The tradition of dwelling in a sukkah for seven days can include chilly overnight stays but amount to a whole-body religious experience like no other.
The Torah tells us what to do with a sukkah: “In Sukkot you shall dwell for seven days; every citizen of Israel shall dwell in sukkot” (Leviticus 23:42). Dwelling, as the ancient rabbis understand the term, means treating the sukkah as one treats home the other weeks of the year: “One eats and drinks and walks around and sleeps in the sukkah” (Talmud Sukkot 28b).
The Talmudic rabbi Rava also derives one related leniency from the word “dwell”: One does not stay in the sukkah if it feels uncomfortable, just as one would leave an uncomfortable house (Talmud Sukkah 26a).
Feeling comfortable in the sukkah seems just right for this time of year in the land of Israel, with generally dry and temperate weather. Feeling comfortable in a sukkah seems less likely in cold, wet lands. Jews who want to use the sukkah do put up with a little discomfort.
About 30 years ago, a young man from New York City came to visit his wife’s family in suburban Detroit. That first night on Sukkot, the family put on their overcoats and prepared to eat dinner in the sukkah. The visitor objected: “It is nearly freezing!” The host replied, “You can decide you feel uncomfortable in New York City when it is nearly freezing. If we used that standard here, we would hardly ever use our sukkah at all.”
Few Detroiters tried to sleep in the sukkah back then. Sharon Krasner of Oak Park recalls that her late husband took all three children to sleep in the sukkah decades ago. The younger two came in at 3 a.m., complaining of the cold. Dad and the oldest child stuck it out until 6 a.m. Mom never tried.
Over the decades, the climate in suburban Detroit has become more hospitable to sleeping in sukkah. People who do it now give some helpful hints.
Larry Winer of Oak Park recommends having “a thin mattress or padding and sleeping bag. Pray it doesn’t rain or snow (actually fun when it does). Expect to wake up very early.”
You can keep off the ground by using an air mattress. Caryn Finkelman (my daughter-in-law) recommends putting a blanket between you and the air mattress, “otherwise you are just heating up the mattress.”
I use a cot to keep me off the cold hard ground and a sleeping bag on top of the cot.
As we enjoy the brisk fall weather in Michigan, we should remember that some places experience more intensive cold.
Former Detroiter Claude Schochet, now in Israel, recalls that when he was growing up in Minnesota, they would leave the sukkah if ice formed on the surface of the soup.
Rabbi Ari Ellis of Oak Park had lived in Winnipeg, where “the average nightly temperature for mid-October hovers just above freezing at 36 degrees. We’d bundle up.
“A handful of members of our congregation had the right equipment (space heaters and outdoor gear) and did sleep in the sukkah. And while our night-time temperatures are a little more than 10 degrees warmer, it’s still quite cold.
“If it was 45 or 50 degrees in our house (i.e. if the furnace was broken or there was a power outage), we would endeavor to find somewhere else to stay,” Ellis said.
Brooke Weingarden, who belongs to Southfield-based Congregation Shaarey Zedek, said she and her family set up camp last year and slept in their sukkah. “It’s a chilly but wonderful and fun family tradition. I am grateful that we have a strong sukkah to keep the wind out. It feels like we are camping in our driveway.”
Over the centuries, some rabbis have issued — pardon me — blanket permission not to sleep in the sukkah. Most of these rabbis lived in cold parts of Europe.
Sleeping in the sukkah feels like an adventure, camping out at home, getting to know your natural neighborhood intimately. It also amounts to a whole-body religious experience: feeling exposed to the elements and protected by the One who has protected our ancestors. When else can you do a mitzvah in your sleep?