A sukkah of one’s own

To understand the significance of Sukkot – the holiday and the habitat – we must explore the development of biblical architecture.

Constructng a Sukkah in Meah Shearim (photo credit: Courtesy)
Constructng a Sukkah in Meah Shearim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘You shall dwell in sukkot [booths] for seven days… that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43).
As the third and final installment in the Regalim trilogy, Sukkot doesn’t quite seem to fit. It lacks the magnitude, the drama, the redemptive quality of the first two installments. On Passover we remember our physical redemption, being carried out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Shavuot marks our spiritual redemption, receiving of the Torah in a Divine revelation of thunder and lightning and a mountain in flames. And on Sukkot we celebrate... dwelling in booths? What’s so redemptive about that? Where is the great miracle, the signs and wonders, of the festival of Sukkot?
Moreover, when did the Israelites ever dwell in booths? Throughout their journey across the Sinai Desert, the people of Israel are not once described as living in sukkot. The only habitat we ever find them in are tents: After the Revelation, the people are told, “Return to your tents” (Deuteronomy 5:26); when they complain about the manna, they “cry at the entrance of their tents” (Numbers 11:10); and when Bilaam gazes out onto their ranks, he cannot help but exclaim, “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel” (Numbers 24:5). The Israelite camp was a camp of tents – not sukkot.
It is this notable absence, it seems, that prompts Rabbi Eliezer to claim that the sukkot in question were not actual booths, but rather ananei hakavod – traditionally translated as “the cloud of the glory of God” – which surrounded the people in the desert (Sukkah 11b). But if they were in fact clouds, why not refer to them as such? Why call them “sukkot”?
TO BEGIN to understand the significance of Sukkot – both the holiday and the habitat for which it is named – we must explore those places in the Bible where the word is mentioned. Specifically, we must trace the appearance of sukkot within the development of biblical architecture.
The first man-made home in the Bible is, once again, a tent. Yaval, Adam’s seventh-generation grandson, is, we are told, “the first to live in tents and raise cattle” (Genesis 4:20). Several generations later we find the infamous tent in which Noah uncovers himself in a drunken stupor, and shortly after that, the more respectable tents of Shem. With the arrival of Abraham on the scene, we witness an interesting transition. Humankind, it appears, has evolved; we now read of people living in proper houses. Yet our patriarchs continue to dwell in tents.
The first house in the Bible is found, perhaps not coincidentally, in Sodom. Lot (who, as long as he resided with Abraham, had lived in a tent like him) takes the angels into his “house and... shut[s] the door after him” (Genesis 19:3-6). This, in stark contrast to Abraham who, just one chapter earlier, runs to greet the angels “from the opening of his tent” (Genesis 18:2). The juxtaposition suggests the reason for the patriarchs’ persistence in tent-dwelling when everyone else had graduated to homes of wood or stone (the only “houses” mentioned with regard to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob refer to their dynasty, not domicile): While the house is a place that shuts out the world, the tent remains forever open.
Thus, Shechem uses the locked house to hold his rape victim Dina captive, as opposed to Isaac who takes Rebecca into “his mother Sarah’s tent... and love[s] her” (Genesis 24:67). Likewise, Laban only opens his house to Eliezer after he sees the jewels the latter has brought, whereas Jacob – “a plain man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27) – immediately invites his devious father-in-law into his tent to look for the idols he is accused of taking.
It seems that, while the houses around them – in Sodom, in Shechem, in Haran – serve to separate, to keep out, creating a boundary between self and other, the Hebrew tents beckon, invite, making room for the other within the space of the self.
AND SUKKOT? How do they fit into this scheme? The first biblical sukkah is constructed, again not coincidentally, by the very first Hebrew to build himself a house. Upon his return to Canaan, Jacob “built a house for himself, and made sukkot for his livestock; therefore, the place was named Sukkot” (Genesis 33:17).
After this initial mention, however, our search for biblical booths runs into some difficulty. Other than the place name Sukkot, which recurs several times in the Bible – there were probably a number of places bearing that name – the word “sukkah” is scarcely used again (the few times it is mentioned it designates a shepherd’s or crop guard’s hut). What we do find, though, is a repeated and evocative use of the word’s root: S-KH-KH.
When Moses is charged with making the Ark of the Covenant, he is instructed to “shield (sakhota) the Ark with the curtain” (Exodus 40:3), while the Cherubim are to “protect (sokhekhim) the [Ark’s] cover with their wings” (Exodus 37:9). God promises, before revealing Himself to Moses, “When My glory passes by, I will... cover (sakhoti) you with My hand” (Exodus 33:22), and later, in Isaiah, to protect Jerusalem with “a booth (sukkah) for shade from heat by day, and a refuge and shelter from storm” (Isaiah 4:6). And in the psalm we’ve been reciting every day for the past month, we ask God to “hide [us] in His shelter (sukko) in times of trouble” (Psalms 27:5).
A sukkah, then, is a safe space, a place of refuge and shelter provided by another: Jacob builds booths for his cattle, the Cherubim protect the Ark, God erects a sukkah to shield Jerusalem (even Jonah, who builds his own sukkah, has to have God grow a gourd over it for shade). Thus, if the house is a space from which we shut out the other, and the tent is a space into which we invite the other, the sukkah is a space we create for the other. It is a place in which the other can dwell, not as a guest, an object of hospitality, but as a master of his own home. 
Herein lies the great redemption of the festival of Sukkot. The sukkot in which God placed the Israelites afforded them a privacy and a dignity they had never known in Egypt (where slaves were often housed together in barn-like structures). In her famous treatise by the same name, Virginia Woolf discusses the importance of “a room of one’s own” for the development of the autonomous self. “Dignity,” she says, is “the offspring of... privacy and space.” It was in their sukkot, whether you believe them to be clouds or actual booths, that the people were able to live, for the first time, with a sense of honor and sovereignty that is the lot of free-borns. In this respect, the ananei hakavod Rabbi Eliezer speaks of would be more accurately translated, not as the clouds of the glory of God, but as the clouds of the dignity of man.
And that, if you will, is the real miracle of Sukkot; a miracle which might not be terribly miraculous, but is probably the most redemptive of all. We may have been taken out of slavery on Passover, but it was on Sukkot – and in sukkot – that we had slavery taken out of us.
The writer is the editor in chief of Maggid Books (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) and a teacher of rabbinic literature at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.