Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Sukkot Thoughts

It strikes me that there is something in this tradition, from the start, that is uncomfortable with too much stability. Too much of the kind we manufacture and then imagine is real. Every six months we fundamentally disrupt routine, normal life, even diet: for Passover, we turn our kitchens inside out. We do a version of moving: pack up the normal dishes, cutlery, pots, pans, tablecloths, and haul out the things used only on Passover. More bizarrely, we suddenly anathematize that which is not only normal but prescribed all the other weeks of the year: our diet. The rules change on a dime (that precise last moment, calculated to the minute! on which we may eat– bread– and other hamets, normally, the stock of daily life). A week later, back again.

For Sukkot, exactly six months after Passover, also mid-month, at full moon, we depart permanent homes and move into flimsy ones. The walls don’t matter much, according to rabbinic law; the roof does. And it must have — holes. Precisely what we ensure the rest of the time is water tight must let in light and air and water — the elements — or it is not kosher.

Sukkot originally, was a harvest festival, celebration of the biggest and most crucial harvest, that of autumn, after the long growing season and before winter. The stock of food must last until the next harvest. This is why Sukkot is a week-long festival, while Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks — celebrating first fruits, bikkurim), but a day: people cannot be asked to take a week in late spring/ early summer, when the work in the fields is at its height. In autumn, however, the long months of work culminate in the great harvest — if all has gone right: if the rains, the right kind, came in their time; if the winds were right; if there were no locusts or other devastation, including the human kind that consumes crops and destroys agricultural seasons: wars. If all has gone right and there is an ample harvest, it is the greatest of celebrations. Hence, the biblical pronouncement about this and only this holiday: and you shall utterly rejoice: ve’hayyitem akh sameah.

And we do rejoice. It is whimsy and fun to sit in the sukkah and eat and drink, sing — and so disrupt routine. Some sleep in it; the rabbis after all, say that on Sukkot, we make our permanent dwelling temporary, and our temporary dwelling, permanent.

The message: don’t take those heavy walls, the impermeable roof, and imagine that they impart any real security. Look up, look up in the sukkah, and see the roof and the sky and the stars and oh, the full moon, through it. Look up; ultimately that is the only true security. In that inscrutable reality alone is there any trust.

It is remarkable that sukkah as metaphor for utter vulnerability and insecurity, in the conventional sense, became the symbol for comfort and trust. A sukele, a kleine, the Yiddish song goes, a little sukele, humble, roof full of holes: Israel’s reality in galut, in the Diaspora, yes, but really, the Jewish, and the human condition altogether.

Truth, even when painful, is better than deception and reliance on illusion.

And so in the midst of the holiday, on the Sabbath of the intermediate days, we read the puzzling, shocking biblical book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), with its bitterness, its sardonic truth telling, its contradictions, its nihilism, and its wisdom. I first encountered the book in my yeshiva high school when, in an act of unusual pedagogic intelligence, the administration assigned us this book to study — taught by a survivor of Auschwitz. Here we were, or at least, I very much was, full of adolescent certainty that all, including supposed radical innovations in space, for instance, was a crock, life, meaningless; that insight was a burden — and here came this book of several thousand years before saying that there was nothing new under the son, that wisdom brings pain, that there is no material satisfaction that will ever satisfy — and you know what? That’s life: live with it and make something of it. Because that’s all there is.

So, yes, I love this holiday. I loved laughing in shul re-reading those lines. The truth telling, the contradictions, the institutionalization of instability as wake up call.

Soon — in a few days — we settle down to winter. And hope very much the rains come so the cycle can continue. Until the next disruption, six months from now, in the full moon of Nissan.

Mo’adim le’simha. Hag sameah.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book, the first history of agunot and iggun across the map of Jewish history, with a critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals for fundamental change to end this abuse, is entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains to Free Agunot and End Iggun." She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. She opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel and end the site's status as a "national holy site," awarding it instead, to the haredi establishment. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.