A Simple Hut with Complex Messages

Though it looks fragile, we shouldn’t underestimate the sukkah’s power to infuse our lives with meaning. 

This story comes from the JW magazine archive.

by Rahel Musleah

Photo by Avital Pinnick

Of all the Jewish holidays, Manhattan artist Tobi Kahn calls Sukkot his favorite. His memories of Sukkot stretch back to childhood, when his parents and grandparents would build their sukkah together from plywood and pine leaves. "My grandfather was in textiles, so we used burgundy crushed velvet for the walls," Kahn recalls. "My grandmother had windows made of glass and put drapes on them. We even had a little chandelier and used real china."

The sukkah was "so breathtakingly beautiful" that Kahn imbibed from it the value of hiddur mitzvah, intensifying the beauty of a mitzvah. "People dress so well; why shouldn't their surroundings be the same?" he asks. "It's very Jewish to have true beauty in making ceremony."

Sukkot's "true beauty" is often lost in the jam-packed lineup of fall holidays. Following on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is, at best, an asterisk for many. But its hands-on, home-based aspect and its symbols resonating with real and spiritual fragrance, make it a refreshing and necessary contrast to the solemn, synagogue-based High Holidays. Sukkot's layered and paradoxical meanings, traditional and contemporary, can create a sacred space infused with new understandings of nature, hospitality, abundance, relationships, intimacy, beauty, joy, family and memory; they help deepen an understanding of life's fragility and an appreciation for home in all its forms.

The timing of the holiday this year—it begins October 16—may also evoke childhood for Kahn's wife, writer Nessa Rapoport, who grew up in Canada. "It was odd to construct a temporary dwelling place, open to the presumably balmy air of Eretz Yisrael, while shivering in the icy autumn nights of Canada, my uncles bundled into their ski jackets, saying the brakhot while snowflakes glided into their soup and we children laughingly retreated to the sublime embrace of the fragrant kitchen," she writes in an e-mail.

Originally a harvest holiday, Sukkot customs include eating all meals and even sleeping in the sukkah; shaking and blessing the lulav and etrog, which bind together four species (palm, citron, myrtle and willow); the medieval mystical tradition of inviting ushpizin, biblical ancestors, into the sukkah, one for each night; and, on the Shabbat of Sukkot, studying the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which speaks of impermanence and was traditionally thought to be composed by King Solomon in his old age. The prayer for rain to fall in the land of Israel is chanted during Sh'mini Atzeret, the eighth day following Sukkot. The serious side of Sukkot is tempered with joy and fun—lots of it. The Bible even commands us to be joyful on Sukkot: V'shamahta b'hagekha ("Rejoice in your festival," Deut. 16:14).

How does a simple hut convey so many complex messages? Sukkot reminds us of the simultaneously awesome and ephemeral nature of creation, says Rabbi Goldie Milgram in her book, Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat. "We are the stewards of creation," she notes, "but from inside the shelter of our homes we are much less aware and less grounded in nature. That's why it's important for each person to build his or her own sukkah."

Milgram's own sukkah is made of wooden lattices and beams "lashed together with rope in the most ancient way." Signs on the walls highlight quotes on Judaism and environmentalism, blessings over various foods and natural events like rainbows and electrical storms. Everything brought into the sukkah is recyclable or consumable.

To Kahn, one of Sukkot's primary messages is inclusiveness, embodied in the value of hakhsanat orhim (welcoming guests): As an adult, he invited hundreds of people to his own sukkah—30 or 40 per meal—until he moved to an apartment that couldn't accommodate a sukkah. For many years, he headed the committee to decorate Lincoln Square Synagogue's 200-seat sukkah instead, working with children and volunteers, with the stipulation that it had to be open to everyone. About 3,000 people use it during the holiday. (You can invite guests and bring your own food or order catered food.)

Milgram suggests a more intimate inclusiveness, inviting people into "the minyan of your life." These are the people, she explains, who show up for you in life and whom you show up for. As an example, she tells of an unforgettable experience in the sukkah during her studies in the late 1980s at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia, before the curriculum—or that of any other rabbinical school—featured women's studies. A group of women rabbinical students conceived of the lulav and etrog as fertility symbols, suddenly realizing that fertility is not only about the number of children you have but also about the ideas you're incubating. As each took a turn to share her thoughts, they discovered that what they were incubating was sadness—sadness that women were not represented in the curriculum. That was the birth of the founder's group for what has become RRC's Kolot: the Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies, says Milgram. 

To further incorporate the value of hakhnasat orhim, Milgram recommends taking turns inviting a "mystery guest" each night. Whoever picks the guest decorates a special chair appropriate to the nature of the guest. The results can be poignant and enlightening. One night, her own children, then ages 8 and 10 (now adults), had festooned two chairs with "crunched-up soda cans, foil, newspapers and bottles." Their guests? The men from the local recycling truck. One was of Hispanic descent, the other from a Polish family. Neither had ever been in a Jewish home. After the meal, the children read an essay they had written explaining why they saw recycling as holy work.

