In America, Succot is a meteorologically challenged holiday, and our family experienced the whole panoply of challenges. From my wife’s native Omaha with its bitter cold October nights, to my native New York’s torrential rains, to the oppressively hot Miami, where we lived for six years before making aliyah in 1997, Succot, though characterized by meals outside, was often no picnic. In Israel, on the other hand, Succot meals very much do resemble pleasant picnics, as the weather is usually quite temperate.
Of course life is never simple, and there just has to be a fly in the ointment—or a bee in the honey, since we’re speaking about Succot. If you are tempted to conclude that the mitzvah of succah is easy to observe in Israel, you need to know one thing: there are plenty of people who will tell you that the mitzvah is to live as much as possible in the succah for seven days—not just to take one’s meals in the succah but to study, play, and sleep in the succah as well. The succah, according to these people (aka “killjoys”), is not just a temporary dining room but a temporary dwelling. If you don’t sleep in the succah in Israel, you are sometimes made to feel as if you have hardly observed the mitzvah.
What happens in practice? If you are expecting me at this point to say that only ultra-orthodox Jews sleep in their succot on the holiday, you would be wrong. While the ultra-orthodox often go to great lengths to give their succah a feeling of a “dwelling,” dragging out their regular (heavy) dining-room tables and bureaus into their succah, plenty of the national-religious (the modern-Orthodox equivalent in Israel) can be found on mattresses and sleeping bags in their succot. These will usually be men since women are technically released from the mitzvah of Succah (a time-bound commandment). And while women have obligated themselves to eating in the succah, because of reasons of modesty (and the fact that fewer of them are crazy), they are not expected to sleep outside.
On a few occasions, I have joined my sons Ezra and Elie and slept in our succah. In truth, it can be a fun experience, lying there in the pleasant weather in the decorated succah (especially with the comforting feeling of that tiny sleeping pill at the ready in the palm of my hand). Perhaps I’m not fulfilling the commandment correctly, and perhaps I’m missing out on getting the full, rich experience of the mitzvah by not sleeping in my succah all seven nights? Perhaps. Happy Succot!
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.