Celebrating Sukkot without a Sukkah

How to creatively approach the fall harvest holiday.

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The central mitzvah of Sukkot is found in Leviticus 23:42, where Jews are commanded to dwell in a sukkah, a temporary hut, for seven days and nights. We do this in order to remember the experiences of our ancestors, both on the journey from Egypt to the land of Israel and in a later era, when farmers brought offerings to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the harvest. 

But many people live in climates, neighborhoods, or buildings that preclude constructing and living in a sukkah. A local synagogue, Hillel, or even kosher restaurant will likely have one that you can use to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. Yet everyone, with or without a personal sukkah, can turn to creative interpretations of "dwelling" and focus on the aspects of Sukkot that are oriented toward other rituals and customs to enrich the holiday experience.

At Home in a Hut 

In the Torah, the children of Israel used sukkot (plural of sukkah) as their temporary homes while traveling through the desert. Instead of constructing your own temporary space--or in addition to it--you can help someone else acquire a permanent home. Habitat for Humanity is an organization that runs building projects in many urban areas. Other service programs in your community may help individuals transition from homeless shelters into homes by collecting house wares and other necessary items. The acknowledgement that there are those in our communities who have no shelter at all can bring a meaningful awareness to your celebration.

A Temporary Dwelling 

pillow fort

Source: libbyrosof

A sukkah is a transitional shelter meant to provide only the basic structure of a building. In fact, Jewish law requires a minimum of two and half walls, and the ceiling, covered in tree branches and leaves, must be open enough so that the stars are visible. One alternative is to build a sukkah-like structure indoors. For children, the act of building forts and tents is the creation of a personal play space. Adults can build a canopy over the dining room table using a tablecloth, or even over the bed--perhaps to look like a huppah--to enjoy the temporary shelter and reminder of transition that it evokes.

Harvest Holiday

In the Bible, Sukkot marked the time of the fruit and grape harvests. It is also harvest time in North America, and the produce of the season is readily available. You can visit a farmer's market or even a farm to buy or help harvest seasonal fruits and vegetables. Go apple picking or just visit the park to collect fallen leaves and twigs to use as decorations. Create centerpieces for the home with fruits and vegetables, and plan meals that incorporate a wide selection of local produce. Look for the variety of produce imported from Israel during this time of year, as well.

The Four Species

The lulav and etrog are made up of four different kinds of plants (citron/etrog, palm/lulav, myrtle/hadas and palm/arava) and are often called the Four species, or arba minim. They function as one unit, and we say one blessing over them together: its purpose is to gather and enjoy the plants of the land. Anyone can shake a lulav at home, in a synagogue, or wherever you find yourself, even out in the natural world. A lulav and etrog can be found online or in a local Judaica store.

sukkot quiz

Ushpizin

All year, welcoming guests is a Jewish value expressed by the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim. Invite guests to your home for a sukkah party or a meal and serve harvest-themed treats. You might also host a picnic in a local park.

At Sukkot we specifically welcome ushpizin, traditionally one of seven exalted men of Israel to take up residence in the sukkah with us: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Be creative and encourage your guests to welcome their own ushpizin-- famous personalities and heroes, ancient or modern, Jewish or not Jewish, who lived exemplary lives and continue to inspire.
The Time of Our Joy         

In Jewish liturgy, Sukkot is referred to as "the time of our joy," z'man simhateinu. Take time off to spend with family or friends, or make lots of phone calls to wish a hag sameah, a happy holiday, to loved ones who are too far to visit.
 
Make your home a joyful place with decorations in the spirit of the holiday: decorate your front door with a harvest theme, hang paper chains from your ceilings, or build a mini-sukkah out of graham crackers, pretzels, and icing to serve as a fun treat. Sukkot in Israel are often decorated with what Americans would refer to as "Christmas lights," so grab a box and string them around your windows and walls to transform your home into a sukkah.
 
The space and financial investment needed to build a sukkah can be very real, but finding ways to celebrate the holiday only takes some creative thinking.

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Sara Shapiro-Plevan

Sara Shapiro-Plevan serves as the Coordinator of Congregational Education for New York City for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.