Succot is the time for Simchah, zeman simchatenu, the season of our joy. To the rabbis of the Talmud, Succot is the festival par excellence. The Mishnah describes how in Temple times the streets of Jerusalem were lit by torches all night and the whole city was one great carnival, culminating with the ceremony of water drawing in the sacred courtyards.
There is no reason why this joy should not be replicated in our communities. It starts with the building of the Succah itself. Some years ago Rabbi Marc Soloway gave a wonderful, humorous sermon about how at this time of year even the most impractical of Jews has to turn their hand to D.I.Y. and Home Base and B & Q see customers who rarely darken their doors on other occasions. But building a Succah can be simple (please see the short guide attached), especially when one bears in mind that one can use pre-existing walls and all that has to be new is the Sechach, the branches or matting of which the roof must be made. However, for those who like their life complicated, the Shulchan Aruch notes that you can build your Succah as a pentagon, or even an octagon, so long as it encloses the area of a square not less than seven handbreadths by seven handbreadths. You can also make your Succah in the round, with the same proviso; the Mishnah Berurah, which doesn’t refer to Pi, warns the ambitious builder that to satisfy the demands of the law such a Succah must have a circumference of not less twenty-nine handbreadths and two fifths.
There are other leniencies also. If you are short of material for the walls (of which you only legally require two and a bit, or three to be sure of compliance, you can tie up your cow and use it as a partition, or even better your elephant, because if it suddenly chooses to lie down it will even then not lack the minimum height of ten handbreadths. If land is lacking and you don’t know where to locate your Succah, you are also allowed to construct it between the two humps of your dromedary. (I’m still eagerly awaiting my first invitation to such a structure.)
But the real joy of the Succah is its beauty, which is of several kinds. It is a tradition as old as the beginning of the period of the Mishnah (before the year zero) to decorate it with fruits and garlands from the year’s harvest in gratitude to God. To the gardeners in our family this is a great motivator; our vegetable crop may fail almost utterly, but that’s alright so long as there is one, just one, decent specimen to hang in the Succah.
A deeper beauty is the opportunity to share the Succah with guests. To the mystics, the Succah would be graced with the spiritual presence of Abraham, Sarah and our other illustrious ancestors, so long as friends and the poor were also part of the circle. We’ve found that even our less pro-canine acquaintances appreciate the dog on this occasion, so long as he lies on their feet and keeps them warm.
But perhaps the greatest joy of all is the simplest: to be able to look up at the stars and say to God, or to infinity, and to oneself, ‘I’m grateful for this life, this world; thank you for bringing us to this season’.