promise, we are going to remember to say the blessings on them every day.

This unusual view of a citron or etrog is from a photo by Rachel Barenblat. It was taken after the holiday--for ritual use the fruit must be whole and unblemished.

Hospitality and the sukkah: When I write that you can camp out in the sukkah, I'm not saying you have to sleep in the sukkah. In Boston it starts to get cold and rainy around Sukkot, so only the tough and determined drag their sleeping bags out to the sukkah. It's enough to fulfill the biblical commandment to dwell in the sukkah to have a meal out there. You have to bundle up against the chill even to do that, but it's quite enjoyable. Imagine yourself seated with all the people who have lounged outside in their sukkah over the years. (Like who? I don't know--maybe it was Maimonides, or Muriel Rukeyser, or Grace Paley, or Walter Benjamin or Gene Simmons from Kiss. You pick.)

Actually, that's a ritual that mystics first promoted, called Ushpizin--a ritual of calling on the great leaders of the Jewish people to be your guests in the sukkah. I like to update the ritual by imagining any great person--not Gene Simmons, a great person from history, like Rosa Luxemburg--joining us under the beautiful fall sky. It reminds me a little bit of the television show Meeting of Minds, in which great people from all centuries were invited to dinner.

Or if you are like the people at Havurat Shalom, you can sit with your children in the sukkah and tell jokes like we do over our vegetarian potluck lunches and dinners. The sukkah is open to the elements, and it's also open to guests.

Watercolor painting of a lulav and an etrog. Photo: Flickr/Solomonswise.

Some families build their own sukkah and buy their own lulav and etrog. I live in a two-family apartment and most years my landlords build a sukkah on the second-floor back porch. If you want to build your own, it's possible to buy a pre-fabricated kit, though they can be expensive. A more accessible option is visiting the sukkah at a local synagogue.

Generally temples provide at least one lulav and etrog for people to say the blessing and shake in the sukkah. At our Havurah there is usually a small enthusiastic group who sleeps outside in the sukkah, but I suspect this is unusual. Write me to tell me if your synagogue has a group of sukkah campers too. My plan is to sleep inside my house, but I suspect that some year my son will persuade us to camp out.

In some religious schools, children learn to build a model sukkah. You can use a shoebox or a cardboard box from Amazon and either real foliage or pipe cleaners. I found some photos of college kids at a Hillel building edible model sukkahs.

There is a special liturgy for this holiday, though Sukkot services are fortunately not as long as those of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. One neat feature of Sukkot is the hymns of supplication and praise, called hoshannot in Hebrew. If you are Christian, you might know about hosannas--same word. In some synagogues, the congregation marches around while they sing the hoshannot. On the seventh day of the holidaycomes Hoshana Rabba, the Big Supplication. In some congregations, people take the branches from their lulavs and put them around the bima, and then beat their palm branches on the ground.

The eighth day of Sukkot is called Shemini Atzeret, which means the Eighth Day of Assembly. Technically this is a separate holiday. Some congregations also do the last holiday of the cycle, Simchat Torah, on the same day, and some do it the day after.

Simchat Torah, the day of rejoicing in the Torah, is the day that Jewish communities all over the world finish their annual cycle of readings from the Bible and begin it again. Most congregations, if they aren't too modern and uptight, dance with the Torah scrolls. At the very least they march around and sing. Children sometimes carry little flags or toy Torah scrolls.

With Simchat Torah, the cycle of the fall holidays in the Jewish calendar comes to a close. I will be incredibly relieved not to have to do any more holiday preparations until Thanksgiving. I think one thing that makes Sukkot so pleasant is knowing that there isn't another huge holiday lurking behind it!

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew word for a yellow citron, used ritually in the holiday of Sukkot. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Ruth Abrams

Ruth Abrams was the Managing Editor at InterfaithFamily. She has wide-ranging experience as a Jewish educator, from work with children in religious school to adult education programming. She works as an academic editor and freelance writer. See more of her writing at Ruth is a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass., where she lives with her husband and son.

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