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…)

A Fragile Home


My body is a sukkah
A fragile home
It trembles and sways
But the beating heart endures.

Ufros aleinu sukat shelomecha
Shelter us with your peace
In these frail bodies
Shelter us with love
That anchors us to earth
Shelter us with knowledge
And wisdom
Shelter us


I am not going to be able to put up a sukkah this year, since I spent much of this past week in hospital. I am home now, recovering and thinking about the fragility of life.

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.

Ready, Set, Sukkot!


For years and years, I intended to build a sukkah in which to celebrate Sukkot, but when the holiday came around, I was somehow caught by surprise. It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the fact that I needed to do some Sukkot preparation during Elul, as well as the preparation for the High Holy Days.

The two sets of preparation are not mutually exclusive. Preparation for the High Holy Days is mostly a private matter for anyone who is not on a synagogue staff.  We examine our hearts, we go back through the previous year, we make amends. It can be hard emotional work. Preparation for Sukkot is a matter of mechanics:

  1. Do I have the stuff to build the sukkah?
  2. Do I know where all of it is?
  3. Do I need to repair or replace anything?
  4. Do I want to add anything? New decorations? Lights?

After the first year, it’s really not a big deal, but it has to be done, because sukkah building should begin, ideally, immediately after Yom Kippur. I have learned that most of it dovetails quite easily with preparations for the High Holy Days; while I am checking through supplies, I make my mental lists.

This year I’m still looking for my sukkah walls, but I have found the rug and the furniture. I’ve ordered a new bamboo mat for schach, and I got some new twinkly lights. Prep done, if I can just find those walls…!

So this is my reminder to you, dear readers, that if you are planning to build a sukkah this year, it’s time to figure out where you put the sukkah supplies from last year. If you don’t plan to build a sukkah, I also have a suggestion: as you make your lists of people with whom you need to have important conversations, make a list of people with whom to sit and enjoy during Sukkot. If you can’t sit in a kosher sukkah, sit in an almost-kosher sukkah. If you have no access to any kind of sukkah, think where you might share a cup of tea or coffee (or chocolate!) with those friends, one by one.

Sukkot, too, is part of our renewal at the beginning of the year. Don’t wait to prepare – have your plans ready. Beyond the solemn self-examination of the High Holy Days awaits the joy of Sukkot!

Sukkah in the Wind

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

"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!

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.