October 18, 2005
A harvest festival. A celebration of the impermanence of human
habitation. A chance to preserve the emotional abundance of the year
just ended. A chance to seal the new spiritual awareness derived
from the Days of Awe, like installing a new operating system on
the hard drive of the heart. Time to build a little house, a reminder of
the temporary dwellings the Israelites used to construct
in their fields during harvest (or the tents they lived
in during the years of desert wanderings, depending on which
interpretation you choose), and to shake a bundle of symbolic plants in all directions. An excuse to have friends over for the express purpose of sitting
outdoors, beneath an incomplete leafy roof, to savor what
might be the last sweet evening of the season.
Sukkot is the third Pilgrimage Festival, when the ancient Israelites used to take harvest offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today it's celebrated by the building of little booths -- called sukkot in the plural; a singular one is a sukkah -- which we're commanded to dwell in for a week. The standard interpretation is that eating in the sukkah qualifies as "dwelling," so it's become a holiday of al fresco dining. (Unless it's raining and unpleasant. We're supposed to rejoice in our sukkot, so if it's uncomfortable, we have to return indoors and be cosy again. Seriously -- that's mainstream rabbinic opinion.) We're supposed to say some blessings in the sukkah, especially when we fulfil the mitzvah of the Four Species. And it's customary to invite lots of people into one's sukkah to share in the enjoyment -- physical friends as well as ushpizin, Biblical/mystical invisible guests. Basically it's a festival of carpentry, seasonal celebration, and hospitality. What's not to like?
Sukkot come in a variety of forms.
The First Jewish
Catalogue tells me that in order to be kosher, a sukkah must be
a temporary structure (not a permanent gazebo, e.g.), and must have
a shakh (roof) made of organic materials, laid
loose enough to see stars through. Most Sukkot have two, three
or four walls -- the FJC
illustration shows that the footprint of
a traditional sukkah matches the shape of one of the letters in the
"sukkah." (סכה -- though imagine the letters written blockier, more squarish in shape.) Beyond that, nothing's set in stone, so no two sukkot are
exactly alike. Some are adorned with posters, some feature rugs and
pillows; some are lit with strings of Christmas lights, others with "Yaakov Lanterns" (carved pumpkins). Some are roofed with palms, some with cornstalks, some with fronds of pine.
Ours is a little bit unusual. (Surprise!) We made use of materials we already had on-hand -- specifically, the wall-frame of our most recent ger. We built our first ger with friends a few years ago, out of saplings we harvested from our own land and fastened together with sisal twine. It was beautiful, but it didn't last. When we took it down at winter's end and piled it at the edge of the yard, the string disintegrated in summer's heat and rain. So we built a second one last year, this time latticed from thin wooden slats held together with screws. That lattice survived, and it's the basis for our sukkah.
(True, circular isn't one of the traditional shapes. But if one were to write "sukkah" in script instead of block print, the initial samech would be more-or-less round -- so I'd argue we're still adhering to the spirit of the custom, if not the, um, letter.) For the record, I have the best husband ever: despite his nutty fall travel schedule, Ethan took the time to put our sukkah together, and it's a beauty. We keep a wildflower meadow in our backyard during the summer months; on the eve of the holiday Ethan mowed a circle in the middle of it, and a spiralling path leading to that circle (making a kind of labyrinth, perfect for Sukkot walking meditation). Our sukkah stands on that circle: ger lattice, roofed with sumac branches where origami birds now nest among the leaves and berries, with a little wooden table and four deck chairs arranged inside.
Though I've thought and written and blogged about the holiday in years past, this is the first time I've celebrated it fully; I've never had my own sukkah before, so I got to say an extra shehecheyanu on the holiday's first night as Ethan and I ate dinner in the sukkah! The wind and rain kindly cleared up for the evening, and it was a surprisingly warm night -- or maybe that was the effect of the good company, the spicy pasta sauce, and my quilted jacket. Afterwards several friends came over for hot mulled cider (and hot mulled wine) in the sukkah beneath the glorious full moon.
And this morning I put my Four Species in, put my Four Species out, put
my Four Species in, and I shook them all about -- about which more, perhaps, in another post. The damp mist turned to light rain while I was out there, so I didn't stick around to say hallel in the sukkah; the rest of my morning davvening would have to be indoors where it was warmer and drier.
Sukkot is wacky fun on the practical level (building little houses, inviting guests both imaginary and real to visit them, shaking herbs and citrus fruits around) but I think I like it best on the metaphysical level. Sukkot simultaneously celebrates rootedness and impermanence, the offerings our ancestors used to bring to God at this season and the prayers and intentions we offer to the Most High in this post-Temple age. It's z'man simchateinu, "the time of our rejoicing," a chance to celebrate the harvest we've just completed -- whether a literal one of pumpkins and gourds and grain, or a metaphorical one of insight and prayer. Sukkot is a time for joy.
It's also a time for mindfulness. In these disaster-prone times, with hurricanes and earthquakes at the forefront of our minds, I find particular resonance in Sukkot's message that our homes, however beautiful and stable they may seem, are ultimately impermanent -- and that though God's sheltering presence surrounds us even in inclement weather, being vulnerable to the elements makes it difficult to rejoice. For those of us fortunate enough to have houses which are solid and warm and safe, Sukkot is a useful reminder of those who don't; as we step outside the comfort zone of our physical houses, hopefully we move outside an emotional comfort zone, too, returning with renewed awareness of what shelter really means. A sukkah must be "open to the Other and in this way serve as a model of being open to many others," Michael Strassfeld writes in The Jewish Holidays.
That's one of my preferred interpretations -- but the holiday is rich enough, and flexible enough, to be understood in a variety of ways. It's the perfect do-it-yourself, roll-your-own Jewish holiday, and I'm really glad it's a part of my year.
Chag sameach -- may your Sukkot be joyful and filled with meaning, and may the abundance of your life sustain you through the fallow season ahead!