What in the World is Shemini Atzeret?

Image: Stanford University Hillel students enjoying a meal in their sukkah, October 2009. (Stanford University Hillel, via JTA.org)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

For a great take on the holiday read Rabbi David Evan Markus’ article on the JTA website, On Shemini Atzeret, Just Hang Out.

This year (5777, or 2016, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Sunday, Oct 23, continuing until sundown on Oct 24.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot! Enjoy one more day of fun!

My Sukkah is Soggy :-(

Image: A rain-soaked pergola. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

My sukkah (soo-KAH or SOOK-uh) is soggy. Actually, the sukkah-stuff is still in the garage; what you see in the photo above is the very wet pergola that becomes my sukkah every year with a bit of presto-change-o.  A big storm is blowing through the Bay Area, with heavy rain and strong winds, and bits of it are going to blow through for a couple of days more.

On the one hand, frustrating: NOW is the time to set the sukkah up, and frankly, unless I want the walls and the rugs and so on to blow down the hill and over into the neighbors’ yards, it’s better to wait. On the other hand, my back is still out from Yom Kippur (too much sitting in synagogue) so maybe this is a gift in disguise. Anyway, I am a Californian, and it’s against the law here to complain about water that falls from the sky for free!


What is Sukkot?

Image: A sukkah in New England, in the USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.

After the intensity of the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate a completely different kind of holiday. (What, more holidays? Yes!)

Beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a holiday of celebration, rest, and hospitality, when we build little shacks in the back  yard or on the roof of the apartment building and have friends over to eat for seven days. The first and last days are solemn days of rest.

It began as a harvest celebration, held at that nervous moment in the Middle East when the summer crops were in and the rain had not yet begun to fall. Winter rains are crucial not only for crops, but also for the survival of animals and people when the cisterns have run dry. In the climate of Israel, summer rains are rare; the year’s moisture falls in autumn and winter. Without water, everyone and everything dies.

So there they were, desperate for rain, with the last of the harvest in their hands. No surprise that the people prayed. The interesting thing is that our own story, the Exodus, is woven into the holiday as well. This is a holiday with a double meaning, and a doubled set of commandments:

You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22

You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43

So Jews all over the world take the days right after Yom Kippur to build a sukkah, a little booth, in their yard. on their balcony or on a roof, to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in to remember our tenuous existence in the wilderness.  For those in a cold climate, that means building a sturdy little sukkah and bundling up to sit there. For those in warmer climes, it’s a laid-back time of outdoor living. For all of us, it is a reminder of the fragility of life, of our vulnerability, a time of closeness and friendship, appreciation and joy.

For the tachlis [practical information] about the holiday and how to celebrate, see 7 Questions about Sukkot and Sukkot Hospitality.




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…)

Dreaming of a “Someday Sukkah”

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!