You can learn how to keep kosher from law books, but still not know how to cook. So, too, you can learn the rules for what makes a kosher sukkah from law books, but still not know how to build a sukkah. If you want to know exactly how our ancestors built their sukkot, where can you look?
You could try looking at artwork. Starting in the late 16th century, a few Christian artists made engravings of their Jewish neighbors celebrating the festival of Sukkot (which starts this year at sundown Sunday, Oct. 16). An observer with the right background could even compare those engravings with the legal writings to see what opinions Jews followed in practice.
An ideal observer with the right background means Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, author of many books of Jewish scholarship, distinguished professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, who majored in art history as a young student in England. Sperber, in volume six of his eight-volume Hebrew work, “Customs of Israel: Origins and History,” devotes his attention to this age-of-enlightenment artwork.
An engraving by Paul Christian Kirchner in 1717 — like a similar engraving by Bernard Picart in 1724 and many subsequent copies — shows a wealthy family of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam enjoying their festival meal in their sukkah. The gorgeous sukkah has a porous roof, as Jewish law requires, made of plant material (in Hebrew, schach). Surprisingly, the roof takes the shape of a dome.
Sperber also considers the descriptions of sukkot in a book by Dr. Hugo Mandelbaum (1901-97), Jewish Life in the Village Communities of Southern Germany. Mandelbaum was a professor of geology at Wayne State University, also an artist, mathematician and scholar of Judaica and, for some years, principal of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit, before he retired to Israel. His study of Jewish life in the villages of southern Germany was part scholarship and part memories of his own native village, Geroda.
According to Mandelbaum, some houses in Geroda featured an upstairs room, called the oberstube, directly under an opening in the roof. A corrugated metal sheet covered the oberstube during the year; on Sukkot, schach went up in place of the metal sheet.
People who built free-standing sukkot in Geroda, though, had a different form of construction: Young fir trees were chopped down in the woods and the branches were severed from the trunks, which were sharpened at the lower end using a hatchet. These “stakes” were driven into the ground at about 1 meter from each other. A few tree trunks were laid horizontally to join the stakes together, to form a skeleton for the walls and the roof.
An engraving by Johannes Leusden, published in 1682, shows a round sukkah with walls made of plant material, somewhat similar to those of Geroda. Sperber notices that in the Talmud, Rabbi Oshiah requires that the walls of a sukkah, and not just the roof, consist of plant materials (Sukkah 7b).
Ultimately, the opinion may appeal to a biblical source (Nehemiah 8:15). Although later codifiers follow the contrary opinion that all materials are valid for the walls of Sukkah (based on Mishnah Sukkah 1:5), perhaps the Jews of Geroda intended to fulfill both opinions. Some later codes do recommend making the walls of the Sukkah from plant material, and Sperber presents record of Moroccan Jews who made their sukkot of palm branches, similar to the sukkot of Geroda.
With Sperber as a guide, you can learn a great deal about how to build a sukkah from old artwork.
By Louis Finkelman, Special to the Jewish News
Beginning five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is named after the booths (sukkot in Hebrew) in which Jews are supposed to dwell during this weeklong celebration. According to rabbinic tradition, these flimsy sukkot represent the huts in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt.
The festival of Sukkot is one of the three great pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Shavuot — holidays set aside for the people to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The holiday is also known as the “Harvest Festival.” Much of the imagery and ritual of the holiday revolves around rejoicing and thanking God for the completed harvest. The sukkah represents the huts that farmers would live in during the last hectic period of harvest before the coming of the winter rains.
The sukkah has at least three sides, with a roof made of thatch or branches, which provides some shade and protection from the sun but also allows the stars to be seen at night. It is traditional to decorate the sukkah and to spend as much time in it as possible. Weather permitting, meals are eaten there; some people sleep in the sukkah. In a welcoming ceremony called ushpizin, ancestors are symbolically invited to partake in the meals, too. And in commemoration of the bounty of the Holy Land, four species of plants (palm, myrtle and willow) known as the lulav are shaken in all directions together with a citron (etrog).