One Sukkot in the 1930’s my husband’s great uncle came to visit the family in Wales from Palestine. When the family finished their meal in the sukkah they went inside to go to bed. Meanwhile, the uncle stayed put and declared that he was going to sleep in the sukkah. “This is Wales, not Palestine, you’ll freeze to death!” they warned. “I sleep in the sukkah” he insisted. So they gathered all of the blankets in the house so that he could sleep in the sukkah. Five minutes later, the story goes, he came inside. What makes the sukkah so beloved amongst the Jewish people that they are willing to brave cold winds and threats of rain to reside in the sukkah?
There is discussion in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer about the nature of the sukkah. Rabbi Akiva says it symbolizes an actual hut while Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the sukkah represents the clouds of glory (BT Sukkah 11b). As evidence, Rabbi Akiva relies on the verse commanding us to build Sukkot: “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.” (Lev. 23:42-43) Though the Tanach gives an historical reason, this is the only reference to huts in the Chumash during the Israelite journey through the desert. The essence of the sukkah, the Sages teach, is its shade, its roof consists of branches (Sukkah) sufficient to provide shade and temporary enough to suggest evanescence. Rabbi Eliezer’s assertion has more textual support. In the Tanach the word sukkah implies shade; Jonah is happy in his sukkah which offers him shade in the hot sun. In Psalm 91 the Psalmist assures God’s protection, “He will cover (yasech) you with His pinions; you will find refuge under His wings…” (91:4) and in the Psalm 27, the psalm of Elul and Tishrei, God similarly provides protection: “He will shelter me in His pavilion (sukkah) on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent…” (27:5). Shade in the Tanach is a metaphor for Divine protection.
Like the sukkah which provides shade from the sun, the clouds of glory cover the Tent of Meeting: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.” (Ex. 40:33-34). The sukkah becomes a metaphor for God’s abiding presence. Prof. Jeffrey Rubenstein writes: “Residing in the shade of the sukkah is to experience divine protection, love, and intimacy. The laws that require Sukkah (shade) and that govern the nature of the sukkah create the environment where the experience takes place, while the clouds of glory which the sukkah symbolizes convey the same cluster of emotions.” (“The Symbolism of the Sukkah” by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Judaism 43)
Sukkot, occurring just days after Yom Kippur is known as z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. The Yamim Noraim are a time of serious contemplation and repentance we relate to our Creator as the King–judging, majestic and remote. With the change of mood there is a change in our relationship with God; the Rabbis teach that God’s presence becomes more familiar and intimate. The shade of the sukkah, like the clouds of glory, symbolizes God’s close presence and protection. During the seven days of Sukkot when we reside in the sukkah we return to our original desert consciousness, full of joy, hope for the future and confidence in our relationship with the Divine.
Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is the Director of Rabbinical Development at