Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors

Sukkot 2009: What is a Sukkah and Why Do Jews Sit In Them

Sukkot, the week-long Jewish holiday which begins at sundown this Friday, October 2, 2009, goes all the way back to the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 23:16 and Deuteronomy 16:13 describe it as an Israelite Thanksgiving (but without the turkey), while Leviticus 23:42-43 describes it as an exercise in collective memory – telling all future generations to spend a week living in Sukkot, huts, to remember how their ancestors lived in huts as they made the 40 year journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
So Sukkot, singular Sukkah, is a holiday which celebrates the journey from hard times to better times, and the sukkah itself symbolizes how we make that journey and even how we understand what it means to make our journeys successful. In that way, Sukkot is for all of us, Jewish or not, and however we observe the holiday, it speaks to the journey all of us are on.
The sukkah itself is temporary structure, usually constructed with wooden or soft fiber walls, and is traditionally used for all meals during the week of the holiday. In warm climates, many people even sleep in their sukkot, making it their home as much as possible for the week.
Sukkot 2009
But how does eating in a hut help us on our journey?


The answer depends upon how one understands the connection between the sukkah of today and the one’s in which those Israelites sat millennia ago.
According to the Talmud, there are two understandings of that connection. One view is that we are recreating today, a version of the actual huts in which the Israelites lived long ago. On this view, the holiday celebrates that we can always find some shelter along the way and that even if the journey is long, we will eventually get there. It’s a message that even today, as we make our own journeys to the promised lands we each pursue, we can help construct the structures that we need on our journeys and that we can celebrate the steps we take along that path even though we have not yet arrived at our desired destination.
The second understanding in the Talmud says that the huts of today recall the “Clouds of Glory” (think Spielberg’s Prince of Egypt or Demille’s Ten Commandments) in which the Israelites lived — that God actually housed people in the protective presence of God’s self. Amazingly, or perhaps not, it is this mystical understanding which is recorded as the normative view and is the one which guides how contemporary sukkot are built. The Sukkah of today is a vision brought to life, of what it means to experience Divine protection. And the defining feature of this construction is that it must have a leaky roof!
That’s right, according to the laws of sukkah-building as recorded in the Jewish legal codes, for a sukkah to be a sukkah, its roof must be able to allow rain in and those inside to see the stars above. In other words, Divine protection is many things, but it does not insulate us from every undesirable thing in the world, nor does it blind us to the beauty of those things which lie beyond it.
The sukkah celebrates being protected but not behind impenetrable walls. It reminds us that permeability is actually a good thing as long as there is not too much vulnerability. The journey will have rainy days, and even if God is providing the cover, we are going too get wet. But when it gets to wet in the sukkah, when it becomes genuinely uncomfortable, one is free to go inside where it’s warm and dry. That’s actually the law.
Successful journeys are not about how much we can endure, and neither is Sukkot. They are about the willingness to set off on an adventure in which we accept that there will bumps in the road and setbacks along the way, but also confident that with that openness, there will be enough protection so that nobody should ever feel entirely vulnerable. And in finding that balance, we can all make the journeys we need to the places we want to go in our lives.

  • Jerry

    Nice- Jewishly authentic and accurate- riposte to the “Kingdom of Priests” idiosyncratic current blog entry on Sukkot, Rabbi Brad!

  • Your Name

    Very nice summary. Gave me something to think about re: Sukkot that I had not thought about before. ‘
    But there is one detail that I do not get. The desert is an inhospitable environment–very hot during the day and very cold at night. Since it was so cold at night, it is inconceivable to me that the Israelites lived in open roofed booths rather than closed tents similar in fashion to the tents used to house the Tabernacle. Where did we get the idea that the Israelites lived in open booths rather than closed tents?
    Otherwise, thanks for giving me something to think about.

  • Lucy

    The sukkah is symbolic of the Israelites’ dependence on God during their sojurn in the desert, not an actual reproduction of the shelters in which they lived. The idea is to see the sky, “God’s roof,” so to speak, and appreciate that while what we do and build may ultimately be temporary, what God provides for us is eternal. Ultimatly, He is our only, true shelter. (At least, this is what I think it means but I am sure there are many explainations…nothing we Jews do can ever have a single meaning anyway!) :-)

  • Pittsburgher Jew

    Yesher Koakh, Rabbi!
    Beautifu article, especially those last 3 paragraphs really blew me away!
    Chag Samayakh!!

  • Alice Murphy

    Thank you for this insight. It is beautiful to me. The comments posted also give more information and angles to consider.

  • Umi

    The true Sukkot is a reminder that you have arrived home, and in truth you have always been home. You just traveled off on a mind fantasy. And even though the journey, the mind fantasy, was sometimes hard, it was only because you were unconscious to the truth that you were already home. Yes, sometimes the roof leaks, but it is only through the holes in the roof that you can see and touch the stars. In accepting the rain and the cold, this is how you are open to the miracles of the vast firmament.

  • Liz

    Thank you for this explanation. As a Catholic, I appreciate learning about the various aspects of the Jewish history and faith in order to better understand what I believe in. This sounds like a very wonderful holiday.

  • Mark

    What a wonderful holiday! More people of every faith should ponder the reasons behind this holiday and give thanks to God! I especially like the line, “Sukkot is for all of us, Jewish or not.” AMEN!

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