Sukkot as Holistic Religious Experience; Or How I Stopped Being a Sukkah Snob
by Rabbi Steven Wernick
I used to be a sukkah snob.
What this means is that for many
years, the prospect of having a
sukkah was all about the wood. If it
wasn't made of wood, it wasn't any
sukkah I wanted to build, let alone
“They didn't have metal in the wilderness,”
I explained to my wife as I manfully
laid out my power tools in the backyard,
next to a serious pile of lumber. “And what's
with the fabric and the plastic panels popping
up in everyone's backyard? Do you
think the children of Israel schlepped around
laminated canvas with the names of the ushpizin
printed on the fabric? Sukkot is all
about the wood. Nothing ersatz for me.
If the Israelites could build it without
Sukkahs.com, then so can I!”
My wife would listen patiently and then
go into the house, rolling her eyes.
The problem, of course, is that I was never
very good with power tools.
I was basing my belief on childhood memories
of the marvelous sukkah we had in our
backyard. It was a marvel in wood. All who
visited admired it. It was a monument to
the truest essence of the holiday – the ultimate,
I thought, in observance.
But it was built, in fact, not by my abba
the rabbi, but by the maintenance staff at
Most rabbis' children of my generation
have the same memories of proudly hosting
scores of members of the kehilla, accepting
compliments on behalf of the spacious
wooden sukkah their dads (in those days,
only dads) did not construct.
I especially recall our sukkah in Winnipeg,
Canada, surrounded by snow. My father
was the rabbi of Shaaray Tzedek when I was
in middle and high school, so this snow-surrounded
sukkah was the most memorable
of my childhood.
That sukkah had integrity. Gravitas. Good
bones. It was the spiritual heir to the hastily
constructed huts built by the Israelites in
the desert on their journey from slavery
But building a sukkah myself was an
adventure. Or misadventure. I would lug
the lumber to the backyard and line up all
the screws. I would fetch my cache of power
tools. It was the power tools that tripped me
up every time. Though I started with high
hopes and the best of intentions, there was
the inevitable call to my neighbor down the
street who was a pro with things that buzzed
and whirred and sawed and made holes.
Maybe it was because he
was a surgeon.
“I screwed it up,” I
would confess, drenched
in sweat. “Again.”
“I'm coming over,” he
replied, already on his way,
having heard through the
grapevine that I was
attempting yet another
Last time I pulled out
the sukkah wood from our
garage I was astonished but
not entirely disappointed
to discover that it had
My wife proclaimed the word I had
avoided for my entire adult life: prefab.
After so many failed attempts at solo
sukkah construction, there was no argument
left in me. The power tools are now located
somewhere in the garage (or wherever) hidden
underneath old lawn furniture. They are
baiting me, but I resist. The wood is history.
The sukkah we now have takes less than
15 minutes to construct. And I can do it
entirely without the help of my neighbor.
In retrospect, I see my attempt at DIY
sukkah building as stemming from a wish
to maximize on the meaning of the holiday,
drawing on its character as perhaps
the most holistic expression of Jewish belief
Sukkot is my favorite holiday. Its tactile
nature puts me in touch with something
enduring and elemental, linking me to
everything I love about Judaism and life
More than any other Jewish festival,
Sukkot is a full contact holiday, a holiday
rich with observances that culminate with
entering into a designated sacred space.
Sukkot has ritual objects that shake, rattle
and roll. They have delightful smells and
distinctive textures. Sukkot mandates that
we channel our inner interior decorator,
indulging in the quest to beautify our temporary
abodes. Sukkot mandates hospitality,
providing us with a set invitation list,
the ushpizin. In the Ashkenazic tradition
they are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph,
Moses, Aaron, and David.
Sukkot mandates that we admire God's
handiwork in the natural world, requiring
that our sukkot have roofs through which
the stars are visible.
How better to praise God than to stand
underneath the canopy He erected for
humankind, His sukkat shalom?
Above all, Sukkot is about immersion
Judaism. For seven days, we are immersed
in sensory indulgence. If no study has been
done that examines how Sukkot encourages
family bonding, I recommend that one be
There is a Hasidic teaching that the
Yamim Nora'im, the high holidays, require
the participation of the entire human
body: Rosh Hashanah is the head, wherein
the process of teshuva begins. Yom Kippur
is the beating heart, and the fasting that
afflicts it. Sukkot is the hands, which hold
and shake the lulav. Simchat Torah is feet,
which walk in hakafot.
For seven days every autumn, Jews enter
into sacred space that is not detached from
the world but is the world.
Sukkot awakens our understanding of the
very concept of God as HaMakom, the force
that is space, that is the world around us.
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.