How To Celebrate Sukkos Without a Sukkah

In discussing the Sukkot holiday, a friend of mine expressed an interest in learning “how to celebrate without a sukkah and make it meaningful.”

A quick search informed me that Google has answers to that question, but not ones that spoke to me – at least, not at first glance. I found several pre-pandemic articles addressing those who have no convenient place to build a sukkah or those for whom a sukkah is simply too expensive; the writers offered alternative suggestions like donating money to build homes for poor people, or putting up a tent – even inside – and engaging in conversation about themes like home, comfort, or protection.

Those are all great things to do, but in my halachic mind, no replacement for a sukkah.

In my halachic mind and upbringing, eating in a kosher sukkah on Sukkot has always been non-negotiable. Yes, women are technically exempt, and yes, I have happily taken advantage of that halachic fact when warranted. But on principle, for my family and for myself, the notion of a Sukkot holiday without a Sukkah was unfathomable.

As a teenager, I would sometimes visit open houses with my mother for fun, just because we liked houses. (We always made sure to tell the realtor we weren’t looking seriously, and ask if it was okay to look around.) There were several features we liked to look for, as we imagined ourselves in each house, like cushy window seats and other cozy nooks and crannies. But above all else was the question: “Where would the sukkah go?” If there was no suitable place, we lost interest, even in the fantasy. A house could not be a home if there was no place to build a temporary home for Sukkot.

My first sukkah of my own was on a balcony in Israel, constructed with a few pieces of wood and the cheapest shower curtains my roommate and I proudly found in the shuk. We had it easy, as our rented apartment already had wood at the ready and technically our balcony railing served as kosher walls even without the shower curtains, but the experience still taught me that, contrary to the implications in some of those articles I googled, a sukkah does not have to cost hundreds of dollars.

And in the years when my husband and I lived in an apartment where we really couldn’t build a sukkah, we visited family or ate in a synagogue’s or neighbor’s sukkah – solutions the articles I read seemed to mention only as an afterthought but that to me were indispensable.

Because to me, a sukkah has always been indispensable.

This year, though, things look a little different.

This year, more people are facing more challenges – challenges that some have always faced, even if I was fortunate to not experience them. Though I haven’t seen any public halachic statements (yet?), I can imagine there might be scenarios in which medical and halachic experts might determine that eating in a sukkah simply isn’t possible for a particular individual or family. Traveling to visit friends or family with a sukkah, or even sharing a local sukkah, might prove unsafe; increased financial difficulties might make even the cost of a few slats of wood and a cheap shower curtain – even for those who theoretically have a place to build – prohibitive.

(Important note: Please consult appropriate medical and halachic authorities with any practical questions, including whether the line between “difficult” and “impossible” might be drawn differently on the first night(s), when the obligation is slightly different.)

As the challenges increase, so does awareness of them, calling on more of us to think seriously about “how to celebrate without a sukkah and make it meaningful.”

What would Sukkot mean without a sukkah?

First, we might ask a different question: What does Sukkot mean without the Beit Hamikdash?

After all, the first time Sukkot appears in the Torah, there’s nothing about dwelling in a hut for a week – but there is something about traveling to a specific location, “before God”:

Three times you shall celebrate to Me in the year: The holiday of matzot… and the holiday of harvest… and the holiday of gathering at the end of the year, when you gather your works from the field. Three times in the year, all your males will appear before God. (Exodos 23: 14-17)

We (or at least our menfolk) are supposed to travel to the Holy Temple with offerings to God on a holiday known alternately as Chag Ha’asif (gathering) or Chag Hasukkot. Numbers 29 elaborates at length on further specific offerings mandated for each day of the Sukkot holiday. And although these requirements might seem incidental to us, that’s probably because we haven’t experienced Sukkot with the Temple standing in Jerusalem.

When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people of the time couldn’t fathom functioning without it; some were so devastated they couldn’t conceive of ever eating meat or drinking wine again, knowing there would be no more meat or wine on the altar (Bava Batra 60b). I imagine they also couldn’t envision celebrating Sukkot without those offerings, and making it meaningful.

As a 21st-century American, and even more so as a former (and still “recovering”) vegetarian, I can’t say it’s easy for me to long for the Temple service, with all its blood and gore, on a personal level. As a committed traditional Jew, though, I do long to be able to fulfill all the Torah’s mandates, even those that are difficult for me to relate to. I take comfort year-round in the verse “Our lips will pay the cows” (Hosea 14:3), classically understood to mean we offer our prayers, especially those relating the details of the Temple service, as a stand-in for the animal offerings we are unable to bring.

