The Most Beautiful Sukkah


I wrote this story a couple of years ago. 

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he put a roof on the sukkah that was more secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much, and he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

The building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook his head, and visited Yacov’s house. He saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the protective roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” he asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. He saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. He saw the pallet on the floor. He looked up at the roof. He sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my dear, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep anything forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what wind will come tomorrow. What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.

How is a Sukkah like a Christmas Tree?


As I mentioned in an earlier post, this Sukkot has been different – the day before Yom Kippur I had to make a sudden trip to the emergency room, and while I was out for Erev Sukkot, putting up my sukkah was pretty much out of the question. Some very kind friends offered to do it, but I felt that since I was the one who knew where “the stuff” was, and who wanted to be engaged with it, it was better to leave it be.

What I didn’t realize until I returned home was that most of the sukkah stuff was in boxes in the living room. I had done lots of the preparation a few weeks ago, and since then had been ignoring the boxes piled in every corner. Now I have all the stuff, but — oh, well, next year, right?

Sukkot, if you really get into it, is the closest Jewish holiday to the decoration-mania we see around us when Dec 25 approaches. A sukkah isn’t just “a booth” – it’s a life size play house which you can decorate as gaudily as you like. Every year I change my garden pergola into a sukkah. The boxes and parcels in my living room contain:

  • a rolled-up rug
  • marine netting
  • a 10×10 bamboo mat
  • 125 tiny bungee cords
  • several strings of LED lights
  • indoor-outdoor extension cord
  • ornaments in the shape of fruits, vegetables, and birds
  • posters
  • a tablecloth
  • battery operated “candles”
  • and some other stuff.

If any of you are thinking “that sounds a little like Christmas tree decorations” you are quite right. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some of those fruits and veg were designed as just that, but they look wonderful and sparkly in my sukkah, lit by the soft white LEDs.

If at one time you loved decorating a Christmas tree, but you are now a Jew so you don’t do those, consider the sukkah. You can go just as bananas on a sukkah as you can on a tree, and when you finish, you can sleep in it. 

Yes, I have chosen my patio furniture with the sukkah in mind. I have a “couch” which I can drag into the sukkah for a comfortable night. I have a card table that fits so we can eat in the sukkah, and comfy chairs so we can hang out.

But this year, I shall go to synagogue and sit in the community sukkah and rejoice. The decorations will keep for next year.

(Photo courtesy of Dawn Kepler. Notice the lights, the ornaments, the decorations…)

What does Kol Nidre Mean?


Kol Nidre [All Vows] is one of the most dramatic and moving moments of the Jewish year. It is normally sung at the beginning of the service for Yom Kippur, and it sets the tone for the solemn Day of Atonement.

In a formal presentation of Kol Nidre, three leaders of the congregation stand before the open ark and before the congregation, holding one or three Torah scrolls. The cantor sings the text three times, with emotion:

All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

The whole community of the Children of Israel, and the strangers dwelling among them, shall be forgiven, for all of them were without premeditation. – Numbers 15:26

O pardon the iniquities of this people, according to Thy abundant mercy, just as Thou forgave this people ever since they left Egypt.

The Lord said, ‘I pardon them according to your words. (three times) –Numbers 14:20

That’s a literal translation of Kol Nidre from its original Aramaic into English. The lines in italics are Hebrew, and from the book of Numbers. What does it all mean?

First let me talk about what Kol Nidre is not: it is not a “get out of jail free” trick. It does not apply, nor has it ever applied, to business obligations, contracts, or to personal promises and vows.  Through history, it has caused a lot of trouble when those who hate Jews have read it that way. And let’s be honest – the words do sound quite problematic on a surface reading. Rabbis have challenged its use periodically, but it is one part of the service ordinary Jews have always seen as essential.

