Sukkah in the Wind

October 14, 2014
sukkah

A Windy Day, ~15 mph

Success! This is my sukkah in a stiff wind, as a Pacific storm blows by the California coast. (Please let it rain! Please let it rain!)

There are several delicate balances to be struck with a proper sukkah. The roof must provide more shade than sun, but it must also be open enough for one to see the stars at night. It should be comfortable and pretty enough for celebration, but not permanent. It must be a temporary structure, but it must not blow over in a reasonable amount of wind.

That last – the wind – is a real issue here in the San Leandro Hills. While the roof is not yet quite right (the schach promptly blew off in the wind) the fishnet walls are ideal for this setting.

Moadim l’simcha!  – May your days of Sukkot be filled with joy.


The Most Beautiful Sukkah

October 12, 2014
"Red Door with Lock"

“Red Door with Lock” by Liz

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!”

And 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.


Love your Lulav!

October 9, 2014
Lulav by Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933)

Lulav by Leopold Pilichowski (1869–1933)

Besides building the sukkah, the other distinctive mitzvah of Sukkot is a ritual known as Waving the Lulav. The Biblical source for this mitzvah is found in Leviticus:

On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the Eternal your God for seven days. -Leviticus 23:40

The lulav is a bundle of the Arba Minim, the Four Species: the etrog or citron (“fruit of a beautiful tree”), palm frond, two myrtle branches (“twigs of a braided tree”) and three willow branches. We make a bouquet of the tree branches and hold them next to the citron, recite the blessing, and then wave the lulav to the four corners of the compass as well as heaven and earth. The blessing:

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh haolam
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, ruler of the universe

asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav 
Who has sanctified us with His commandments

v’tzivanu al n’tilat lulav (Amen)
and commanded us to take up the lulav (Amen)

Rather than write out the instructions for waving properly, I’m going to share a video by Rabbi Wendi Geffen:

Now you may be thinking, “Rabbi, this is the weirdest mitzvah ever! What is this all about?” There’s no single answer to that question. Here are some possibilities:

  1. Shaking the lulav all four directions plus up and down acknowledges the whole creation which God has made and entrusted to us. The four species “stand in” for the vast variety of species by including one that smells and tastes good (etrog), one that smells good but doesn’t have a taste (myrtle), one that tastes good but has no smell (date palm) and one that has neither smell nor taste (willow.)
  2. If you consider that the holiday falls at the point when rain might be expected in Israel, and at the completion of the harvest, then it makes sense that this ancient rite may have begun as a fertility ritual. Look at the lulav: the branches are long and thin, the citron is (literally) an ovary. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the fertility theme in bringing the two together.
  3. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld offers several other interpretations in his article Lulav and Etrog: Symbolism.

My own take on this ritual, as with all the Sukkot rituals, is that it brings us into direct contact with nature. We have to acquire the branches and the lulav, we hold them in our hands, we smell them, we handle them day after day. We even watch them wilt a bit as the week goes on. Nature is fragile. You can order bits of it on the internet, yes, but when the real thing is in your hands, it is not tidy, not digital.

Sukkot is not a head trip. It is a festival of hearts and hands in contact with the living world. God commands us to get away from the study table, outdoors into nature, to reconnect with the world that according to Genesis is tov meod – very good.


Photo Essay: Pergola to Sukkah

October 8, 2014
The pergola, before it turned into a sukkah.

The pergola, before it turned into a sukkah.

One of the things I very much wanted for my home was a structure that could give me a “head start” on a sukkah each year. Ingrid Martin of Earthly Sites made a garden design for me that included a pergola. Here’s the pergola, after one growing season. There are grape vines at each of the four corners, and they are so far doing nicely, especially the ones in the “back.”

Two problems: one, it’s very windy here. Windy enough that plants have to be chosen carefully (a couple of big sunflowers were blown to bits over the summer.) Sukkah walls were a real issue, because if they too wind resistant they could become unholy missiles that might hurt people. So I made a radical decision: my sukkah “walls” were going to be made of fish net. I purchased 30′ of 7′ wide fishnet, and today we’re going to “hang” the walls with plastic zip ties.

This will also allow those in the sukkah to enjoy the view, which is pretty spectacular. At least, that’s the plan.

I’m still trying to figure out the shkhakh issue. Shkakh is the roof of the sukkah. It’s critical that it offer more shade than sun, but allow one to see the stars. Also, it must be made of something that used to grow out of the ground. Many people use palm fronds or bamboo mats – again, with the winds up here, I am worried about trying to tie anything to the roof, lest it go flying away into the neighbors’ yards.  It may not be a completely kosher sukkah this year, by next year the problem will be solved. At their current rate of growth, the grape vines will provide all the cover we need, maybe a little too much.

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

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

I figure that part of the point of the holiday is to get us out in nature, playing with greenery, figuring things out, anyway. Some may say, “But it isn’t kosher!” and all I can say to that is that this sukkah, like its owner, is a work in progress.

