The sukkah , the symbolic ritual home built during the annual Jewish holiday of Sukkot , commemorates the temporary structures that sheltered the Israelites as they journeyed across the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Despite the simple Biblical prescription for its design, the remarkable variety of creative expression in the construction, decoration, and use of the sukkah, in both times of peace and national upheaval, reveals the cultural traditions, political convictions, philosophical ideals, and individual aspirations that the sukkah communicates for its builders and users today.
In this ethnography of contemporary Sukkot observance, Gabrielle Anna Berlinger examines the powerful role of ritual and vernacular architecture in the formation of self and society in three sharply contrasting Jewish communities: Bloomington, Indiana; South Tel Aviv, Israel; and Brooklyn, New York. Through vivid description and in-depth interviews, she demonstrates how constructing and decorating the sukkah and performing the weeklong holiday’s rituals of hospitality provide unique circumstances for creative expression, social interaction, and political struggle. Through an exploration of the intersections between the rituals of Sukkot and contemporary issues, such as the global Occupy movement, Berlinger finds that the sukkah becomes a tangible expression of the need for housing and economic justice, as well as a symbol of the longing for home.
About the Author
Gabrielle Anna Berlinger is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Folklore and the Babette S. and Bernard J. Tanenbaum Fellow in Jewish History and Culture at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Translating Text: Sukkot in Bloomington, Indiana
Each innovation in the construction and interpretation of the sukkah evokes a history of adaptation of Jewish tradition. In 70 AD, the destruction of the central sacred site of the faith, the Second Temple, demanded an adaptation to changing conditions of life, which resulted in the transformation of Temple worship into written religious law. The evolution of performance into text sustained Jews in their scattered settings. The later development of distinctive, individual practice based upon written law helped to ensure the survival of Jewish religion and culture. The creative diversity found in the ritual construction and use of the sukkah today is a vibrant example of how the dynamic process of tradition adjusts to shifting circumstances. As folklorist Simon Bronner explains, tradition "demands attention to form ... [and] fidelity to cultural continuity, while inviting alteration and extension for social needs" (2006, 26). Tradition links the past with the present and future through its inherently flexible nature.
The wide-ranging manifestations of the sukkah in this study illustrate the dynamic expressions of tradition. Though they were built with attention to form and fidelity to cultural continuity, they demonstrate the alteration and extension elicited by the particular socio-economic conditions in which they were constructed. Architectural historian Mitchell Schwarzer sees the adaptation of Jewish religious law to personal expression as "faith humanized." In his view, individual interpretation of official texts is the positive affirmation of Jewish law rather than a challenge to its authority (2001, 484). Through centuries of individually interpreted architectural practice, sukkot are annually reconstructed and Jewish identities redefined.
Sukkot, otherwise known as the Feast of Ingathering, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Festival of Booths, is one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals decreed in the Hebrew Bible (Torah). The last of the three holidays, Sukkot follows on the heels of the Days of Awe — Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) — as a joyous seven-day celebration of the Israelites' survival in the Sinai Desert after the exodus from Egypt. As historical narratives accumulated over time, the holiday also gained an agricultural character through its alignment with the harvest, the Sukkot practice of ritual booth construction recalling the shelters that farmers commonly built in fields during the fall so they could store their fruit harvest overnight and avoid daily travel back and forth from home.
The timing of the two other pilgrimage festivals, Passover and Shavuot, also corresponded with the agricultural calendar in this ancient period. Passover coincided with the barley harvest and Shavuot with the wheat harvest. Sukkot, decreed to begin on the fifteenth day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the year (Leviticus 23:39), was thus one of three annual celebratory pilgrimages to Jerusalem during which individuals would make offerings at the Temple in thanks for the fruits of their harvest. Advancing with Jewish history, however, these holidays acquired additional meanings linked to historical events. Passover, therefore, primarily recalls the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot honors God's giving of the Torah to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, and Sukkot commemorates the Israelites' forty-year journey across the Sinai Desert in search of the Promised Land. Today, the ritual booths built during Sukkot primarily represent the temporary desert dwellings in which the Israelites sought shelter during the period of their displacement in the wilderness (Lipis 2011).
In the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, chapter twenty-three, verses forty-two and forty-three prescribe the observance of Sukkot: "You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (English Standard Version). Given the conciseness of the commandment, scholars, religious and secular leaders, and laypersons throughout post-biblical history have extrapolated further prescriptions from the verse for ritual practice. The most prominent elaborations are documented in Judaism's central texts, the Mishnah and the Gemara, which together comprise the Talmud.
