Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sukkot - Simply Living it Up

Yom Kippur isn't here yet, but still I feel like this Sukkot post should really have come out a while back.  Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתינו, z'man simchateinu, the time of our joy.  It is largely about appreciating the simple blessings in our lives - things like having shelter from the elements, food to eat, water to drink and to help our food grow, and community to share our joy with.  That said, it can take quite a bit of fore-thought and preparation to be ready for a traditional Sukkot.  If you haven't built a sukkah or had your own lulav and etrog set before, you might decide that you'd rather try some of the ideas below next year.  But as always, there will be some ideas that will work for anyone, both traditional and innovative.  So, read on, and find what will work for your family this year.

The Basics

Meals 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.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָה ה' אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל יוֹם טוֹב
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel yom tov 
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of all, who makes us holy with commandments and teaches us to light the holiday lights. 

On the first night, many people continue with Shehecheyau:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֱחִיָּנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, shehecheyanu v'kiyemanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of All, who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.

Traditionally, after lighting candles the first night, no fires can be lit or intentionally put out, as would be the case on Shabbat.  But on yom-tov, unlike Shabbat, one traditionally is allowed to add to or transfer a flame.  So, candle-lighting on the second day, is done by transferring a flame from a long-burning candle lit before the holiday begins to the special holiday candles, then making the blessing.  
If you're going to be outside for your meals around dusk, you could also use your long burning candle to light a citronella candle to keep mosquitos away.   

קִידוּש - Kiddush - Blessing the Wine


Like most Jewish celebrations the Sukkot table ritual includes wine with the traditional blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּּה ה' אֶ-ֹלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְִּרי הַגָּפֶן 
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Borei pri hagafen 
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of all, who creates the fruit of the vine 

This could be just the right amount for your family, or you could do the whole traditional Kiddush. At dinner time it starts with the line above and continues like this:

ּבָּרוּךְ אַתָּּה ה' אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר-בָּנוּ מִכָּל-עָם וְרוֹמְמָנוּ מִכָּל-לָשוֹן, וְקִדְשָׁנוּ בּמִצְוֹתָיו. וַתִּּתֶּּן-לָנוּ ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ בְּאַהֲבָה אֶת-יוֹם חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת הַזֶה, זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם, כִּי בָנוּ בָחַרְתָּ וְאוֹתָנוּ קִדַשְׁתָּ מִכָּל-הָעַמִים וּמועֲדֵי קָדְשֶׁךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשָׂשׂוֹן הִנְחַלְתָּנוּ  בָּרוּךְ אַתָה ה', מְקַדֵשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַזְּמַנִּים.‏‎

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher bachar-banu mikol-am v'romemanu mikol-lashon, v'kidshanu b'mitzvotav. Vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b'ahavah et-yom chag hasukkot hazeh, z'man simchateinu mikra kodesh, zecher litziat mitzrayim, ki vanu vacharta v'otanu kidashta mikol-ha'amim u-mo'adei kodshecha b'simchah uv'sason hinchaltanu. Baruch ata Adonai,  m'kadesh yisrael v'haz'manim.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of all, who chose and distinguished us among all the nations, and makes us holy through God's commandments. Lovingly grant us, Adonai our God, this Sukkot holiday, the time of our rejoicing, for holy gathering and remembering our leaving Egypt. You have chosen us and sanctified us among all the nations, and you gave us your holy holidays with joy and happiness. Blessed are you, Adonai, who makes Israel and the holidays holy.

At lunch time, the longer version of Kiddush goes like this:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶת מוֹעֲדֵי ה' אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Vay'daber Mosheh et mo'adei Adonai el b'nei yisrael
Moses declared the sacred times of God to the people of Israel

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּּה ה' אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְִּרי הַגָּפֶן 
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Borei pri hagafen 
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of all, who creates the fruit of the vine 

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:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לֵישֵׁב בַּסֻּכָּה
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu leysheiv basukah
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of all, who makes us holy with commandments and teaches us to dwell in the sukkah

At the end of kiddush on the first night and day of sukkot, like many other festive occasions, it's traditional to add the Shehecheyanu blessing, used for new things and reaching special occasions.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֱחִיָּנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, shehecheyanu v'kiyemanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of All, who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.

