A sukkah of one’s own

To un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of Sukkot – the hol­i­day and the habi­tat – we must ex­plore the de­vel­op­ment of bib­li­cal ar­chi­tec­ture.

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - • GILA FINE The writer is the ed­i­tor in chief of Mag­gid Books (Koren Pub­lish­ers Jerusalem) and a teacher of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture at the Pardes In­sti­tute of Jewish Stud­ies.

A sukkah, then, is a safe space, a place of refuge and shel­ter pro­vided by an­other

‘You shall dwell in sukkot [booths] for seven days… that your gen­er­a­tions may know that I made the peo­ple of Is­rael dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviti­cus 23:4243).

As the third and fi­nal in­stall­ment in the Re­galim tril­ogy, Sukkot doesn’t quite seem to fit. It lacks the mag­ni­tude, the drama, the re­demp­tive qual­ity of the first two in­stall­ments. On Passover we re­mem­ber our phys­i­cal re­demp­tion, be­ing car­ried out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an out­stretched arm. Shavuot marks our spir­i­tual re­demp­tion, re­ceiv­ing of the To­rah in a Di­vine reve­la­tion of thun­der and light­ning and a mountain in flames. And on Sukkot we cel­e­brate... dwelling in booths? What’s so re­demp­tive about that? Where is the great mir­a­cle, the signs and won­ders, of the fes­ti­val of Sukkot?

More­over, when did the Is­raelites ever dwell in booths? Through­out their jour­ney across the Si­nai Desert, the peo­ple of Is­rael are not once de­scribed as liv­ing in sukkot. The only habi­tat we ever find them in are tents: Af­ter the Reve­la­tion, the peo­ple are told, “Re­turn to your tents” (Deuteron­omy 5:26); when they com­plain about the manna, they “cry at the en­trance of their tents” (Num­bers 11:10); and when Bi­laam gazes out onto their ranks, he can­not help but ex­claim, “How beau­ti­ful are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Is­rael” (Num­bers 24:5). The Is­raelite camp was a camp of tents – not sukkot.

It is this no­table ab­sence, it seems, that prompts Rabbi Eliezer to claim that the sukkot in ques­tion were not ac­tual booths, but rather ananei hakavod – tra­di­tion­ally trans­lated as “the cloud of the glory of God” – which sur­rounded the peo­ple in the desert (Sukkah 11b). But if they were in fact clouds, why not re­fer to them as such? Why call them “sukkot”? TO BE­GIN to un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of Sukkot – both the hol­i­day and the habi­tat for which it is named – we must ex­plore those places in the Bible where the word is men­tioned. Specif­i­cally, we must trace the ap­pear­ance of sukkot within the de­vel­op­ment of bib­li­cal ar­chi­tec­ture.

The first man-made home in the Bible is, once again, a tent. Yaval, Adam’s sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion grand­son, is, we are told, “the first to live in tents and raise cat­tle” (Ge­n­e­sis 4:20). Sev­eral gen­er­a­tions later we find the in­fa­mous tent in which Noah un­cov­ers him­self in a drunken stu­por, and shortly af­ter that, the more re­spectable tents of Shem. With the ar­rival of Abra­ham on the scene, we wit­ness an in­ter­est­ing tran­si­tion. Hu­mankind, it ap­pears, has evolved; we now read of peo­ple liv­ing in proper houses. Yet our pa­tri­archs con­tinue to dwell in tents.

The first house in the Bible is found, per­haps not co­in­ci­den­tally, in Sodom. Lot (who, as long as he resided with Abra­ham, had lived in a tent like him) takes the an­gels into his “house and... shut[s] the door af­ter him” (Ge­n­e­sis 19:3-6). This, in stark con­trast to Abra­ham who, just one chap­ter ear­lier, runs to greet the an­gels “from the open­ing of his tent” (Ge­n­e­sis 18:2). The jux­ta­po­si­tion sug­gests the rea­son for the pa­tri­archs’ per­sis­tence in tent-dwelling when ev­ery­one else had grad­u­ated to homes of wood or stone (the only “houses” men­tioned with re­gard to Abra­ham, Isaac and Jacob re­fer to their dy­nasty, not domi­cile): While the house is a place that shuts out the world, the tent re­mains for­ever open.

