What's a sukkah?

For folks at work who expressed interest in the sukkah (a Hebrew word often translated as "booth" or "tabernacle") which my family builds and uses each year, I pulled together this short explanation and a few photos, taken in five different years.

"In sukkot shall you dwell for seven days...."  - Leviticus 23:42

"Dwelling" in a sukkah is considered to mean, at a minimum, eating a meal there. Some consider that it also includes sleeping there. The Jewish holiday for doing so is called Sukkot (that's the plural of sukkah, sometimes pronounced Succos; the first syllable rhymes with look). It happens in the early fall, shortly after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A sukkah is a temporary dwelling, at least large enough to eat in. There are detailed specs about its construction, covering factors such as its size, what it's made of, how many walls it needs, and especially the construction of the roof. The roof must:
   - be under the open sky, and
   - be made all of plant material, and
   - cover over fifty percent of the ceiling space, and
   - have no gaps in it larger than three handsbreadths by three handsbreadths, and
   - let rain through.
Many people make a point of ensuring that they can see some stars through the roof on a clear night.

It's customary to "beautify the commandment" by decorating the sukkah. The whole family gets involved in this; even in pre-school, little children make paper chains and draw pictures to hang on the walls.

This has always been my youngest's favorite holiday. She can't remember a time before she helped cut the plant material for the roof, put together the framework, hang the walls, arrange the furniture and lighting, and put up the decorations. She's always slept in the sukkah every night she could, too, sometimes so bundled up against cold and even snow that only the tip of her nose was showing - and that was before she got into her sleeping bag.

Last year, in graduate school, she was on her own, away from the family, all through Sukkot for the first time. The apartment she was sharing in London had very little open space attached. So she got a little pop-up sukkah kit and put it out in the back garden.

The kit includes a roof which complies with the specs, a sort of matting made of bamboo slats bound with cotton string.

Cute as it is, this sukkah was a far cry from what she had been used to at home.

The sukkah gets used at night as well as during the day, so it needs lighting. You can see the holiday lights wound around the supports for the roof. (People often shop for sukkah decorations in the last week of December.) The "net" against the white canvas wall is a light source as well. We took a little break to warm up a bit while we were installing the "net" that year; it was distinctly chilly!

This picture of the sukkah at night feels rather dark, but it feels quite bright in real life. The photo was taken using available light only, no flash.

From above, a sukkah roofed with pine boughs looks somewhat like loggers' residue. (Beyond the sukkah roof you can see our neighbor's patio.)

But from above you can't tell whether such a roof complies with the specs, no matter how closely you look. Are there any oversize gaps? If it rains, will the roof leak properly?

So making sure the roof is good ends with a careful examination from underneath, in daylight.

The roof getting checked in these pictures is from a different year than the one shown from above. But no matter how many branches you toss up there, it seems that there are always gaps that can be fixed only by tweaking and tugging from below.

Is she taking a break, or checking whether the roof is up to spec?

Both, probably. This roof is sparser than most, but it's in good shape. The thick whitish strand is another light source.

By sunset of the day "before" the holiday begins (the Jewish calendar counts days from evening to evening, rather than from midnight to midnight: "And it was evening and it was morning, the first day" - Genesis 1:5), the sukkah must be ready for use. Not many people use pine boughs for the roof; right at the beginning of the holiday, the gentle rain of pine needles has already begun, as you can see on the tablecloth.

This holiday, like others, calls for a blessing said over candles. We've had enough trouble with wind that, in our sukkah paraphernalia,we now keep a pair of old candle-lanterns which we got from a mountain cabin.

This year (2010), Sukkos is September 23rd through 29th. With all our children out of town, we have a smaller sukkah than usual. After a long dry spell, it rained on the afternoon of the 22nd. We had most of the preparations in place by the night before, but the rain made it impossible to put the finishing touches on the decor until the holiday was actually upon us. (That mattress is a plastic airbed.)

The weather cleared up, though, just before it was time to light the candles at sundown, and remained beautiful, day and night, all through the weekend.

Happy Sukkos!

This page got 94 hits via corporate intranet 13Sep2010-25Mar2011, and also a couple of comments:

AThomas 14Sep2010 14:30

I love the flowers and the lights hanging from the branches on the roof - so pretty!  Thanks for posting this, very interesting!  What is the significance of the Sukkot holiday itself?

KWatkins 15KSep2010 14:05

That's not really a question with a short answer,
but the Wikipedia article isn't bad.