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:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of All, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Festive Meal


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 Sukkah

I 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


Dr, Seuss Style Rules of the SukkahIt 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


If mechanics, design and engineering are your thing, you could totally build one from scratch.  Popular materials for the structure are wood, PVC pipes, or strong metal pipes.  Walls are often made of tarps, or sometimes thin plywood, though in Israel, cloth or burlap is popular.  In our climate, water-proof camping tarps tend to do a better job of protecting from the elements.  If you have tree branches to cut, you can use these for s'chach, the roof.  Some people use corn stalks.  Or you can buy bamboo mats of various sizes specially designed for the sukkah.

Buying a Kit

There 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!

Going Creative 


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.
  4. 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.  
  5. Make sure any chains of lights you use are rated for outdoor use.  :)


Hachnasat Orchim - Welcoming Guests

Another theme of Sukkot is welcoming guests.  If you're lucky enough to have a sukkah, it's a great time to reach out to friends, or to potential new friends in your community, and invite them to share a meal.  It's part of the joy of taking pleasure in the simple things to be able to invite people into your makeshift, open-air hut to share a meal.  I love having guests in the sukkah, and if I really think about it, part of it is because some of the pressure is off.  If the house isn't immaculate, so be it.  We're out enjoying the fresh air.  

It's also traditional to symbolically invite in seven heroes of Jewish History on each night of the holiday.  These honored guests, are called ushpizin, an Aramaic word for guests.  They are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.  They're all invited each night, but each one has a night when he's especially invited.  There is a new tradition of inviting seven heroines of Jewish history as well, Sarah, Miriam Deborah, Avigail, Hannah, Huldah, and Esther.  There are no doubt other creative versions of the ushpizin out there that people have created to reflect what they care about.  
Why not use the tradition of ushpizin as an opportunity to start a discussion?  Try asking: If you could invite anyone, dead or alive, to share a meal in your sukkah, who would it be?  

Lulav and Etrog

Aside from building a sukkah, the other major mitzvah of Sukkot is to gather four kinds of plants and shake them together in every direction.  When we talk about the plants together, they're called a lulav and etrog set.  Actually the lulav refers to a palm branch, just one of three stalks we bind together.  The other two are the myrtle - hadas, and willow - aravah.  The last piece of the puzzle is the etrog - the citron.  While the ritual of waving plants around in a circle can feel odd or awkward when you first start it, it's just this kind of physical, active mitzvah that kids are really good at getting into.  


Waving the lulav and etrog in every direction is a ritual that acknowledges God's presence all around us, expresses our gratefulness for the simple blessings in our lives, and reminds us of our dependence on the rains that help each of these species of plant to grow and become as beautiful as they are.  

You can share with your kids, or have them share with you, if they've learned in class and remember, the midrashim, rabbinic explanations, of the significance of the four plants.  One gloss sees the four species of plants as representing four kinds of people.  The lulav which has a nice taste (dates) but no smell, represents a person who is knowledgeable in Torah.  The myrtle, with a nice smell but no taste, represents a person who does good deeds.  The etrog, which has both a nice smell and a nice taste, is like the person who both knows a lot and does good deeds, and the willow, with neither taste nor smell, is like a person who lacks both knowledge and good deeds (but presumably has some other good qualities).  Taking them all together acknowledges that we need all kinds of people with all kinds of strengths in our communities.  

Another gloss on the text sees each plant as a part of the body.  The lulav as the spine, reminds us to be upstanding.  The etrog, as the heart, the willow, as the lips, and the myrtle as the eye, each remind us to use that part of the body to do mitzvot and make the world a better place.  