The Mishnah is a codification of the Jewish oral law that Moses is said to have received from God at Mount Sinai together with the written law of the Torah. Around 200 CE, the revered Rav Yehuda HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) compiled the text, based on generations of discussions and study by sages (Goodman 1973, 22). The Mishnah is arranged by subject matter into six sedarim, or "orders," one of which is entitled Moed, or "Festival." This order, which contains the legal requirements of different festival practices, is itself organized into twelve tractates, the sixth of which is called "Succah," which is also further divided into two chapters of its own. The first of these chapters details laws pertaining to the physical construction of the ritual shelter — the dimensions and material composition of the walls, acceptable sources for the sukkah's roof covering (schach), and rules of construction. The second chapter reviews uses of the space contained within the sukkah — a study of the breadth and depth of meaning in the commandment, "to dwell." The voices that codified, and are codified in, the oral laws of the Mishnah dissect the Torah's decree into manifold possibilities for ritual action. This dissection is a process of delicate distinction, determining how to read an historical text in the context of current circumstance. The oral and written laws of Sukkot observance may therefore be understood as expressions of negotiation between individuals' religious, social, and physical worlds.
For centuries, rabbis in Palestine and Babylonia, the two historic centers of Jewish study, debated the technical, legal, and ethical obligations of the Mishnah's text. The Gemara, containing this rabbinic interpretation, was the product of this analysis. Deconstructing and reconstructing the religious prescriptions with even more explicit philosophical inquiry and narrative analysis, the Gemara was produced nearly three hundred years after codification of the Mishnah. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara became known as the Talmud, distinct versions of which were constructed in both Palestine and Babylonia. Although commonly referred to in the singular as "The Talmud," the two versions are distinguished in several ways — the single reference simply denotes that one version is understood to be the common reference. The two versions, known by their places of origin as the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Talmud Bavli, were compiled in different time periods, in different locations, and by separate schools of scholars. The Talmud Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud, later known as the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud of the Land of Israel) was composed between the fourth and fifth centuries CE in what is today northern Israel. It was written in a western Aramaic dialect and remains incomplete and erratically composed. The more frequently referenced version is the Talmud Bavli, composed in Babylonia (current day Iraq) in approximately 500 CE in a different Aramaic dialect, and is more comprehensive in its documentation of generations of rabbinical exegesis. Although not every Mishnaic tractate has a complementary Talmudic interpretation, Tractate Succah fortunately elicits analysis in both the Yerushalmi and the Bavli versions. The two versions reveal narrative and linguistic differences that illuminate differences in the cultural and social contexts in which they were each produced. Perhaps inspired by the multiple voices and interpretive variation that characterize these texts, Jews today create meaning from these texts by framing them within the contexts of contemporary life.
While they are the central texts of the Jewish religion, the Torah and the Talmud do not contain the entirety of early religious interpretation of Sukkot. Galit Hasan-Rokem notes that later books of the Hebrew Bible describe the actual celebrations of the three pilgrimage holidays, specifically referencing Sukkot in 1 Kings 8:2, Ezra 3:4, Nehemiah 8:16–19, Zechariah 14:16–19, 2 Chronicles 8:13, and classic rabbinic literature written from 250 CE to 750 CE that includes the Mishnah and its supplementary work known as the Tosefta (2012, 159). In these secondary texts, Hasan-Rokem recognizes a wide range of "concrete and imaginative variations and contradictions" regarding the technical factors of sukkah construction — the materials, the height, and the specific conditions of eating and sleeping in the sukkah. The "concrete" variations and contradictions may include the maximum possible height of a sukkah or if it may be constructed under a tree (Sukkah 1:1–2). "Imaginative" variations and contradictions concern such questions as whether one may construct a sukkah on the back of a camel or on the deck of a ship (Sukkah 2:3). Constant scrutiny of Jewish texts to redefine or enlarge Jewish performance reveals a continuing search for meaning through material practice. The synchronized development of Jewish textual interpretation and Jewish religious performance throughout history has its roots in these early textual practices.
Understanding the relationships and interactions among Jewish history, Jewish text, and Jewish practice helps clarify the transition that Sukkot makes from biblical prescription to ritual performance. As noted earlier, reflecting on the relationship between Jewish architectural history and Judaism's central texts, Mitchell Schwarzer argues that the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 spurred religious discourse that attempted a metaphoric rebuilding of the Temple in text. The Mishnah's sixty-five tractates of technical interpretation of Jewish life translate the Temple's "singular geography of holiness into a flexible set of microgeographies by which individual Jewish communities could structure their lives" (Schwarzer 2001, 477). In response to the loss of a single center of faith, multiple conceptual centers were gained through the construction of the Mishnah. Miriam Lipis similarly observes the causal relationship between Jewish history and Jewish texts by noting that "as Judaism developed from a temple-based to a book-based religion, the text became a meeting place between God and the people as the Temple had once been" (2011, 96). A physical place of worship was transmuted into a conceptual space as Jewish texts came to mediate between the Temple and the Jews, between one authority and many. Both a process and a product of adaptation, these Jewish texts pluralized the sanctified centers and altered the spatial element of Jewish religious and cultural practices. The construction of the sukkah, a spatial ritual practice that evokes the Israelites' uprooted existence and reroots Jews in different actual and abstract lands, endures, in part, through its continual adaptation of the material elements across geographies and time periods. This historic splintering helps to explain the simultaneous consistency and diversity of Sukkot ritual practice today. The narrative of a single permanent temple broken up into a disparate number of portable sanctuaries nurtures Jewish cultural and religious thought and behavior in communities across the world.
