Leviticus 22:26-23:44, Numbers 29:12-29:16
Sukkot is a time of great joy, celebration, and community, of enjoying meals with friends under the stars and being surrounded by beautiful sukkah decorations and the cool fall air. Living in a sukkah for a week also carries an important spiritual message.
What is the significance of the sukkah? The Torah simply says, “You shall live in sukkot seven days. All citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelites live in sukkot when I brought them out of the Egypt, I Adonai your God.” (Lev. 23:43) The rabbis of the Talmud debated what these sukkot actually were: Rabbi Eliezer argued that these sukkot referred to the “clouds of glory” that accompanied us on our journey through the desert. Rabbi Akiva understood the verse to refer to literal huts or booths.
If we understand the sukkah as Rabbi Eliezer did, then the sukkah is a place of protection and of God’s sheltering Presence. If we understand the sukkah according to Rabbi Akiva, then the sukkah is a fragile, impermanent place where we are exposed to the elements.
In the end, the laws of building a sukkah reflect both aspects, making the sukkah a place of both shelter and vulnerability.
First, look at how the sukkah must be constructed. The walls must be sturdy enough to withstand wind, creating a protective structure, but the roof must be temporary. The material of the roof, called schach, must be made from something that grows from the ground, like branches, and it can’t have something hanging overhead, like a tree or a roof.
Secondly, we’ve all heard that the stars must be visible through the schach, but there’s another requirement that the roof must provide more shade than sun during the daytime. Again, on the one hand, we’re exposed and vulnerable to the natural world of the outdoors, and on the other hand, we’re protected from the elements.
It has been asked: Why are we not instructed to dwell in sukkot in the spring, when the Exodus from Egypt took place? The answer is: With the spring, people more naturally go outdoors to enjoy the weather and the end of the rainy season. So, celebrating Sukkot in the fall requires a greater sense of our fragility and vulnerability to the seasons and, therefore, requires a greater test of our faith.
At the same time, however, the laws of Sukkot instruct us to leave the sukkah and go indoors if it is raining. So the sukkah represents impermanence and protection, fragility and shelter; all of the laws of Sukkot reflect both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer’s views.
When we dwell in the sukkah, when we eat all of our meals there and even sleep there, the combination of these two perspectives creates a certain spiritual experience throughout the week. In the sukkah, we are both vulnerable and safe. But our safety comes not from material structures like sturdy houses and the warmth, comfort and physical security of our stuff that usually surrounds us.
In the sukkah, we can feel the wind, smell the air, see the sky, and we are sheltered and held as we were when the clouds of glory guided us through the wilderness. The Zohar calls the sukkah the “shelter of faith,” and when we sit in the sukkah, regardless of our beliefs, we feel faith with all of our senses.
Each Jewish holiday is referred to in the liturgy in a particular way that expresses the essence of the holiday. For example, Passover is called Z’man Cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom, and Shavuot is called Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. Sukkot is called Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our happiness — because living for a week in a sukkah is the experience of true happiness. It’s a happiness that comes from letting all those structures that usually protect us fall away and feeling our exposure to the realness of Creation, while simultaneously feeling held and sheltered by the Presence of the Divine.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.