Photo Credit: Courtesy
The Greenwald sukkah in Jerusalem.

With the “tiny house” movement continuing to make big waves on the property scene, I suppose having a very tiny sukkah puts my family right on trend. Our sukkah is about two by three meters/nine by six feet, and the “kosher” part – the section that sits under the cutout in the roof over our Jerusalem balcony – is even smaller. (Note to Israel apartment hunters: The words “sukkah balcony” in an advertisement do not necessarily mean an entirely open-to-the-sky outside space, or even a majority uncovered. Caveat emptor.)

I like to think of our sukkah as cozy and, having grown up and lived until making aliyah in a New York City apartment block where we shared a communal sukkah in the park downstairs with our neighbors, having a private one of our own, however small, feels like a luxury.


(To be fair, communal sukkahs do have their own charms. While shlepping boxes full of hot food and provisions down several flights of stairs is, er, no picnic, the gathering of a diverse community of Jews under one makeshift roof in the performance of a mitzvah acts as an instant unifier. Meals in our Lower East Side sukkahs often featured joint z’mirot and someone going around with a bottle of schnapps to share a l’chaim.)

Because Sukkot is the holiday when we are commanded to take it outside, to erect and enter a dirat araei, a temporary outdoor dwelling, wide variations in expression of this seminal mitzvah are plain to see within and between different communities. Big and small, wood and fabric and fiberglass, ramshackle and staunchly solid, minimalist and popping with bling… Despite these differences, glimpsing other families’ sukkahs, whether on driveways or porches or peeking out from behind their homes, reinforces a sense of common purpose, like menorah-spotting. We’re one people, and this is our story.

And what is that story? The Torah gives two reasons for Sukkot: It’s a thanksgiving festival for the harvest (Devarim 23:13-15) and a remembrance of the booths we dwelled in during our years in the desert (Vayikra 23:42-43). Whether the latter refers to actual huts (Rabbi Akiva) or the clouds of glory that surrounded us (Rabbi Eliezer) is a subject of debate. Yet these two rationales are not altogether disparate. They share a common theme of humility – that elusory trait which, unlike all others, can’t be acquired through focus or intent. Instead, actions that reframe our mindset and inculcate indebtedness to G-d are the path to humility.

Enter sukkah.

Just as we’ve gathered the year’s agricultural bounty into our stores, just as the weather is beginning to turn, just after we’ve undergone a period of introspection and spiritual cleansing, we leave the comforts of our homes, our worldly possessions and newly acquired “stock” ensconced safely inside, and place ourselves in makeshift structures exposed to the elements. This is not Seder night when strange rituals are designed specifically to evoke questions. Stepping into the sukkah is a paradigm shift: G-d decided it’s exactly what we need to remind ourselves that our fate rests, as it did for our ancestors, entirely upon Divine Providence, that both our material welfare (celebrating the harvest) and physical safety (remembering our survival in the Midbar) – while influenced by our own efforts – are controlled ultimately by Hashem.

Rashbam, in his commentary on the verses in Vayikra referenced above, ties these two reasons for the sukkah together: “Therefore, the people leave houses filled with good at the harvest season and they dwell in sukkot as a reminder that they had no property in the desert or homes to inhabit. This is why G-d designated Sukkot at the harvest season, so that a person’s heart should not grow haughty because of houses filled with everything good, lest they say: ‘Our hands made all of this wealth for us.’”

This focus on vulnerability and reliance on the Almighty does not translate to everyone being required to squeeze into small sukkahs in the name of humility. Being in the sukkah is not meant to cause hardship, as the law exempting a mitzta’er (a person experiencing distress) makes clear. This is the holiday of joy – the only one where the Torah explicitly commands us to rejoice. Larger families obviously need more space; larger sukkahs also allow people to host guests or provide a venue for a shiur or party or Simchat Beit HaShoeva. Those who can and do open their sukkah doors to others serve an important communal function and deserve praise.

Yet the structure that gives the holiday its name should reflect a degree of modesty and not try to mimic our permanent homes. We decorate the sukkah to beautify the mitzvah and enhance the festive mood (though the Brisker Rav reportedly did not have decorations in his sukkah, viewing them as a distraction from halachic concerns). But full-size upholstered dining chairs? Home-worthy light fixtures? Coffee stations? Carpet? Framed paintings? Portable sinks? Heaters and air conditioners? (Seen ‘em all.) Let’s not get carried away and turn what is meant to be a spiritual exercise into a quest for design kudos and pampering.

Pull up a folding chair and join us in a song.

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Ziona Greenwald, a contributing editor to The Jewish Press, is a freelance writer and editor and the author of two children's books, “Kalman's Big Questions” and “Tzippi Inside/Out.” She lives with her family in Jerusalem.