I was first introduced to the concept of making the sukkah personal when I visited my moshav family some 30 years ago. I had lived with the Naftalis, a family of Kurdistan immigrants, in Israel on Moshav Noga when I was on Young Judaea Year Course in 1981. Just before Sukkot, every small home on the moshav created a beautiful, roomy sukkah according to the Talmudic measurements — but there was a difference. Each sukkah was illustrated with photos and cartoon drawings depicting events of the former year. Some of the photos were of family trips and vacations, the birth of children and grandchildren, weddings and other smachot. One cartoon drew my attention. It was a cartoon version of my moshav father on top of a tractor holding a bag of money with a hole in it, bills floating through the air trailing the tractor. The caption read “Naim Melech Haminus” or “Naim, King of Debt.” I laughed at the idea of celebrating the good times along with teasing about the upsets of the year.
The Naftali sukkah told the story of the whole year, the ups and downs, spread out on the canvas walls of the sukkah. It was part mini-museum and part art installation.
When we perform ritual mitzvot, many of us also practice the tradition of hiddur mitzvah. There are those who pay large sums of money for the most beautiful etrog. We cover the challah every Friday night with a lovely, needlepointed challah cover we bought in Israel. We keep hiddur mitzvah in mind when we purchase or make cases to cover the mezuzah parchment. The same Hebrew writing from the Sh’ma is written
on every rolled-up parchment but the design of its case (the bayit) truly can be a work of art.
When it comes to the sukkah itself, many of my Lubavitch friends say it is not their custom to decorate it at all. Yet the Talmud teaches that we decorate the sukkah according to the principle of hiddur mitzvah: “One should display handmade carpets and tapestries, nuts, almonds, peaches, pomegranates, bunches of grapes, vines, [decanters of] oil, fine meal, wreaths of corn” (Talmud Betzah 30b). There are many posters, made in Israel, that illustrate the seven holy ushpizin (guests), the halachot described in Mishnah Sukkah, pictures of Jerusalem, the seven special fruits of Israel, and the prayer for the Kiddush in the sukkah.
My father-in-law, Harry Kissileff, recently wrote in the New Jersey Jewish Standard about his 29-year-old tradition of creating photos with Biblical quotations dedicated to the memory of his father who died on the first day of Sukkot and was a lover of the natural world. Harry chose quotations that describe nature and gathered photos that he has taken from his travels. For a beautiful sunset, he chose a quote from the Hallel prayer, “from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun.” He hung a photo of his wife, Karen, sitting on a rock and inscribed on the photo the verse from Psalm 27: “He lifts me up on a rock.” He printed these photos on waterproof vinyl sheets with grommets for mounting with the help of a professional printer. For the past 29 years, we have collected these banners, which also feature our children growing up with Papa as he led them on many hikes with photo opportunities.
During the year, I am always on the lookout for decorations that will make my sukkah more beautiful. I have decorations that my mother used when she decorated the sukkahs of my youth (plastic fruit, Chinese lanterns, etc). I pick up souvenirs from my travels (hanging ornaments and posters). I am first in line whenever Christmas lights go on sale (I have Halloween lights too). The lights really illuminate the sukkah at night and make it very inviting. I would be remiss in not mentioning that all my daughters’ sukkah decorations that have survived get an honored place in the sukkah.
When my wife, Beth, and I visited the Naftalis on Moshav Noga years ago, we were asked, as the only outsiders around, to be judges in a sukkah contest. We got the full tour of each sukkah on the moshav. The mayor exempted himself from the contest, although his would have won first prize. The Kurdish Jews took beautification seriously with Persian rugs and photographs. There were windows in some of the sukkahs with window treatments. There were some who installed televisions to keep up on the latest soccer games. Talk about dwelling in your sukkah!
Later as we grew our family, Beth and I would always be part of the neighborhood sukkah hop wherever we lived. We would sing songs, give out candy and teach a little Torah.
We are commanded to dwell in a sukkah and wave the bouquet of lulav and etrog on Sukkot. There is a halacha that says you should not eat in the sukkah when it is raining. You should enjoy the Yom Tov meal in your home. Even if it stops raining after you start your meal, you are to finish your meal in the house. The reason given is that you are not to cause yourself any discomfort during the holiday.
The whole purpose of “sukkah dwelling” is to obey the core mitzvah: “You shall be completely joyous” (Deuteronomy 16:15). The verse is an intensification of the blessings we celebrate at the end of the year, which are also mentioned in the verse. Hiddur mitzvah is not only an opportunity to get creative — it is an obligation. PJC
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is spiritual leader of New Light Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Clergy Association.