The BasicsMeals on Sukkot are traditionally eaten in the sukkah, if possible. But even though that's the most distinctive ritual element that happens at home, it hardly seems "basic". So let's start with some lower-hanging fruit (pardon the pun) in the category of traditional holiday observance.
הדלקת נרות - Hadlakat Neirot - Lighting Candles
The first two nights of Sukkot are considered yom-tov, a full holiday, and we light candles and eat special meals. Whether you have a sukkah or not, I'd recommend lighting candles in the house. Outside, the wind tends to blow them out. As on other holidays, candle-lighting time is 18 minutes before sunset, but you can start the holiday early if you're ready, and light before dinner. The blessing should look familiar if you've read the last couple of posts.
On the first night, many people continue with Shehecheyau:
קִידוּש - Kiddush - Blessing the Wine
Like most Jewish celebrations the Sukkot table ritual includes wine with the traditional blessing:
At lunch time, the longer version of Kiddush goes like this:
If you're lucky enough to be eating your festive meal in a sukkah, you'll probably want to add on the blessing for dwelling in the sukkah at the end of kiddush. It goes like this:
As always, you can find my family's tradition for singing it (our own folk variant of the tune composed by Meyer Machtenberg) on this page here listed as "Shehecheyanu - fancy".
הַמוֹצִיא - Hamotzi - Blessing the Challah
We often think of the High Holy Days as just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but even though we say the books are sealed on Yom Kippur, there is a tradition that says there's still a chance to finish the process of teshuvah until the end of Sukkot. All through Sukkot, we pray for plentiful rains in the coming year and so, the fate of our prosperity isn't really considered decided until this holiday is over. Therefore, many High Holy Day customs linger on. Many people continue to bake or buy and serve round challah on Sukkot, and, my favorite, to dip it in honey, rather than the salt we use the rest of the year. As always, the blessing over the challah is:
And now, we eat. Your meal can, of course, be whatever you want it to be. This year, in keeping with the themes of simple pleasures and the end of the summer harvest season, and because I'm not too keen on cooking elaborate meals at nine months pregnant, I'm feeling like barbecue is the way to go for Sukkot meals. Hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecued chicken, simply cooked vegetables, fresh local corn, all seem like simple, easy, and definitely joyful ways to celebrate the season. Other years, when I've felt more ambitions, or more excited about cooking, I've taken real joy in cooking up more complicated fare, often using some of the vegetables accumulated from particularly productive seasons at our beloved CSA, Silverwood Organic Farm in Sherborn. Another one of last year's favorites was this recipe for apricot meatballs shared by the awesome folks at Grow and Behold.
Dwelling in the SukkahI grew up building a sukkah every year. It was one of those things I looked forward to doing as a family. I'd watch my dad figure out how it was put together the previous year, which parts were broken and needed to be replaced and how to get it put together that year with the least possible number of trips to the hardware store. I'd help my dad as much as he let me, then decorate with my mom. For me, the year I spent in New York City, where there wasn't room for a personal sukkah, felt kind of strange. But if you've never built a sukkah before, it can seem like a pretty big daunting task. Even if you have built one before, it can seem overwhelming. So let's spend a few minutes thinking about the different ways that you could participate in the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah, from building from scratch, to scoring an invitation, to starting with something more creative and less labor intensive.
Building a Sukkah
It may be a bit late in the game to start thinking about building a sukkah, but there's still time if you're ready to put in the effort. There are lots of ways to build a kosher sukkah. The basic requirements are that it is a non-permanent structure, has at least two-and-a-half walls, (made of any kind of material that is sturdy enough not to be blown off in the wind - actually one of the walls can be the wall of your house if that works best for you), is big enough for at least one person to sit in, and has a roof made of natural plant material that covers most of the area of the sukkah, but still allows you to see stars through it.
Starting from Scratch
Buying a KitThere are many kinds of kits available for building a sukkah, at a range of price points and ease of use. Locally, the Israel Book Shop in Brookline stocks some sukkah kits. There are lots of places online to buy a pre-fab sukkah too. Just search for "Sukkah kit" and you'll find plenty of options.
One interesting one - The Sukkah Project - offers a low-cost kit with metal connectors and instructions. You buy lumber locally, and finish putting it together yourself. You can buy wall and s'chach materials from them or use something else. They also have somewhat more expensive stainless steel tubular sets that include everything you need.
Short on space or time, check out the pop-up-sukkah, a little bit silly, and could be a tight squeeze, but it looks really easy!
Let's say you're thinking about building a sukkah, but you're not quite ready to put in the time, the money, or the energy it takes this year to go all out. If you want to get a feel for the tradition this year, why not try something creative.
Maybe you have a large camping tent with a mesh roof and a tarp cover. It's not technically a kosher sukkah, but it could be really fun, and in the spirit of the holiday to set up your tent in your back yard or on your deck, leave off the solid roof and eat a meal inside, out in the fresh air, with a view of the sky.
Or maybe this year you want to celebrate the holiday by eating meals outside on your deck as much as possible even without a structure with walls and a roof. If it goes well, and your family has a good time, you can feel better about investing in a more formal sukkah another year.
If you choose to go the creative route, you can use some of the decorating suggestions below to make your make-shift sukkah feel more like it fits the holiday.
Dwelling in Someone Else's Sukkah
If you don't build your own, you could still have the experience of eating in a sukkah. One of the themes of sukkot is הכנסת אורחים, hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. It's a great time to get together with friends and spend time as a community. Find out who among your friends has a sukkah, and see if you can have a meal with them sometime during the holiday. Or, if you don't know anyone who has a sukkah, why not plan with some friends to attend a sukkah event at a local synagogue? Most synagogues will have a few events planned during the week, probably at least one meant to accommodate families with children.
Decorating the Sukkah
Whether you're building your own sukkah, doing something creative with your outdoor space, or planning to spend some time in a friend's or in a communal sukkah, creating Sukkot decorations is something that kids can really get into. I have fond childhood memories of creating paper chains, stringing popcorn and cranberries on a needle and thread, and tying up fruit, both real and imitation, and colorful "Indian corn". These days our decorations include strings of lights in various shapes and colors, pumpkins and gourds. There are no hard and fast rules about decorating the sukkah, so whatever you think of is great. Anything festive, or with a harvest theme is appropriate. Here are few things I've learned over the years about decorating a sukkah that I'm happy to pass on:
- Paper chains, and paper decorations of all kinds, are beautiful until it rains. Many of the same things can be made out of craft foam, and will last through the holiday, and possibly for years to come. Flat paper projects can be protected with saran wrap or ziplock bags if you think the artists will be upset to see them destroyed. Or you could revel in the impermanence of it all and just let nature take its course.
- One tradition we haven't done yet, but I've seen in friends' sukkot and really like is hanging Rosh Hashanah greeting cards as decoration. It looks really festive and helps keep friends and family in mind as you celebrate.
- Real fruit and vegetables feel very real and authentic, and look beautiful, but they can also attract bugs and squirrels. Use them at your own discretion, and at your own risk.
- Just because fruits and vegetables are fake doesn't mean nobody will try to eat them. We've had some pretty gullible squirrels in our neighborhood take good chunks out of styrofoam produce. Also, rubber grapes are, for some reason, often easy to detach from their stems, so if they're hung within reach of toddlers, there is a strong possibility that they'll end up in their mouths.
- Make sure any chains of lights you use are rated for outdoor use. :)