Kol Nidre is a very old part of the service. We know that it was already part of the Yom Kippur service well before the year 1000 CE.  Unlike most prayers, it is a legal formula, echoing the legal formulas of Babylon during the period of 800-1000 CE. As with many things in Jewish life, there are several explanations for its origin and meaning:

  1. Some say that it began during a period of extreme persecution, when many Jews were forced to convert to the dominant religion against their will. Those Jews then approached the Day of Atonement with false vows on their consciences, and Kol Nidre was a release from that guilt. While this is an appealing and very popular understanding of the prayer, it doesn’t hold up historically. For one thing, while the persecution mentioned in this version of the story is usually located in Spain, the Expulsion from Spain took place in 1492 CE, and we know that the prayer is at least 500 years older.
  2. A passage in the Zohar suggests that we recite Kol Nidre at the beginning of the Day of Atonement because on that day we are painfully aware that we have sinned and God has issued decrees [vows] of Heavenly judgement from which there is no escape. By standing up and making a formal statement of annulling our vows, we are suggesting that God reconsider any decrees of judgment against us. First we recite the formula, then we quote from the Torah itself examples of God pardoning the people of Israel.
  3. Another understanding of Kol Nidre is that we say it as we embark on 25 hours of intense fasting and prayer. As the day goes on, perhaps we will be so overwhelmed by our sins, and disoriented by the fast, that we will make promises we cannot keep. How many Jews have promised, on Yom Kippur, to stop smoking tobacco? And by the next Yom Kippur, how many have managed to keep that vow? We ask God to give us the benefit of the doubt: we’ll try very hard to keep our vows, but we may foolishly make vows we cannot keep.
  4. Rabbi Eric Solomon has suggested that the truth of Kol Nidre is not intellectual, but emotional. The words are in Aramaic, a language few understand. The music (which has its own complicated origins) is solemn and heart-wringing. It is one of the few tunes in the year where the cantor is encouraged to embellish for the greatest emotional impact. Rabbi Solomon writes that the purpose of Kol Nidre is not so much the annulment of vows as the opening of hearts and souls to the vulnerability required for Yom Kippur. It sets the tone for the day – an explanation that I think comes as close as any to explain the fierce affection for this prayer that is evident in every synagogue.

What does Kol Nidre mean? It means that the day like no other days, the Sabbath of Sabbaths has begun. It means “Get Serious.” It is a signal sent to every Jewish heart that the Day of Atonement is here, an opportunity not to be missed.

Dreaming of a “Someday Sukkah”

At my synagogue, they used palm fronds to make the roof.

There was a great conversation in the comment section on this blog a while back around the particular issues of military families and the sukkah. To the Nth wrote:

I have such big dreams for our “someday sukkah!” We’ve built our own in the past, but not consistently. I thought we were set when we gathered all the stuff for a wood lattice sukkah in Virginia. When a military move came down the pipe, though, we had to leave it behind because the movers wouldn’t pack “construction materials.” Our attempt at something more portable last year was less than successful, so this year we are just going to enjoy our community sukkah while I try not to be too wistful about the lack of one in our yard.
In some ways, I feel that military families don’t need quite as much of a reminder about the ultimate ephemerality of our dwellings. We’ve had to be nomadic enough that every house feels temporary. ;-)

And Lurkertype replied:

Possibly a special dispensation for military families? Your house is already sukkoh-like!

I love it when y’all talk to one another in the comments (and I am grateful that those conversations are civil!) You’ve made me think about military families, and other families for whom a sukkah is impractical and wanted to share my thoughts.

Not everyone can have a sukkah every year. Nth’s story is one example. I’ve had years when disability kept me from even thinking about it, and homes in which there was no place for a sukkah. That’s just life, and circumstance. I admire Nth’s insight that military families are already in touch with impermanence. That is certainly one of the big lessons of Sukkot.

The mitzvah is to “dwell” in the sukkah. OK, so if I can’t build a sukkah in the yard or on the balcony or roof, what am I to do? One thing is to cultivate that awareness that buildings aren’t forever, and that in fact, there are many people in this world who are homeless (especially this year, with the huge refugee population.) If our bodies can’t dwell in the sukkah this particular year, how about our hearts? Can we build a sukkah in our hearts, by looking for ways to alleviate the homelessness of others?

