Sit, eat, stay a little while in the sukkah

We begin with a basic Hebrew language lesson.

The blessing recited in the Sukkah — “… le-shev ba-sukkah” — does not mean “to sit in the sukkah.” One of the most common mistakes on Sukkot happens when people enter a sukkah, stand during Kiddush and, immediately after pronouncing the required blessing — “… le-shev ba-sukkah” — feel compelled to sit down because they (mistakenly) believe that the blessing commands them to “sit down.”

I have seen rabbis, Hebrew school principals, and even (believe it or not) Hebrew-language teachers perpetuate this mistake by signaling their congregants or students to sit down upon reciting the blessing. If the mitzvah was really about “sitting,” the blessing would be “… la-shevet ba-sukkah,” for in Hebrew, “la-shevet” means “to sit.”

The mitzvah on Sukkot goes far beyond sitting. We are not commanded to “sit” (la-shevet) in the Sukkah, rather we are commanded to “live” (le-shev) in the sukkah.

“Ba-sukkot teshvu shivat yamim” — “You shall live in sukkot for seven days” (Leviticus 23:42).

In this verse, the Talmud (Sukkot 28b) teaches: “All seven days [of Sukkot], one should make the sukkah his temporary residence.”

What is the biblical basis for this?

Our rabbis taught: You shall live (teshvu). The word teshvu teaches that one lives in the sukkah in the same manner as one ordinarily lives. To “live” in the sukkah, according to the Talmud, is to eat all meals in the sukkah, to study Torah in the sukkah, and — yes — even to sleep in the sukkah.

Above all, the mitzvah of “le-shev ba-sukkah” is to live in the sukkah with great joy and happiness. This mitzvah of joy is rooted in the Torah’s reason for the commandment to live in sukkot: “In order that future generations may know that I [God] made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).

This verse teaches us that from a historical perspective, living in the sukkah is an expression of our joy and appreciation for the Exodus from Egypt, and especially for the shelter that God provided for us during our long journey in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

My father told me the story — perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal — that a baron of Rothschild invited the queen of England to his sukkah. In preparation for her visit, the queen asked one of her officials to research the history and meaning of Sukkot. He told her that it re-enacts and celebrates the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.

When the queen came to the baron’s sukkah, she was greeted with a red carpet and they ate a beautiful, multicourse meal with the finest china and silverware. During dinner, the baron asked the queen what her impressions of the sukkah were so far.

She remarked, “If this is the way your people lived in the wilderness for 40 years, they should have stayed in the wilderness forever.”

Beyond the 40 years of God’s shelter in the wilderness, living in the sukkah with joy is an expression of gratitude for the basics in life — food, water and a roof over our heads. In our own weeklong Thanksgiving festival, we live in simple structures whose roof must be naturally made, and through which we must be able to see the heavens, so that we remember that God who resides in heaven is our ultimate source for life, sustenance and shelter.

During Sukkot, we live in a sukkah to remind ourselves that no matter who we are, what position or title we hold in life, or how much material comfort we may have, the source for all blessing in life is God.

Sukkot is “zman simchateinu” — our season of rejoicing. It is a time to celebrate, to enjoy meals with guests, to sing, to study and to appreciate life. It is a time “le-shev ba-Sukkah,” to live life to its fullest — in the sukkah.

So remember, “leshev ba-Sukkah” does not mean “to sit.” After all, who would want to just sit through life?

Daniel Bouskila is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a Sephardic congregation in Westwood.