Thus, Shechem uses the locked house to hold his rape vic­tim Dina cap­tive, as op­posed to Isaac who takes Rebecca into “his mother Sarah’s tent... and love[s] her” (Ge­n­e­sis 24:67). Like­wise, La­ban only opens his house to Eliezer af­ter he sees the jew­els the lat­ter has brought, whereas Jacob – “a plain man, dwelling in tents” (Ge­n­e­sis 25:27) – im­me­di­ately in­vites his de­vi­ous fa­ther-in-law into his tent to look for the idols he is ac­cused of tak­ing.

It seems that, while the houses around them – in Sodom, in Shechem, in Haran – serve to sep­a­rate, to keep out, cre­at­ing a bound­ary be­tween self and other, the He­brew tents beckon, in­vite, mak­ing room for the other within the space of the self.

AND SUKKOT? How do they fit into this scheme? The first bib­li­cal sukkah is con­structed, again not co­in­ci­den­tally, by the very first He­brew to build him­self a house. Upon his re­turn to Canaan, Jacob “built a house for him­self, and made sukkot for his live­stock; there­fore, the place was named Sukkot” (Ge­n­e­sis 33:17).

Af­ter this ini­tial men­tion, how­ever, our search for bib­li­cal booths runs into some dif­fi­culty. Other than the place name Sukkot, which re­curs sev­eral times in the Bible – there were prob­a­bly a num­ber of places bear­ing that name – the word “sukkah” is scarcely used again (the few times it is men­tioned it des­ig­nates a shep­herd’s or crop guard’s hut). What we do find, though, is a re­peated and evoca­tive use of the word’s root: S-KH-KH.

When Moses is charged with mak­ing the Ark of the Covenant, he is in­structed to “shield (sakhota) the Ark with the cur­tain” (Ex­o­dus 40:3), while the Cheru­bim are to “pro­tect (sokhekhim) the [Ark’s] cover with their wings” (Ex­o­dus 37:9). God prom­ises, be­fore re­veal­ing Him­self to Moses, “When My glory passes by, I will... cover (sakhoti) you with My hand” (Ex­o­dus 33:22), and later, in Isa­iah, to pro­tect Jerusalem with “a booth (sukkah) for shade from heat by day, and a refuge and shel­ter from storm” (Isa­iah 4:6). And in the psalm we’ve been recit­ing every day for the past month, we ask God to “hide [us] in His shel­ter (sukko) in times of trou­ble” (Psalms 27:5).

A sukkah, then, is a safe space, a place of refuge and shel­ter pro­vided by an­other: Jacob builds booths for his cat­tle, the Cheru­bim pro­tect the Ark, God erects a sukkah to shield Jerusalem (even Jonah, who builds his own sukkah, has to have God grow a gourd over it for shade). Thus, if the house is a space from which we shut out the other, and the tent is a space into which we in­vite the other, the sukkah is a space we cre­ate for the other. It is a place in which the other can dwell, not as a guest, an ob­ject of hospi­tal­ity, but as a mas­ter of his own home.

Herein lies the great re­demp­tion of the fes­ti­val of Sukkot. The sukkot in which God placed the Is­raelites af­forded them a pri­vacy and a dig­nity they had never known in Egypt (where slaves were of­ten housed to­gether in barn-like struc­tures). In her fa­mous trea­tise by the same name, Vir­ginia Woolf dis­cusses the im­por­tance of “a room of one’s own” for the de­vel­op­ment of the au­ton­o­mous self. “Dig­nity,” she says, is “the off­spring of... pri­vacy and space.” It was in their sukkot, whether you be­lieve them to be clouds or ac­tual booths, that the peo­ple were able to live, for the first time, with a sense of honor and sovereignt­y that is the lot of free-borns. In this re­spect, the ananei hakavod Rabbi Eliezer speaks of would be more ac­cu­rately trans­lated, not as the clouds of the glory of God, but as the clouds of the dig­nity of man.

And that, if you will, is the real mir­a­cle of Sukkot; a mir­a­cle which might not be ter­ri­bly mirac­u­lous, but is prob­a­bly the most re­demp­tive of all. We may have been taken out of slav­ery on Passover, but it was on Sukkot – and in sukkot – that we had slav­ery taken out of us. ■

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

CON­STRUCT­ING A sukkah in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neigh­bor­hood.

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