SUKKOT: THE REENACTMENT OF THE EXODUS JOURNEY
In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva states that the sukkot commemorate the actual desert booth dwellings. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that sukkot really symbolize the clouds of glory that hovered over the Jews and led the way through the Sinai. Rabbi Eliezer meant that the miracle and celebration are due not only to God who protects, but also to the people of Israel who were willing to expose themselves to the fiercest storms of history with only the intangible, and at times partial, shelter of God's presence.
The halakhic requirements for the construction of a sukkah attempt to capture the fragility and openness of the booths. The sukkah may not be too impressive a home; its total height may not exceed twenty cubits - about thirty feet. Nor may it be lower than what is reasonably high enough to enter and live in, that is, ten handbreadths or forty inches. Similarly, the sukkah should be built well enough to withstand normal winds but not so solidly that it withstands winds of unusual force. By deliberately giving up solid construction, Jews admit their vulnerability and testify that their ultimate trust is in the divine shelter.
The most important part of the Sukkah, halakhically, is the s'khakh, materials of vegetable origin such as evergreen branches or marsh rushes that form the roof. For support, these coverings may be laid across wooden slats or bamboo poles; heavy boards or beams that offer solid support should not be used, nor should any of the roof materials be nailed down permanently. Though completely covering the top, the materials should be loosely spread so as to be open to the heavens, with the stars visible through the loosely spread roofing. Thus, the s'khakh is the perfect expression of divine protection. God is not a mechanical shield that protects from all evil; God is the Presence who gives the strength to persevere, to overcome.
By moving into the sukkah for a week, Jews demythologize solid walls and controllable security. It is not a renunciation of self-protection but a recognition of its limits. One should accept vulnerability and live more deeply, rather than build thick walls that are intended to protect from hurt but end up cutting us off from life. The sukkah does not deny the value of a solid home or of human effort; fifty-one weeks a year Jews are allowed to live in homes and are encouraged to build up the world and increase security and well-being. But the sukkah teaches that builders of homes should be able to give them up or move out if necessary. Renunciation is the secret of mastery. "Who loves money [absolutely] will never have his fill of money" (Ecclesiastes 5:9). People become masters rather than slaves of their achievements when they develop the capacity to let go of their accomplishments, even if only for the moment.
INSIDE THE SUKKAH
Traditionally, living in the sukkah included eating any significant meal there. Jewish law defines a significant meal as one that includes water and bread, dishes made of the five basic grains - wheat, rye, spelt, barley, oats - or a main dish with meat or fish, eggs or cheese. Fruits or vegetables were not included in this definition. However, some traditional Jews will eat no food outside of the sukkah. Every time people eat in the sukkah they make the special blessing, "lay-shave ba'sukkah," "to dwell (literally, to sit) in the sukkah."
ברוך אתה הי
Barukh Atta Adonuy
On the first night (in Diaspora, on the first two nights), people add the Sheheheyanu blessing of thanks to God "who has kept us alive to this season." (see Sheheheyanu blessing on page 2).
There is a special dimension of joy to the holiday of Sukkot. To underscore the pleasure principle, the obligation to dwell in the sukkah is suspended in a situation of discomfort. This is unique among the commandments. Halakhah does not recognize discomfort, inconvenience, or even financial loss as an excuse not to eat kosher or not to observe Shabbat. But joy is so central to the sukkah experience that if one carries out the mitzvah in pain or serious inconvenience, it is not a fulfillment in the spirit of the holiday. If it rains on Sukkot, so that water drips onto the diners (remember that the s'khakh is not permitted to be thick enough to keep out the rain), then one is exempt from the mitzvah of eating there. On the other hand, people were so determined to observe the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah on the first night that the tradition grew to wait even until midnight for the rain to end in the hope of getting a chance to eat in the booth. And in cases where rain prevented eating the full meal in the sukkah, people would hastily make Kiddush (the blessing over wine) and HaMotzee (the blessing over bread) in the sukkah before retreating indoors for the rest of the meal. "To dwell" was also interpreted as sleeping in the sukkah. Some individuals and even whole families do sleep in the sukkah. In climates where sleeping outdoors would constitute a hardship, however, exemption from sleeping became the rule. Still, for families who are experienced in camping, sleeping overnight in the sukkah together is a treat.
Since dwelling in the sukkah is a fixed or positive commandment that requires fulfillment at a specific time, it was not considered a Mitzvah binding on women. Nonetheless, women still fulfill the Mitzvah if they eat or dwell in the sukkah. In our times, when women are making an historic move to assume full religious maturity, it is doubly important that they commit themselves to fulfill this mitzvah in every way.
THE AGRICULTURAL DIMENSION
In this we find a major characteristic of the Jewish religion, the shift from nature to history. This represents the movement from human passivity and acceptance of nature-as-destiny to a drive for liberation, which can be achieved only in history. As long as humans perceive nature as implacable and fate as immovable, they accept death, poverty, and oppression as their ineluctable condition. Humans celebrated - one is tempted to say, “bribed” - nature to placate the gods who arbitrarily gave and withheld the staff of life, the rain and the harvest. But Judaism proclaimed that human beings, created in the image of God, are commanded to reshape the world, to conquer nature for the benefit of humanity. Nature is not God. The natural order is created by God to be used for human welfare.
THE FOUR SPECIES
In the Hebrew text, the aforementioned verse can be interpreted literally as follows: "On the first day you shall take for yourselves the fruit" (Leviticus 23:40). The Rabbis derived from this that individuals must own their personal set of four species. There are few more beautiful sights than a synagogue flooded with the four species; the fragrance, the colour, the joyful processional around the synagogue are a delight. If one person owns the four species and a friend doesn't, the owner may make a gift to the other so that he or she may fulfill the obligation. The person given the etrog may then give it back to the other as a gift. (Who says Jewish legal minds can't figure out a way to have their cake and eat it, too?) In our time, women should also own the four species, and at Shaare Zion each year more and more women participate in the Hakkafot or processions around the synagogue, carrying their Lulav and Etrog.
To fulfill the Mitzvah of the four species, three of the species, the palm branch, the myrtle twigs and the willow twigs are bound together as a single unit. The myrtle and willow are inserted into a holder on the lulav (the holder is made of woven palm branch). Three myrtle branches are placed on the right and two willows on the left. With the lulav in the right hand and the etrog in the left hand, held close together, a blessing is recited and the whole is waved together. A waving motion consists of three times up, three times down, in all directions, east, south, west, north, up and down. This symbolizes God’s universal presence. During the waving, the etrog is held with the stem down; purists hold the etrog wrong side up until after they recite the blessing so that the perfect waving is done after the blessing. Though the Etrog is considered the most precious of the fruits, the whole act has come to be known as waving the lulav, obviously because the lulav is the tallest one and eye-catching. Since the destruction of the Temple, the four species are brought and waved during the holiday in every synagogue (or home) in remembrance of this Temple ceremony. The sukkot material was adapted from The Jewish Way; Living the Holidays, Rabbi Irving Greenberg; Summit Books, 1988; New York.