Though it wouldn’t have the same halachic force as our established prayers, perhaps if there are people truly unable to dwell in a sukkah this year, they might find comfort in studying the laws and/or symbolism of the sukkah. And just as recitation and study of the sacrificial service serves not just as a current replacement but as preparation for a future with the real thing, so the study of sukkah this year can bring deeper meaning to dwelling in one next year.

At the same time, we can also take comfort in remembering that there is even more to this holiday than “just” the sukkah, pilgrimage, and offerings.

Perhaps most fundamentally, there are holidays – holy days, i.e. days on which melacha (generally defined as creative work) is forbidden, similar to Shabbos – at the beginning and end of the period we call Sukkot (Leviticus 23:34-36). In fact, there are rules about melacha on the intermediate days as well, though lessened. That prohibition, with its attendant effects on the mood of the day, doesn’t get cancelled, whether or not we have a sukkah; the days of Sukkot are still special.

We might even take comfort from looking at the melacha prohibition in a different way, as an element of observance that sometimes does get cancelled. I rode in a taxi one Shabbos in June 2008, because I was in labor and needed to get to the hospital for a likely c-section. But Shabbos wasn’t cancelled – I didn’t call my parents from the car, for instance (or even bring a phone) – despite the lack of that specific Shabbos element, for that moment, in that way. And I wasn’t violating Shabbos, even if it felt like it.

Similarly, Sukkot isn’t cancelled, even if a situation arise in which the sukkah has to be – and if the pandemic would create a situation for some in which eating in a sukkah is ruled truly impossible and therefore not required (again, consult proper authorities), then I would think not eating in a sukkah would be appropriate halachic observance, just like eating on Yom Kippur is the appropriate observance for those whose lives would be endangered by fasting. (There are also clear halachic precedents for elements of holiday observances that may be unaffordable, such as if one cannot purchase wine for kiddush.)

In fact, we even have specific precedent for the temporary cancellation (or maybe suspension is a better word) of the mitzvah to dwell in the sukkah: The halacha of mitzta’er (suffering) tells us there are situations that can legitimately interfere with our use of the sukkah. We might take comfort in that halacha as a familiar framework for halachically exiting the sukkah.

We might also see in the rule of mitzta’er a reminder that sukkah (like many observances) is not all or nothing. Each meal or snack or sleep is its own opportunity and does not define the entire holiday; if we are rained out of lunch one day, we might still get to eat dinner in the sukkah. Maybe in that light, those who find themselves without access to a sukkah this year can think instead in terms of each meal: If shifts in the synagogue sukkah are truly impossible at night, can they perhaps be managed during the longer daytime?

(Again, note that the first night(s) might be different, and that practical questions should be directed to appropriate experts.)

As the passage in Leviticus, cited above, continues further, we are reminded that there are even more elements to this holiday: the taking of the Four Species, for instance (though here too there might be covid-related concerns).

And then we are given one last instruction: “and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your God, seven days” (ibid. 40; see also Deuteronomy 16:14.)

This rejoicing, unlike the sacrifices mentioned above, is not only applicable and possible in the particular place known as “before Hashem,” but everywhere and for all time – even in 2020.

The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah #488) offers a fascinating explanation for what he calls the “root,” or meaning, of this commandment to rejoice on the Festivals: He notes that humans need joy sometimes, just like we need food and sleep, and suggests that God gave us this command in order to direct that natural drive towards a spiritual purpose. Surely, surviving a pandemic calls for finding joy however we can, and we can perhaps take comfort in knowing that to do so on Sukkot fulfills a spiritual need as well as a natural one – even without a sukkah.

How does one achieve this spiritual joy on the holidays? Traditionally, sacrificial offerings were part of it, but the Sefer Hachinuch cites Talmudic statements broadening the mitzvah to “all kinds of joy… Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira said, When the Temple stood, there was no rejoicing without meat…; now, there is no rejoicing other than with wine…nice clothes…”

When the Temple stood, celebrations centered around its rituals; barring extenuating circumstances, our Sukkot celebrations center around our sukkah. But there has always been more to the requirements of the holiday, and some cost nothing; the Talmud even mentions music as a fulfillment of the mitzvah to rejoice.

And as it turns out, maybe those donations to the less fortunate should indeed be part of our Sukkot celebrations too: as the Sefer Hachinuch continues, “the Torah cautioned us as well to include the poor, converts, and the weak in rejoicing.” Supporting those less fortunate or less connected offers yet another way to increase our own rejoicing as well as others’, and to find all kinds of meaning in the holiday.

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