Sukkot: Sages and Sukkahs

The real meaning of that temporary hut.

Are we just camping in our driveways, or is the ground actually shifting under our feet?

Table for Five: Sukkot

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

The Sages taught: All seven days of Sukkot, a person renders his sukka his permanent residence and his house his temporary residence. -Sukka 28b, B. Talmud


 Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

As the realtors say, it’s all about location. While the Talmud instructs us to make the sukkah our permanent residence, it follows this injunction with a long discussion of exceptions. One should dwell in the sukkah and make it one’s home, unless it is too hot, too wet, too annoying, or too uncomfortable. Since these exceptions are fairly subjective, the exceptions seem to undermine the underlying rule.

The Talmud explains this conundrum through metaphor: It is as though the king summons his servant to serve drinks and then pours the entire pitcher on the servant’s face. As usual, the king is God, and we are His servant. We are summoned to the sukkah to serve Him. However, we are not expected to suffer inhospitable conditions. They key to this metaphor is location. The sukkah represents God’s house, not ours. God invites us into His private domain. Like royal servants in the King’s chambers, our service to God in the Sukkah affords us unparalleled intimate knowledge of our Creator and King. For seven days we are invited into His inner sanctum. We should absolutely maximize this opportunity for as long as the invitation stands, making His home ours.

Thus, it is little wonder that adverse conditions suspend the requirement to dwell in the Sukkah. Oppressive heat and drenching rains would only hinder closeness. Yet, when conditions are conducive, there is no better place to dwell than in the sukkah of God. No wonder Sukkot is called the time of our rejoicing!


Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University

“Discombobulating.” That is the word that continues to come to my mind to describe what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to our communal health, our economy, our schools, and our religious life, seriously undermining what we used to take for granted about how life is lived. Sukkot, even in normal times, is supposed to do the same thing, albeit in more benign ways, for the laws of Sukkot, as summarized in this verse, require us to get out of our comfortable and secure homes to dwell in the temporary hut that is the sukkah.

The point of inhabiting this flimsy structure is to remind us of the fragility of life, that we need to be thankful for our very lives and for what makes them flourish. Preserving life, though, takes precedence over this commandment, and so the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has issued advice, written by Rabbi Joshua Heller, about how to observe the holiday this year. You can find it by googling “Rabbinical Assembly” and clicking on” Our RA Responds to COVID-19.”

In sum, Rabbi Heller says, “It is always encouraged to have a sukkah for one’s household, and that practice is particularly encouraged this year. One is exempt from using the sukkah if one is ill or distressed, and in fact one is forbidden from being in a sukkah, and does not fulfill the mitzvah by doing so, if conditions in the sukkah are unsafe or being in a sukkah would make it unsafe for others.”

May Sukkot this year and every year be both joyous and safe.


Yehudit Garmaise, Journalist, teacher of Pizza and Parsha for women

After accepting our heartfelt prayers and sacrifices on Yom Kippur in the wilderness, HaShem transformed the smoke from our incense into the Clouds of Glory, from which our mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah derives.

When we sit in our sukkot, we should remember that we are sitting in the Clouds of Glory, made by Hashem for us in the desert to protect us from all harm and discomfort. Our enemies’ arrows stuck into the outer walls of the Clouds of Glory, and they even cleaned and pressed our clothing!

According to Kabbalah, when we are sitting in our sukkahs, we are sitting in spaces so holy, so beyond us, that the spiritual light of the sukkah walls utterly transcends our minds and hearts.

In response to our ongoing chesbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul), prayers, and charitable giving, Hashem generously and majestically showers down His 13 attributes of mercy. These are not, however, easily internalized by us.

To accept Hashem’s mercy, we must first transform ourselves into vessels that can receive Hashem’s blessings. How then do we internalize Hashem’s pure, transcendent light?

Only via mitzvos (commandments). This week, Hashem gives us sukkah, lulav (palm branch bundled with willow and myrtle), and etrog (citron). When we sit in the sukkah, we feel Hashem’s hugs and internalize His holiness and purity. Each time we grasp the lulav, we elicit different spiritual forces of goodness. With each motion we make with our lulav, we bring Hashem’s power and blessing down into our hearts and draw ourselves ever closer to Him.


Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple

For serious sukkah dwellers, the interior of the sukkah has become more elaborate than ever. I have seen sukkot with chandeliers hanging from the roof, decorated tapestries adorning the walls, rugs from one end to the other, lights twinkling throughout. Couches and ottomans, beautiful tables, ornate pieces of art, the interim structure filled with anything and everything that might bring in the comforts of “home.”

And I think it is becoming clear that Sukkot is less about the realization that everything is temporary. Rather, Sukkot is a holiday that infuses a sense of resilience. That in a world in which time is fleeting, we possess the mental tools to make moments feel everlasting. To create structures in which the memories of our people and the customs of our tradition enable us to feel protected, secure, bolstered, and prepared. Doesn’t matter if wind blows down the walls around us, nor if the earth quakes below our feet. Through our historical identity as a wandering people, we have developed the ability to create home wherever we go.

The Chofetz Chaim shares, “The trip is never too hard, if you know you’re going home.” I take his words a step further. The journey has the potential to evade difficulty if you can create home wherever you are.

It is during Sukkot in which we are all architects: understanding how to build a home with walls of love and a foundation of faith.


Rabbi Chanan Gordon, Motivational speaker

The central motif of Sukkot is captured by our Sages in our Mishnah, “all seven days of Sukkot, a person renders his sukkah his permanent residence and his house his temporary residence.”

Sukkot is a metaphor for our relationship with this world. While in a literal sense, the mitzvah of sukkah consists of leaving our permanent residence, on a deeper level it is a mandate to recognize the fleeting nature of our material world.

By forcing us to differentiate between those things that have eternal value versus fleeting moments, Sukkot gives us the tools to master “Spiritual Time Management.” Unlike our homes, which get cluttered with our many things, the sukkah is bare. We are forced to prioritize between what we need and what we want. It is this minimization of materialism that grants us the ability to focus on our deeper values and goals by making a distinction between what is real and what is transitory.

The sukkah functions as a spiritual space within a transient world, where we can divest from physicality and connect to what it is really important and eternal. By so doing, we open ourselves up for a full relationship with Hashem and His mitzvos.

To paraphrase the words of the late Steve Covey, Sukkot helps ensure that we do not get caught up in the thick of thin things, but rather helps us to keep the main thing the main thing!

With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Yehudit Garmaise, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, and Rabbi Chanan Gordon

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