With few legal requirements and myriad symbolic meanings, the ritual of Sukkot enables individuals to connect with a common Jewish historical consciousness through the structure's physical and conceptual construction. From an historical perspective, the sukkah evokes a period of displacement in Jewish life and the search for home and homeland. Religiously, it symbolizes the "Clouds of Glory" with which God surrounded the Israelites to protect them in the wilderness (Rubenstein 1994). Ecologically, it acknowledges the relationship between the Jewish people and the natural world and embodies an idealization of a simpler existence. Culturally, it challenges the value and permanence of the material surroundings that human beings increasingly consume and upon which they increasingly rely. And, individually, each sukkah acknowledges a Jewish tradition and defines the builder's self through personal, creative expression.
The fundamental requirements of sukkah construction that conjure these meanings are few. In accord with Jewish halakha (religious law), the sukkah must have at least two full walls that are connected to each other, and a third wall that is at least one tefach (handbreadth) wide; and the schach (roof covering) must be constructed out of organic material that is removed from the earth. As described in the section above, elaborations on and interpretations of these two laws of construction fill the Sukkot tractates in the Talmud and in later rabbinic writings. Examples of these rabbinic prescriptions declare that the schach must provide more shade than sun inside the sukkah on a bright day; that nothing, such as a tree, may cover the sukkah and act as a second roof; and that one must be able to see the stars in the sky through the weaving of the roof. Innumerable debates about requirements over the years are due to interpreters' differing social and spiritual goals for the experience of dwelling in the space of the sukkah.
The schach is the defining feature of the sukkah as its material determines whether it is pure, regardless of the rest of the construction. The requirement of the walls pertains to number and size, not material, and therefore the materials used to construct the frame and walls have varied over time without compromising the structure's holiness and religious integrity. An example of this variability in the sukkah's frame and wall composition is today's increasingly popular prefabricated "sukkah kit" that provides metal frames and nylon walls intended to be reused annually, replacing formerly widespread handmade constructions of wood, brush, and cloth. A second example is a construction method traditionally employed in Yemen, among other countries (examples of this construction exist in Israel today as well) where a room of one's permanent house is constructed so that it may be transformed into a sukkah once a year by removing a precut piece of its roofing. During the week of Sukkot, this piece of roofing is removed and replaced with schach, permitting the observance of Sukkot within the space it shelters below. Such diversity in the sukkah's form demonstrates the creative incorporation of local resources and emerging practices into the construction of the ritual shelter, while remaining faithful to the religious requirement of the schach to ensure the sukkah's sanctity.
Though decoration of the sukkah is not prescribed in Biblical verse, for many, it has become as meaningful a part of the material ritual as the construction of the frame. While not specifically referring to Sukkot, Exodus 1 5:2 — "This is my God and I will adorn Him" — is credited with motivating the desire to beautify the ritual structure. Talmudic interpretation of this verse has nurtured the development of the Jewish principle of hiddur mitzvah, or the aesthetic enhancement of a mitzvah. This belief, regarding the fulfillment of any Jewish commandment, holds that the aesthetic embellishment of any expression of devotion enhances the act by appealing more strongly to the senses. Beautifying the sukkah is therefore viewed as honoring God as well as the commandment. One example of the commitment to hiddur mitzvah is the extravagant amount of money that very pious Jews spend to acquire the highest quality and most perfectly formed etrog (ritually required fruit) that can be found for use in prayer during Sukkot — at a cost that often reaches far beyond their financial means. While less observant individuals question the logic of such an expenditure, those who assume this financial burden take pride in their ability and willingness to glorify God through the utmost aesthetic expression of devotion.
Excerpted from "Framing Sukkot"
Copyright © 2017 Gabrielle Anna Berlinger.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Note on Language Use, xiii,
1 Translating Text: Sukkot in Bloomington, Indiana, 27,
2 Shchunat Hatikva, Tel Aviv: A Geography of Difference, 49,
3 Within Shchunat Hatikva: Values and Spaces, 79,
4 Sukkot in Shchunat Hatikva, 107,
5 Sukkot in Jaffa and Jerusalem, 152,
6 The Right to House and Home, 178,
7 Transcending Architecture: Sukkot in Brooklyn, New York, 195,
Appendix: Materials Chart and Sukkot Floor Plans, 221,
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...a compelling integration of the study of vernacular architecture and vernacular belief.