On Sukkot, If You Build It, It May Fall


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column appeared here on Sukkot in 2014.

When it comes to hardware stores, consider me a One-Day-A-Year Jew. And that day comes around just before the holiday of Sukkot, when over the years I would struggle to put up our family sukkah in the backyard. Thank God it only has to stand for eight days.

Part of the wonderful rhythm of the High Holy Days season is that we go directly from the cerebral solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the hands-on, harvest-inspired, outdoor-focused festival of Sukkot (which begins this year on Friday evening), recalling the wanderings of the ancient Israelites in the desert those 40 long years.

I would make my annual pilgrimage to the hardware store the day after Yom Kippur. Back in the 1970s in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Baltimore, the store was often crowded with pale, scholarly Jewish young men in traditional garb roaming around the aisles, inquiring about hammers and brackets and mollies with the same intensity as if they were grappling with a portion of the Talmud. It’s as if the Lord is telling us, there’s more to life than praying inside all day; get thee out there and sweat a little.

Some people remember fondly every car they’ve owned. I can get misty about every sukkah in my life, dating back to the one we had on our tiny back porch when I was growing up in Annapolis, Md.  Even though there was barely room for a card table and four chairs inside its wooden walls, my non-Jewish friends in the neighborhood loved playing in my “fort” and no doubt begged their fathers to build them one, too.

The first sukkah I built myself was when we lived in Baltimore. It was a disaster. It was made out of canvas, which I bought from a boating store within walking distance of the Baltimore harbor. When the elderly, leather-skinned salesman in the fisherman’s cap asked me the size of my jib, I was ready to call a cop. I tried to explain that the canvas I was interested in wasn’t actually for my boat but for a “ritual booth” I was building in my backyard. Then he looked like HE was going to call a cop.

We came to some sort of understanding, finally, but a strong storm on the first night of the holiday left our sukkah looking like the Titanic. We had to eat our meals in friends’ sukkahs that year.

My misfortune wasn’t limited to my own family that Sukkot. A colleague at the Baltimore Jewish Times had suggested before the holiday that, as a service to our readers, we publish a simple plan, complete with diagram, of how to build a sukkah. It seemed like a lovely idea, and since her husband was building one, she volunteered to write up the plan.

I got a sinking feeling, though, when she came to work after the first two days of the holiday and reported that their sukkah had not survived the storm either. When the phone calls started coming into the office, complaining that our sukkah plan was a flop, I was tempted to tell callers the story about the man who wanted to build a house according to Jewish law.

It seems that none of the rabbis this man approached could find a Judaic text outlining precisely what materials to use and which measurements were appropriate. Finally, he came upon an elderly Talmudic scholar who said he had found an obscure Aramaic tome that did, indeed, instruct exactly how to build a house.

The man was delighted and spent the next six years personally building his home. But on the very first night after he had moved in, it collapsed. Distraught, he ran to the rabbi. “I spent six years building my house according to Jewish law. Why did it cave in the very first night?” he demanded.

The rabbi thought a moment, stroked his beard, nodded, and replied, “Interesting … Rashi [the Talmudic commentator] asks the very same question.”

Seeing the stars twinkling above offers a fresh perspective on our place in the vast universe.

Each sukkah, by design, is intended to convey the delicate balance between protection and vulnerability, encouraging us to recognize our ultimate reliance on God’s shelter. We see our breath on cold nights and feel the rain come through the permeable roof at times, reminding us of how exposed we are to the elements. But on a clear night, seeing the stars twinkling above offers a fresh perspective on our place in the vast universe.

Sukkot has been a cherished holiday in our family, and each year we have enjoyed the social and communal benefits of inviting friends and relatives for meals in the sukkah. But this Sukkot, of course, like each of the holidays since Purim, will be unlike any other. In the midst of the pandemic, we are painfully aware of its restrictions on sharing special moments of prayer, celebration and festive meals.

This past Sunday, as I helped set up a large communal sukkah alongside neighbors, I had trouble recognizing some of them, as we were all wearing masks. Setting up tables inside, we were careful to follow the taped marks on the ground to ensure for social distancing, knowing invitations for meals will be limited in these days of Covid-19.

But I took comfort in remembering that there are some special guests who will be welcome in our sukkah, and sukkahs around the world, this holiday. That’s because Sukkot is a time for memory and mysticism. There is a centuries-old holiday custom known as Ushpizin (“guests”), in which we symbolically welcome into the sukkah each evening an illustrious “visitor” from among our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.

“Be seated, be seated, exalted guests,” we recite, “be seated in the shade of the Holy One.”

And as we sit in the sukkah each evening, we can feel the presence, as well, of loved ones who are no longer with us, those whose influence on our lives still shines as clearly as the stars above. Despite the limitations imposed on us this holiday, with faith, memory and imagination we can fulfill the mitzvah of the sukkah meals, sharing a tradition as old as our people — even as we pray for a new year of renewal and resilience.

Chag sameach.

Gary Rosenblatt (Gary@jewishweek.org) is the editor at large of The Jewish Week.