RABBI JAMES MICHAELS (Hebrew Home of Greater Washington): The Book of Leviticus tells us that we should remember that God allowed us to live in temporary shelters, the sukkah, when we lived in the desert for forty years. We lived in booths knowing that we were going to move from place to place. Not necessarily every day but certainly from one year to the next, we lived in different areas.
The sukkah that we build every year is to remind us of that experience. The basic requirement is that the roof must be artificial and have more shade than light but must be open to the elements. The walls can be made out of anything. As you can see in the background, mine are made of canvas, and these are very popular.
There’s all sorts of of decorations. Some plastic fruit. Some people will put up real fruit, vegetables up there. People will put even Christmas lights in it. When my wife was growing up, she would take all the holiday cards that they received for the new year and they would cut out the pictures and hang them up on their sukkah.
I’ve heard of people sleeping in the sukkah. It’s not really required but there are some people who do it. The important thing is the eating and the sharing of meals because that is the basic activity that we do in our home.
One of the things that we do on Sukkot is take what we call the Four Species, the arba minim, which is a palm branch, sprigs of willow, sprigs of myrtle, and a citron which looks like a large lemon. (”Praised are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe…”) We hold all four of those and we wave them and we smell them and we hear them. So that experience is something that really gives us a very nice feeling of being alive, of being in touch with our senses.
Five days ago, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we denied ourselves any sensory experiences. Everything was thinking, sitting and praying. Sukkot is just the opposite. It’s an indulging of the senses. Every one of our senses is indulged when we sit in the sukkah and enjoy the atmosphere, the food, hear the sounds of the city, hear the sounds of the countryside if we’re living out in the rural area.
People think that religion is only one aspect of life. No. It involves everything. There’s just as much for physical and sensory experience as there is for contemplation and meditation.