With the holiday of Sukkot beginning at sundown on Sunday, many families and congregations are busy erecting the holiday’s namesake hut — the sukkah.
While its form is familiar, what is the deeper meaning of the fragile, temporary structure, and what does it represent? Why is this building different from all other buildings?
Of course, there are rules concerning the materials that can be used to build a sukkah: bamboo poles, evergreen branches and corn stalks are among the most popular. The materials must be schach, raw, unfinished vegetable matter and cannot have been used for anything else or be ritually impure.
The roof of a “kosher sukkah” must let in more light than it obscures. Above the sukkah, there can’t be any branches obstructing the view, and branches that might obstruct the view need to be removed prior to the sukkah being built.
For some people, though, what a sukkah represents and what happens in the structure are what gets to the heart of the matter.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, said a misprint in his book about the Jewish holiday cycle, “Seasons of Our Joy,” provided a better definition of sukkah than the one he had come up with.
The book’s glossary defined a sukkah as “a hut with a leaky roof,” rather than a leafy roof, as Waskow intended it.
“A sukkah is open to the earth, to the wind and rain,” he said. “You can’t go into a cave and say it’s a sukkah. It’s an open, fragile, vulnerable house.”
It’s this vulnerability, the leaky roof, that gives the sukkah a strong spiritual aspect. They are supposed to remind us of our own vulnerability, according to Waskow, and to remind us to help those who are vulnerable.
One is supposed to dwell in a sukkah. Rabbi Sholom Deitsch, of Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia, said doing so “makes the mundane a mitzvah.” Day-to-day activities like eating, drinking and studying become mitzvot — holy acts — when done in the sukkah because of their fragility; the sukkah is a sacred space.
Inviting guests over to celebrate, particularly those who may not be familiar with the holiday, is one of the more important actions one can do in a sukkah, Deitsch said.
“It’s important to have guests,” he said, “and to show them the beauty of the sukkah. We should share the holiday with more and more people.”
The guests, called ushpizin in Hebrew, can come from any community and be of any religion.
Rabbi Waskow also urged people to perform other mitzvot in their sukkah. This year, The Shalom Center is organizing an event called “Share Sukkot, Grow the Vote,” where people assist in helping others register to vote and honor the lives of those who were killed while standing up for their right to vote.
These days, it’s easy to construct a sukkah. Pop-up and pre-made sukkot can be purchased online. They come in a variety of colors and sizes; some of them are intended to accommodate only one person. They even come with all the materials needed.
Deitsch said the structure of the sukkah has not changed at all for thousands of years. “If Moses were to come to your sukkah, he might be impressed with its structure,” he said, “but he would immediately know that it is a sukkah.”