Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach for the forthcoming festival of Succot.
And it’s a mitzvah (best practice) to fix up the succah immediately after Yom Kippur, since when you have the opportunity to perform a mitzvah (commandment) don’t waste it.
Thus the words of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century, and still current, code of Jewish law composed by Joseph Caro. The commentary of the Mishnah Berurah is a little more generous towards those who may feel slightly fatigued by the 25 hour fast:
This refers to those who are exacting in their deeds; everyone else, and they too, should complete the job the following day.
I’ve a bad reputation as a succah-building fan. Over the years I’ve loved how the children have given me a meagre five minutes to down some food after the fast, before pressing me to start on the succah. I miss them, all mostly away from home, this year.
Not everyone has the space or opportunity to make a succah. That’s why we have a communal succah in the synagogue courtyard, for all to enjoy. Also, people who do have a succah are generally delighted to share, so ‘If you can’t build one, join one.’
Here are some of the things which matter about a Succah:
A succah is a succah because of the sechach, the greenery used for the roof. The walls may be constructed out of anything, from brick walls to resident elephants. But the roof must be made of branches, or materials grown from the earth. These must be cut specially for the succah and placed there for the current, forthcoming festival. In England, the best branches are laurel and bay; one can also buy woven willow or reeds made solely for this purpose.
Succot is a harvest festival, chag ha’assif, the celebration of the gathering of the produce from the orchards and fields. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’ for the season’s blessings, with grace and beauty. As a keen gardener, I like to choose what to grow with the succah in mind. If you have succeeded in growing something special, please bring a sample to hang in the synagogue succah!
A succah is essentially a temporary structure. It reminds us that life is beautiful but also fragile, full of wonder, but not to be taken for granted.
A succah is open to the elements. If the rain can’t penetrate the roof, then it isn’t truly a succah. This is an important reminder to those of us accustomed to warm houses that for many shelter is insecure, imperfect and uncertain and that we should not forget those who regularly endure wet and cold, by day and night.
The succah reminds us that we, too, were once refugees, with no other shelter than such frail huts. Europe, and the world, is full of millions of refugees*. For very many of them, a succah would be a great improvement on the cold, the wet, the homelessness and the hopelessness they have to endure all the time.
A succah is a place of hospitality; it’s a place not only of the gathering of the harvest, but of the gathering together of friends, strangers and community. It reminds us that strength lies in solidarity, a solidarity we should be ready to extend to those who have been forced to flee the places where they, like us, once felt at home.
The succah represents trust and peace; the mystics call it tsila dimeheimanuta ‘the canopy of faith’. It expresses our hope for a world in which such frail shelter will be sufficient because everyone can feel trust not only in God but in the goodwill of their neighbours and the neighbouring nations, so that there is no need for fortresses and border barriers because humankind is at peace with itself, with nature and with God.
And, back down to earth, a succah is fun to build!
*Two organizations helping Refugees:
Help Refugees is a grassroots humanitarian organisation providing emergency relief in more refugee camps in Europe than any other organisation.
Refugees at Home is a small UK based group aiming to connect those with a spare room in their home with asylum seekers and refugees in need of accommodation.