Sukkot is also about hospitality. We invite others into our sukkah. But if I don’t have a sukkah, what about inviting friends to “dwell” or “sit” (same word in Hebrew) with us at our table, or even at a table somewhere else? Invite a friend for coffee. Invite someone you’ve “been meaning to call” to share a meal. This is a chance to share happy time with one of those relationships we mended back during Elul.

and don’t forget:

Jewish institutions almost always have a sukkah. If you can’t dwell in your own sukkah, call the local synagogue or Federation or JCC and ask about times that their sukkah is open. Go visit! Take a sack lunch, and maybe something you can share with a new friend that you meet there. Learn about the institution, and perhaps you can make friends with it, as well.

Approaching Yom Kippur

"Torah" by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

Yom Kippur begins today at sundown.

Ready or not, it’s here. If you are thinking, “Wait! I didn’t get it all done!” bear in mind that while the symbolic “Gates of Repentance” close at sundown on Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah is really a life-long project. No human being is without flaw, and for the wise, teshuvah is a way of life. 

However you observe the day, use the time wisely. It is truly the holiest day of the Jewish year, and as such, our hearts are especially open now. No matter what you do or do not believe about God, the fact is that for thousands of years, Jews have taken this day to reflect and plan a better path for themselves. It’s a day for taking responsibility and telling the truth to ourselves.

“Telling the truth” is different from “beating yourself up.” If you find that you are tipping over into unmanageable guilt or mental anguish, take a break, talk to someone, be kind. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to another human being. Listen to your heart!

As for fasting, I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about both the mitzvah of fasting and the mitzvah of taking care of a sick body. Resist any urge to make a competition or a display out of the fast. It is, ultimately a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whether we fast or not, I suggest we all ponder the teaching on fasting in Isaiah 58:2-9 :

Day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

I wish you a fruitful Day of Atonement, full of insight!

What is Kapparot?


Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may have seen news  stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.

In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing or wave it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. This practice was first reported roughly a thousand years ago: it is neither a Biblical nor a rabbinic practice, and it is certainly not a mitzvah in and of itself.

Rabbis have spoken out against kapparot for centuries. Only teshuvah atones for sins. No amount of chicken-waving will do a thing to remove sins. The rabbis also expressed concern that it might be confused with the sacrifices of idolaters or with the Biblical practice of animal sacrifice. Also, while ideally the chickens are given to the poor for food, in actual practice many of them are simply thrown out: that is both wasteful and a cruel slaughter for nothing. As distinguished an authority as Rabbi Josef Caro warned against the practice of kapparot.

There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it isn’t teshuvah. Giving to the poor is a mitzvah, but it is not a substitute for the sincere repentance for our sins. God cannot be bought off. Instead, we should make teshuvah for our sins, and give tzedakah to agencies that serve the poor.

Don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this to chickens, as some antisemites have written and said. The vast majority of Jews don’t do anything of the sort.

Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic, because it is real. Unlike kapparotteshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.

May your remaining Days of Awe in 5776 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!

Image: Gady Munz PikiWiki Israel Project

What is Shabbat Shuvah?

You may have noticed the words “Shabbat Shuvah” written on the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It means “Shabbat of Returning” or “Shabbat of Repentance” because it falls in the midst of the days in the Jewish calendar dedicated to teshuvah.

Sometimes I find this Shabbat is especially good for reflection, because I have become accustomed to the High Holy Day tunes, but there is less pomp and circumstance in the service. I can gather my thoughts and feelings and let my process of teshuvah progress. Also, for those who are not members of congregations, these are services that don’t require tickets, so they are easily accessed.

Don’t think, “The rabbi will know I wasn’t at Rosh Hashanah, and will glare at me.” The Rosh Hashanah service was a crowd scene. No one will scold you for showing up at Shabbat Shuvah, I promise. Just the reverse!

There are several special Shabbatot [sha-bah-TOTE, plural of Shabbat) scattered throughout the Jewish year, and this year I’m going to identify them as we encounter them. Each points to something special that’s on our minds that Shabbat, often a nearby holiday.

L’Shanah Tovah! I hope that your holidays are sweet and full of blessing!