Opinion | During Sukkot in Israel, There Are Three Sides to Every Interpretation

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It can take a while to learn the intricacies of sukkah life in Israel.

By Teddy Weinberger

In America, Sukkot is a meteorologically challenged holiday, and our family has experienced the whole panoply of challenges confronting anyone looking to engage in a range of household activities in a sukkah. From my wife’s native Omaha, with its bitter cold October nights, to my native New York’s torrential rains, to the oppressively hot Miami where we lived for six years before making aliyah in 1997, Sukkot, though characterized by meals outside, was often no picnic. In Israel, on the other hand, Sukkot meals very much do resemble pleasant picnics, as the weather is usually quite temperate.


Of course, life is never simple and there just has to be a fly in the ointment — or a bee in the honey, since we’re speaking about Sukkot. If you are tempted to conclude that the mitzvah of the sukkah is easy to observe in Israel, you need to know one thing: There are plenty of people who will tell you that the mitzvah is to live as much as possible in the sukkah for seven days — not just to take one’s meals in the sukkah, but to study, play and sleep in the sukkah as well. The sukkah, according to these people (aka “killjoys”) is not just a temporary dining room, but a temporary dwelling.

Truth be told, they have Jewish tradition on their side. While the relevant biblical verse literally reads, “You shall sit in booths seven days” (Lev. 23.42); the Talmud reads “sit” as “dwell” (see Tractate Sukkah 28b). If you don’t sleep in the sukkah in Israel, you are sometimes made to feel as if you have hardly observed the mitzvah. Precisely the pleasantness of the Sukkot meals undermines one’s religious commitment. You really want to show your love for the tradition on the holiday? Sleep in your sukkah.

At this point, you might be asking yourself: If sleeping in the sukkah is so praiseworthy, how come it is not emphasized in the Diaspora? Two answers here:

1) We are not expected to be miserable in the sukkah, and sleeping outside in inclement weather would have us risk that; and

2) We are afraid that those who hate Jews will come and do bad things to us.

What happens in practice? If you’re expecting me at this point to say that only haredim sleep in their sukkahs on the holiday, you would be wrong. While the haredim often go to great lengths to give their sukkah a feeling of a “dwelling,” dragging out their regular (heavy) dining-room tables and bureaus into their sukkot, plenty of the national-religious (the modern-Orthodox equivalent in Israel) can be found on mattresses and sleeping bags in their sukkot. These will usually be men since women are technically released from the mitzvah of sukkah (a time-bound commandment). And while women have obligated themselves to eating in the sukkah, because of reasons of modesty (and the fact that fewer of them are crazy) they are not expected to sleep outside.

On a few occasions, I have joined my sons Ezra and Elie and slept in our sukkah. In truth, it can be a fun experience, lying there in the pleasant weather in the decorated sukkah (especially with the comforting feeling of that tiny sleeping pill at the ready in the palm of my hand). Perhaps I’m not fulfilling the commandment correctly, and perhaps I’m missing out on getting the full rich experience of the mitzvah by not sleeping in my sukkah all seven nights? Perhaps. Happy Sukkot!

Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. He writes a column on life in Israel for American Jewish newspapers. He and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, live in Givat Ze’ev, a suburb of Jerusalem just over the Green Line. They have five children.

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