Visitors to The J earlier this week might have noticed a bit of new construction. The activity was neither disruptive nor noisy, and it took less than an hour to complete. The end product of this brief effort was a sukkah.
Located near the entrance by the flags, the simple structure represents the huts that sheltered the Israelites for 40 years after they escaped slavery in Egypt. Built by Jews in all corners of the globe, today’s sukkah are central to Sukkot, the week-long Jewish holiday that begins Monday.
It’s important that a sukkah not be built to last. “What makes it temporary is, most importantly, the roof,” explains Rabbi Yossi Friedman. “The Hebrew word for that is schach — one of my favorite Hebrew words because nobody can say it. It specifically refers to the covering of the sukkah, which is made out of twigs, branches, wood, large leaves — basically any vegetation that is no longer growing.” After building a temporary sukkot at home, Jews are expected to dwell in or otherwise use the structures in daily living.
“Everybody who observes the sukkah will eat all or at least most of their meals in the sukkah. That’s the main celebration,” explains Rabbi Friedman. While some go so far as to live and even sleep in the sukkah, Rabbi Friedman is among those who take a more measured approach. “This is Judaism, after all, where we have many different traditions,” he chuckles.“ So in our family, if you’re going to sit on the couch and read a book, go to the sukkah and read. If you’re going to sit down and chat with people, go to the sukkah and chat. In other words, you move your life from your home into the sukkah.”
There might be an advantage to celebrating Sukkot in Alabama over less temperate climes.
Shelter for everyone
“Of 613 commandments, there’s only one that theoretically can be done by every Jew in the world with the same physical item,” states the rabbi, who then explains that while one matza could never feed everyone, for example, one sukkah could in theory shelter everyone.
“The sukkah is supposed to be a gathering place; a uniting place. That’s the theme of the sukkah and in fact of the holiday: the unity of the community, of bringing more people into your sukkah than just your family,” he says.
“Its central theme is that everybody is an important part of who we are.
“We started Yom Kippur prayers this week by saying we are praying with everybody — the righteous as well as sinners. And then we launch right into Sukkot, where we not only say it, but we do it. That’s the message of Sukkot: You have a community when everybody is connected and involved. Having a Jewish Community Center is an exemplary part of that.”