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This first of this week’s two parshiot for the festival of Sukkot (Leviticus 22:26-23:44) contains instructions about how to observe the festival. A date is given for the first of the seven days: the fifteenth day of the seventh month.
The Leviticus festival calendar starts with Shabbat, and the work prohibition is repeated for the festivals that follow. For Sukkot, no work can be done on the first day or the eighth day, not technically part of the festival, but a ‘solemn gathering’ (Leviticus 23:36).
The instructions continue with a description of the branches and fruit — interpreted in post-biblical times as the lulav (palm branch plus myrtle and willow) and etrog (citrus fruit) we use today. And they conclude with the command that ‘all citizens of Israel’ must live in sukkot, booths, for the seven days of Sukkot. This, God explains, is ‘so that future generations may know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 23:43).
The second set of instructions about how to celebrate Sukkot is in Deuteronomy 16:13-15. No specific date is mentioned, and neither are the branches and fruit or the commandment to live in sukkot. There’s no reference to the prohibition against work or the exodus from Egypt, and there’s no eighth day.
The two sets of instructions differ too regarding celebrants. Leviticus refers to ‘all citizens’, but Deuteronomy insists that the primary celebrant, that is, the senior male in each household, must be joined by the entire community: ‘your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger [resident alien], the fatherless, and the widows in your communities’ (Deuteronomy 16:14).
In many interesting ways, the festival of Sukkot, as it is described biblically and as it is celebrated today, transforms space. The transformations I’ll mention apply mainly in communities where a significant portion of the population is celebrating, as in Jerusalem, where I live.
The prohibition against work, which came to include many related activities, dramatically transforms a physical space while the prohibition is in force. Streets are quiet and shops, restaurants, and many leisure activities are shuttered. There are few cars on the roads, and public transport is non-existent or limited. All this reinforces the festiveness for people celebrating Sukkot (and Shabbat and other festivals that include work prohibitions). But for secular Jews and members of other religions who are not celebrating, the silent streets, and all they entail, may feel oppressive. Some might appreciate a quiet day, but others might feel as if an intruder had entered their apartments, turned off their TVs, hidden their phones, and cordoned off their kitchens.
The leafy branches that were later interpreted as the lulav are most often used inside homes and synagogues. But they don’t stay inside. Their owners carry them from home to shul in special holders (think long, thin yoga mats), and in some communities they are waved in processions on the street, particularly on Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot. For their users, they are beautiful. I especially love the Sephardi lulavim bound up with colored ribbons. But others might see something flag-like about the lulav, an identity marker that distinguishes people entitled to wave it (Jews and, in many communities, only Jewish men) from those who are not entitled. The sight of men, and a few women, on the street carrying lulavim signals that it’s Sukkot, but it’s not Sukkot for everyone.
Living or even just eating in a sukkah reorients the household’s spatial focus. The kitchen is still important – you can’t easily cook in a sukkah – but the dining table is not.
A sukkah can blur the boundaries between private and public space. It’s not always possible to build one on property you own. In Jerusalem, some people have suitable balconies, or even private gardens. Others build their sukkah in a shared garden or on a roof. Failing that, they opt for parking lots and even the sidewalk. Naturally, this generates discussions about who gets to build where.
Jerusalem restaurants that want to attract customers during Sukkot need a sukkah, which often consumes much of the adjoining sidewalk. (Think of the outdoor restaurant seating areas that popped up in Covid times.) I don’t mind walking around the sukkot — or the lulav and etrog sellers — on the street near us, but Jerusalem residents who are not celebrating Sukkot may be less happy. Does it feel to them as though one sector of the population has commandeered public space that should benefit everyone?
A sukkah in a public space may make some people feel excluded. Leviticus emphasizes that ‘citizens of Israel’ must dwell in sukkot, but in Deuteronomy, everyone gets to celebrate. Post-biblical traditions build on this inclusiveness, as well as the prophetic universalism associated with Sukkot (all the nations will flow to Jerusalem), with an emphasis on inviting guests, real and symbolic, into the sukkah. But intentionally or not, a closed structure in a public space sends the message that there are insiders and outsiders. In some communities, the outsiders may include women. Since the commandment to live in your sukkah is not incumbent on women, some choose, or are encouraged, or feel pressed not to enter.
Sound contributes significantly to the transformation of space. When the muezzin, Islamic call to prayer, reverberates in Jerusalem, it emphasizes the Islamic character of the city. When church bells ring, Jerusalem feels more Christian. When the call of the shofar echoes in the streets on Rosh HaShana, it feels overwhelmingly Jewish. In Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem during Sukkot, the evening air is filled with snatches of singing, laughter, children quarreling and so forth, emanating from sukkot. There are no bricks and mortar to filter the sound. For passersby who are not celebrating Sukkot, the sound of private conversations conducted by people they can’t see, in languages they may not understand or with which they can’t identify, could be alienating. A neutral or shared space takes on a single identity.
The sukkah, with its flimsy walls and sense of impermanence, can transform a space we think we control, namely a secure, built environment, into a space we know we don’t control, namely the natural world with its destructive elements and forces. Connected to this, Sukkot can transform an urban center with desirable and undesirable neighborhoods into a space where wealth-based distinctions in housing are very slightly less significant. For seven days of the year, rich and poor alike live for at least part of the time in small, temporary shelters.
This year, a battle is raging in Israel about religion in public space. It reached a high- or low-point in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, when a religiously and politically rightwing community tried to conduct prayers in the secular heart of Tel Aviv. Protesters came and shut down the services.
It’s important to note that Dizengoff Square is not the spiritual home of this religious community. Indeed, they came there precisely because it’s not their home, perhaps to draw secular Jews towards religious Judaism, or, as many fear, to stake a territorial claim in secular Tel Aviv.
In previous years, these Yom Kippur services reportedly left participants, including those who chanced upon them, feeling inspired. But the year of judicial reform was different. The Tel Aviv Municipality (in Israel, these decisions are made locally – not, as some believe, by the Supreme Court) reminded the organizers that sensitivities around religious coercion, especially regarding gender, are running high. In particular, they prohibited them from erecting a mehitza, the barrier to separate men and women that’s a feature of Orthodox synagogues. They went ahead anyway, with — a gesture to the pro-democracy protests? — a mehitza made of Israeli flags.
The protesters who shut down the services garnered sympathy from many Israelis, but also drew anger from people on both sides of the religion in public space debate. From my perspective, this religious community should not have come to Dizengoff Square for Yom Kippur this year, and they were wrong to put up a mehitza. They must bear the brunt of the responsibility for what happened. At the same time, I wish that the demonstrators – who have now been widely and somewhat unfairly identified as generic pro-democracy protesters, including by a gleeful Prime Minister Netanyahu — had handled it differently.
Creeping religious coercion – it’s especially visible around the Kotel – is destructive and divisive and must be checked. Many Israelis say Israel will never be Iran, but I prefer not to find out. In our current heated environment, it’s hard to imagine constructive conversations between Jews who want to make Israel’s public spaces more Jewish and Jews who don’t. But we desperately need these conversations, and they must be as complex and nuanced as the subject demands. Yet another burning issue for protest organizers to add to their long list.