It's traditional for each person, or each family, to have their own lulav and etrog set, and to wave it during morning services each day of Sukkot, especially the first day.  They're also part of a lulav and etrog parade, called hoshanot, each morning of Sukkot, which asks God to send enough rain in the coming year.  Shaking the lulav and etrog at synagogue is a beautiful custom, and one that I've come to really enjoy.  But when I was a kid, we weren't always the kind of family that got to synagogue every day of Sukkot.  And shaking the lulav became part of our ritual at home.  We'd shake it in the sukkah at meal times.  Everyone got a turn to say the blessings and shake it.

The ritual for shaking the lulav goes like this.  Hold the lulav in the right hand, with the leaves pointing up.  Hold the etrog next to it in the left hand with the pitom, the weird-looking knob at the top, pointing down and say:

 בָּרוּךְ אַתָה ה' אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ עַל נְטִילַת לוּלָב
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al netilat lulav
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of all, who makes us holy with commandments and teaches to shake the lulav.

The first time you shake the lulav each year, continue with Shehecheyau:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֱחִיָּנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, shehecheyanu v'kiyemanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of All, who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.

Then, turn the etrog so the pitom is facing up and shake (three times in each direction according to popular custom) first forward, then right, then backwards, then left, then up and finally down.  
Here's a link to my lovely and talented husband, Cantor Ken Richmond, singing a cute song to remind you of the order of the directions.

If you do have a lulav and etrog set for yourself that you plan to use at services, it could be a good idea to have something for your kids to use too.  You can find nice plush sets at Judaica stores, like Shuki's.  Or you could get creative, and make a set with your kids - maybe a paper mache etrog, with a lulav made of green construction paper sticking out of a paper towel roll.  Or try a celery-stalk lulav and lemon etrog.  

Really Living in the Sukkah

There's a lot that you can do to celebrate Sukkot, and all sorts of details to get caught up in.  So, I just want to take a moment to turn our attention back to the core of what we're doing with these temporary huts in the back yards of our warm comfy homes.  The mitzvah to live in a sukkah is, on one level, about remembering the tents our ancestors lived in as they traveled through the desert on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.  They were simple, but enough, and a symbol of freedom.  The mitzvah of living in the sukkah is also about joy.  We're supposed to be in there as much as possible, as long as it brings us joy.  This is the completion of the High Holy Day season, and the end of the summer harvest season all rolled into one.  Presumably, we've gathered a good yield of crops, atoned for any mistakes we've made over the past year, and been granted another year of health, growth, and prosperity.  There's a lot to celebrate.  

So, beyond just eating in the sukkah, whatever else we do out there should be a reflection of what we enjoy.  

My husband is a big proponent of sleeping in the sukkah.  I have to admit, sometimes I totally get what he means about being out in the fresh air, enjoying the last of the pretty good weather.  Other times, I'd really prefer my comfortable bed, and tell him he's welcome to sleep out there if he wants, and by all means take the kids, and I'll see him in the morning.  

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting wrapped in a sweater, my winter coat and maybe a blanket or two, out in the sukkah after dinner, it seemed like it must have been late into the night, singing.  My dad would pull out the 1950's era Camp Ramah songbook or whatever books of Israeli songs he could find, and sing, and sing.  I learned a lot of songs that way, but when I think back, what I really took away from it was a sense that there was time to just sit and sing for pleasure, to enjoy life.  It's something I value much more, now that I find myself so often rushing to fit everything in.  
I feel like one of the core mitzvot of Sukkot is really to give yourself permission to sit out in the sukkah doing something with family that's just about enjoying the moment.  So, maybe singing is your thing, and maybe it's not.  Maybe if you had all the time in the world, you'd make up fantastic stories and tell them to your kids.  Do that in your sukkah, or your tent, or out on your deck, or make time to do it wherever you are on Sukkot.  Or maybe it's something else.  My point is, to live in the sukkah could mean making sure you take the time to do something that makes you think "this is the life!"

Sukkot is so full of possibilities, I'm sure there's more to say.  If you've got something I've left out, please comment.  I'd love to hear!
Chag Sameach!
Rav Shira