“you start building the sukka the day after yom kippur,” my husband said. we used to live in a house those days and there was a perfect spot by the koi pond, with wooden beams creating a sort of roof above and brickwork on the floor, for the sukka.
sukkot, which is the plural of sukka, is a joyous festival of thanksgiving and more celebrated by jews across the world. sukka means a simple hut. after the exodus from egypt and the giving of the torah, “am israel”, the jewish people, dwelt in the desert for forty years. they possibly lived in makeshift huts made of whatever was at hand during this time. the years were difficult naturally, the terrain was harsh, the climate unforgiving, and yet they survived and were blessed with food and shelter. the almighty protected them right through. over the years as i’ve lived with my husband who is jewish, i’ve found jews celebrate this entire journey with beautiful festivals.
in the month of march/april, there’s passover… commemorating the beginning of exodus and deliverance by g-d. forty nine days after the seven days of passover end, comes shavuoth. it celebrates the giving of the torah on mount sinai.
a few months roll by and you’re somewhere in september/october, when the hebrew month of tishrei begins. the first two days of tishrei is the jewish new year, rosh hashana. a powerful time of introspection and atonement sets in, culminating in the sombre and deeply moving yom kippur. i am always struck by the custom of people asking each other for forgiveness.
then, five days after that, from the fifteenth of tishrei to the twenty first, for one week, it’s time to say thanks, it’s sukkot. or the feast of tabernacles; or the feast of ingathering as it’s also called. remembering and recreating a defining period in jewish history, quickly assembled huts are put up. they have a minimum of two and a half sides up to four, a door, and a roof of dry leaves and branches that’s open to the elements in places… a thatched impermanent dwelling, much like the ones the jews who were returning to the land where abraham had made his covenant with g-d must have lived in for many long years. for these seven days of sukkot, every meal is eaten in the sukka.
this is also the time of harvest. so fruits and vegetables are hung from the roof as decoration, there are fairy lights, and of course the star of david on the doorway, usually. everyone gets involved in doing up the sukka. the synagogues have large sukkas where the community gathers to eat… it’s a custom here to go to the synagogue sukka for a few meals; people who have sukkas at home, often call you over as well.
for several years, we used to have a sukka in our house. first, by the koi pond; later, when we moved, under the circle of palm trees in the garden. neither house belonged to us, yet it was as if someone had set aside a nice place to make the sukka.
in singapore, we are lucky to be able to easily find palm fronds. the gardeners were wizards at getting them and then weaving the fronds to form the walls of the tabernacle. they’d help us put up the basic structure, then my daughter and our two wondrous maids would get busy decking up the sukka. ibi tied fruits and vegetables small and humongous to the roof. the large ones would swing dangerously… a watermelon almost fell on my head one year as my brother in law recalls (after a squirrel ate half of it, my husband adds.). remy got all the fairy lights from some market where they are not that expensive. they were multi-coloured and they glimmered prettily in the night.
during sukkot, jews pray with what is called the “lulav”. “lulav” is a closed frond of the date palm. it’s one of the four species of plants used during sukkot prayers. the others are, “hadass” or myrtle, “aravah” or willow, and “etrog” or citron. a palm frond, a willow branch, and a myrtle branch are bound together, and are referred to simply as lulav. you hold the lulav and an etrog in your hands and point them in all six directions, east/west/north/south/upward/downward, as you pray.
The four species represent more than just the new harvest of fruits, they symbolise different kinds of jewish people. lulav has taste (of dates) but no fragrance, hadass has fragrance but no taste, aravah has neither a special taste nor smell, and etrog has both taste and smell. just like some jews have torah learning but no mitzvot (good deeds), some jews have mitzvot but not much torah knowledge, some jews have neither mitzvot nor torah learning, and some have both torah learning and mitzvot. i love the symbolism, no matter what sort of jew you are, you are part of the nation, important, there’s a need for you, and you are together really one.
of course, this is a very simple view of things, there have been thousands of years of debate and discussion on every aspect of judaism and sukkot has much deeper and more intricate meanings and learnings and philosophical interpretations. but even at its most basic, the sukka and the lulav have a sense of beauty and joy. and wisdom.
the festival is beginning right now as i write and will end on 23 october. after that will come simchat torah, another much celebrated moment as the cycle of the reading of the torah is completed. the following week, the cycle will commence once more with the reading of genesis.
since we now live in an apartment, we haven’t had a sukka for the last three years. maybe some day, again. i hope the gaudy blue and red fairy lights are kept somewhere safe.
whatever your religion or faith, i wish you chag sameach. we’ve all been in the wilderness in our own way and been brought home safely. here’s to the sukka, a priceless shelter.
all pictures taken by ferolyn fernandez better known as ibi, who was very pleased with her handiwork. all lights were sourced and hung up by remedios agcaoili/remy; she fixed the wires, plugs, everything. the gardeners had the structure up in time. my daughter estair helped with the decorations of course and that year too she won the sukka making contest in the synagague.
lulav and etrog visual credit uploader.