OK, so we got the fishnet out, and after drinking a lot of ice tea and talking about options, we decided to start in the middle of the back. I had no idea that you could double zip ties – cool. Thank goodness my friend and student Jake is helping me.

Beginning to hang the fishnet walls.

Beginning to hang the fishnet walls.

We got the walls up, and they need to “relax” a bit. One tricky item is trying not to hurt the grape vines that are creeping up the pergola supports – I can tell that when it’s time to take the net down, we’ll have to be even more careful. Now the walls are hung and the rug is in, and as you can see the sun is getting lower:

The rug is in, and the walls are "relaxing" a bit before we tie them down.

The rug is in, and the walls are “relaxing” a bit before we tie them down.

Time for some furniture, right? Since I’ll be making kiddush in there in a few hours?

IMAG0562

Sukkah at dusk, ready for food and guests. Just in time!

I wish all my readers a joyous Sukkot!


What’s a Sukkah?

October 7, 2014
A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A Sukkah built by Yonassan Gershom

A sukkah (soo-KAH or SUK-kah)  is a small temporary structure Jews build to celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot. It is often translated “booth” but might better be translated as “shelter.” In the ancient Near East (and in some places, even today) farmworkers built these little shelters for the hurried end of the harvest, when it would take too much valuable daylight to travel home from the field every day. For Jews, the sukkah also is a reminder of the time when we were wanderers on the road from Egypt to Israel.

A proper sukkah is a temporary structure. Its roof is partially covered with greenery (ideally tree branches) but open enough that one can still see the stars on a clear night. The sukkah should be large enough for at least one person to sit in it at a table, and it may not be more than 10m tall. The walls should be constructed in such a way that they will not blow over in a wind.  It is important that you acquire all the materials in a legal manner: “borrowing” greenery from a neighbor without asking (aka stealing) invalidates the mitzvah.

A sukkah can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you wish. The sukkah pictured above was built by a man named Yonassan Gershom, and on his blog he writes that it was built mostly of found materials; the bill came to $5. You can also purchase sukkah “kits” on the internet, which is one way to get a proper sukkah without too much worry. If you are skilled with tools, then you’ve got a head start!

Many people decorate their sukkah with carpets and wall hangings, and furnish it with a table, chairs, and even a bed! Since the mitzvah (commandment) is to “dwell” in the sukkah, it is good to eat meals and even sleep in the sukkah, weather permitting. It is especially nice to practice the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim [hospitality] by inviting others to eat in your sukkah.

What if you don’t have a yard in which to put a sukkah? In cities, people sometimes build them on balconies,  fire escapes or rooftops. (Be careful not to run afoul of local ordinances, however!) Synagogues and Jewish organizations often have a sukkah. If you sit in the sukkah of a friend or neighbor often, it is nice to offer to help them take it down at the end of the holiday; this is usually not a small job.

Sukkot is an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy nature while we share meals and conversation with family and friends. Whatever is available to you this Sukkot, be sure to get outside and enjoy the season!

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.

In Boro Park, Brooklyn, some apartment dwellers build their sukkot on the fire escapes.


Sukkot’s Coming: Go Out and Play!

October 5, 2014
Decorating the Sukkah

Decorating the Sukkah

Succos: when G-d tells us to go outside and play, and reminds us everything we need is in the sukkah.” – @travelincatdoc

Sukkot was known in ancient times as THE Holiday, HeHahg. It was the biggest event of the Jewish year. That fact usually surprises American Jews, for whom the High Holidays and Passover are THE Holidays.

But in ancient times, all the observance we have just been through, the purification of body and soul, was just a warmup to the biggest holiday of all, a holiday when the Temple hosted special sacrifices and the Water Pouring Festival. During Sukkot, it was the custom to pour water over the altar in the Temple every day, and every night, the water was brought in a golden flask from the Pool of Siloah. It became a huge festival of light, too, with torches and jugglers and a joyful craziness. There is a record of a great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, who juggled eight flaming torches as part of the celebration.

What happened, then? It all changed when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Without the Temple, we couldn’t do sacrifices, and the Water Pouring didn’t really make sense. We didn’t have access to the Pool of Siloah.

So all that remained of Sukkot was the ancient sukkahs, which we still build. Today Sukkot is still joyous (especially in Israel) but it has become a holiday of hospitality and a quieter kind of joy.

Our modern Sukkot may not have fire-juggling rabbis (!) but it has a wonderful sweetness. Start looking around for a sukkah: it might be at your congregation, or in the yard of a friend. Or maybe you’ll have one in your yard this year. This is our reward for the hard work of the last six weeks, our time of rejoicing.

Sukkot begins this year (2014 or 5775) on Wednesday, Oct 8, at sundown.


A Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

September 4, 2014
Shana Tova

Shana Tova, by Jen T.

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 24, 2014. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Another option, almost always free, is to attend Selichot services which are usually on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah. You will hear the High Holy Days music, often the clergy will be wearing their High Holy Day robes, but it is an evening penitential service that is so little known that only regulars attend. Call your local synagogue for information.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5775!


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