Along with real, visible guests, Sukkot has traditionally been a time to welcome invisible guests in the form of ushpizin, different patriarchs welcomed into the sukkah on each of the seven nights. Each guest—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David—is associated with a different sefirah, or mystical aspect of God. By inviting in these patriarchs, tradition tells us, we imbue the sukkah with the qualities that each is associated with: hesed (generosity/love); g'vurah (strength); tiferet (beauty/balance); netzah (eternity/perseverance); hod (glory/humility); y'sod (foundation/connection); malkhut (royalty/dignity).

Today, feminist thinkers have reinterpreted ushpizin to include Jewish women. One mystical tradition recorded by medieval Italian kabbalist Menahem Azariah of Fano pairs the seven sefirot with the seven prophetesses listed in the Talmud: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah and Esther. Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project of the JCC in Manhattan, adopted these women as ushpizot (the feminine form of the word) and created an ushpizot poster in cooperation with artist Ellen Alt. Others propose different women, often including the rest of the matriarchs. No matter who the guests are, their power "allows people to share sacred space with our ancestors," says Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, teacher and midrashist and co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute.

In her own sukkah, alone or in a group, Hammer invites the traditional male and female guest, then welcomes additional guests who match the mystical aspect emphasized on that night. Martin Luther King Jr., Bella Abzug and Hammer's grandmother have been invitees on the night of Hesed; women artists like poets Muriel Rukeyser and Emma Lazarus, on the night of Hod, beauty. Among her favorite guests are Leah, Vashti and Hannah Rachel Webermacher, "The Maid of Ludomir," a 19th-century Polish Torah scholar who prayed with tallit and tefillin. "The sukkah is a place to celebrate all the people who made us who we are," Hammer explains.

Like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, much of the holiday's joy comes from hauling out the sukkah frame that is stored from year to year, yet making it new by decorating it in a different way. It's that theme of resilience and hopefulness, despite fragility, that strikes a cord with Susan Berrin, editor of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas. "What counters fragility is being connected to tradition and, in real time, to other women," she says.

Decorating a sukkah can be elaborate or simple. Such down-to-earth children’s activities as making paper chains from construction paper, hanging up New Year's cards, stringing gourds, Indian corn, apples, string beans, cranberries and even Chinese lanterns never go out of style. Barbara Lerman-Golomb, who worked as executive director and communications director for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, suggests going to a local farm to collect natural skhakh (the corn stalks, greenery or other natural material that forms the top of the sukkah) and decorations, and donating food to shelters or food banks to fulfill the mitzvah of gleaning. To start a community sukkah, Kahn suggests finding a group of artists interested in creating a sacred space outdoors. He himself mentored Hillel students who built a sukkah at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Sukkot's framework fuses ritual and beauty, but it welcomes paradox. "We call it z'man simhateinu—season of our joy," says Rapoport, "and yet the biblical book we read is Ecclesiastes, a work of wisdom that begins with the world-weary aphorism 'All is vanity.' "

Rabbi Rami Shapiro underscores that paradox in his book, The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (HarperSanFrancisco). Ecclesiastes' message reverberates today as it did thousands of years ago: all efforts to overcome impermanence will fail, be they focused on sex, money, wisdom or anything else. As despairing as that sounds, Shapiro finds comfort in its realistic perspective, a reflection of Sukkot's themes. "What we want is permanence and safety, but Sukkot says there is no safety. Yet there's incredible bounty. In the temporal, we feast."

In Ecclesiastes' familiar first line ("Vanity of vanity, saith Koheleth, all is vanity"), Shapiro translates the Hebrew word havel, usually taken to mean "vanity," as "insubstantiality," or "breath." "Everything is like breath," he says. "It gives you life, but you can't hold on to it. You can't breathe indefinitely. We need to surrender to the fact that all efforts at permanence are hopeless. No structure we can build will protect us from the contingencies of life. But in the midst of that impermanence is the incredible gift of life."

Kohelet offers further guidance: a two-strand cord is stronger than a single one, he says, and a three-strand cord is even stronger. "A life woven together with other human beings is the one thing that can help us survive," Shapiro explains. "A loving network of family and friends is the only support we have in dealing with that impermanence."

In their book, Judaism for Two: A Spiritual Guide for Strengthening and Celebrating Your Loving Relationship (Jewish Lights), Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and Nancy Wiener apply Kohelet's paradoxical message to relationships. "How much richer our life as a couple would be if we internalized Sukkot's message of gratitude for both the ephemeral and the enduring?" they ask. "We build [our relationships] to be a constant source of beauty, comfort and sanctity in our lives. Yet we cannot ignore reality: relationships can end for many reasons, and we cannot assume we will always be by one another's side." They suggest being conscious of "touching each thing and each person we encounter with the joy and urgency that comes from knowing we may never have a chance to do so again," mustering the courage to acknowledge our own and our partner's mortality and confronting end-of-life issues.

The two rabbis describe a Sukkot ritual developed by a couple they call Harry and Alice, who "approach the sukkah the same way they approached their huppah (wedding canopy), hand in hand. They pause just outside the door and share one thing that has changed significantly in the past year and one thing they did together that helped them get through the change more comfortably. Then they offer a blessing, thanking God for having each other in their lives."

Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. Visit her website, www.rahelsjewishindia.com.