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The theological and agricultural dimensions of Sukkot converge in the symbolism of the temporary shelter, covered with cut branches, called the sukkah. According to traditional sources, the sukkah commemorates both the temporary shelters in which farmers dwelt at harvest time to be close to their crops and those of the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. Both the holiday’s celebration of the harvest and its remembrance of Israel’s vulnerability in the desert point to human dependence on God’s beneficence and the consequent obligation to give thanks to God. The home customs of Sukkot also encompass both dimensions.
The sukkah (plural: sukkot) gives the holiday its name, and one of its defining commandments is for Jews leshev ba-sukkah, “to dwell in the sukkah.” A sukkah may take a variety of forms—from a relatively elaborate wooden structure, to a simple hut on an apartment balcony, to a prefab of aluminum poles and canvas walls—as long as it satisfies a few basic requirements. A sukkah must have at least three walls and be constructed of materials that can withstand an average wind, like heavy blankets, canvas, or wood. The roof must be covered with s’chach—a product of the earth that is no longer attached to the earth, for example, wood, bamboo poles, tree branches, but not a tree (it’s still connected to the earth). The s’chach should provide more shade than sunlight in the daytime, yet allow the brightest stars to be visible at night.
Having satisfied the basic requirements, the sukkah may reflect the imaginative fancy of the builder, and decorating the sukkah can be a creative whole-family activity. In line with Sukkot’s nickname as zman simchatenu, “the season of our joy,” it is a custom, although not a requirement, to decorate the sukkah. Possibilities are endless: Rosh Hashanah cards, paper chains, paper lanterns, mobiles on hangars, laminated posters with Jewish and Sukkot themes, or even strings of colored electric lights. To reflect the bounty of the harvest, people also hang fruit, gourds, cranberries on a string, or Indian corn, but some prefer plastic fruit to avoid waste. Another custom that expresses the sense of joy and celebration is to wear new clothes on this festival.
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