Why We Celebrate Sukkot Under the Stars

Maybe you’ve seen the little huts springing up in your neighbors’ yards this time of year and wondered, “Is that a trendy, eco-friendly playhouse? Are they getting ready for a back-to-nature Halloween?” No, those little huts are called sukkahs, and are part of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which begins this year on the night of October 12.

Sukkot is a joyous holiday that celebrates the harvest in the land of Israel in both ancient times and today. Along with Passover and Shavuot, Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, when ancient Israelites traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem with gifts of the first fruits and offerings to God. Today, Sukkot is a bit like Thanksgiving, a festival where we thank God for the blessings of the harvest.

During Sukkot, it’s traditional to visit or build a sukkah (pronounced SUH-kah in Hebrew). This small hut is a reminder of the temporary tents the Israelites lived in while wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.

A sukkah is constructed of wood, cloth and other natural materials. It must have at least three sides; instead of building a real wall, people usually hang cloth or canvas from poles. The roof is formed from branches and greenery (skakh in Hebrew) because the sky and stars must be visible through it. Sukkah decorations include fruits and vegetables, gourds and Indian corn, flowers, autumn leaves and garlands, which are hung from the roof and walls. We’ve discovered that hanging colorful, red hot chili peppers and tangy lemons discourages squirrels from nibbling on the decor. It’s also common to decorate a sukkah with artworks, which can range from professional weavings and hangings to colorful posters crayoned by children.

Many families choose to build their own sukkah in the backyard or on a porch or patio. In addition, synagogues, JCCs and other organizations put up sukkahs for the community to enjoy.

But you don’t need to be a construction manager to build your own sukkah. You can pick up supplies from your local hardware store and do-it-yourself or buy a kit online. For around $200, thesukkahproject.com offers “klutz-proof sukkah kits” ? and all the accessories you may need, from plastic fruit decorations to bamboo roof mats to use instead of skakh to silk-screen lulav and etrog banners. (The lulav, a branch of palm tree tied together with willow and myrtle, and etrog, a citrus fruit that looks like a large, lumpy lemon, are two other ritual objects of Sukkot.) At sukkahkits.com, they say that if you use one of their kits you can “enjoy the magical tradition of eating in your own sukkah without the yearly struggle…” They claim their pre-fab sukkah can be assembled in 36 minutes.

During Sukkot, it’s customary to eat meals in the sukkah, and many people invite friends and guests to join them. It’s considered a mitzvah (good deed) to share the beauty of your sukkah with friends. The Scolnics have hosted many parties in their sukkah over the years. The most meaningful one was a gathering for their daughter Jessica’s baby naming ceremony — the ceremony and party, complete with bagels and a big fish tray, was held in the sukkah.

For a different view of Sukkot, check out this interesting Israeli film:

Ushpizin, filmed in Jerusalem in 2004, is the story of Orthodox Jewish couple, Mali and Moshe, who are married nearly five years but are still childless. Their marriage is strained because of their infertility. They are out of money and out of hope. As Sukkot nears, they pray for a variety of miracles. When they manage to put up a sukkah and two sketchy visitors make themselves at home, the couple doesn’t know if the guests are the answer to their prayers or just trouble. Don’t worry; it has a happy ending.

When you run out of regular sukkah guests, you can summon the ushpizin (Aramaic for “visitors”) into the sukkah to “enjoy” a meal on Sukkot. This custom, much like reserving a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah on Passover, has its roots in Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism.

It’s traditional to invite the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah). Kabbalah says that being in a sukkah generates enough spiritual energy to summon these seven ancestral figures to partake in the delights of the sukkah. Some Sephardic Jews, whose families originally came from Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, set aside an ornately decorated chair in their sukkah for the ushpizin‘s visit.

You can even invite the spirits of your own ancestors into the sukkah ? your grandparents and great-grandparents who have contributed to your heritage and knowledge. It’s an opportunity to get to know some of the branches of your spouse’s family tree and/or teach your children about the relatives they might not know. If your child is named in honor or memory of someone, this is the perfect time to talk about it. As a family project, you could make a poster of your family tree ? including all the names, spouses and children as far back as you can remember ? and hang it alongside other decorations in the sukkah.

So this fall, if someone invites you to dinner in their sukkah or “pizza in the hut,” you’ll know to what to expect ? and won’t be surprised when dinner is served under the stars.

Joyce Eisenberg

Joyce Eisenberg wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words with Ellen Scolnic. A 1973 graduate of Penn State University with a bachelor’s degree in English, Joyce lives in Merion with her husband, Ted, and two children, Ben and Samantha. You can read more about her at www.thewordmavens.com.


Author: Joyce Eisenberg