Secrets of S’chach

There are several Jewish laws surrounding how to build a sukkah and where you can build it. The walls of the sukkah have to be sturdy enough to stand up against normal weather conditions. You can get away with three walls. You can put the walls up and then leave them standing forever. The walls of a sukkah can be made of any material, provided that they are sturdy enough that they do not move in a normal wind. You can use wood or fiberglass panels, waterproof fabrics attached to a metal frame, etc. You can also use pre-existing walls (i.e., the exterior walls of your home, patio or garage) as one or more of the sukkah walls.

The most important part of a sukkah building contractor’s plan is the roof; it must be made of s’chach. What exactly is S’chach? A good question! I used to think that it was Hebrew for the stuff I would collect with my youth group buddies along the shoulders of Route 91 in Middletown (which I believe was actually bamboo – the state highway guy gave us half an hour to do it and disappear…). It is, officially, anything that grew from the ground and has been detached, is not edible, and was not manufactured to be a utensil (such as a wooden ladder or shovel handle). Thick, roof-like slats, and tied bundles of foliage cannot be used. You can’t use branches with leaves as s’chach with leaves that will shrivel as they dry out. You can use evergreen tree branches because they don’t shrivel and die.

Temple Beth Avodah uses corn stalks that, as you can see from the laws, is perfectly fine as s’chach… But, if there’s corn on the stalk as opposed to Indian corn that is only ornamental, you must remove the corn from the stalk, because – yes, it’s edible.

The truth about s’chach is that it’s not fit to make a roof at all. Sure it must be thick enough to provide shade from a hot Sukkot sun (which sounds nice as today’s chill enters our collective bones). But if you cover the top of the sukkah too well, then you’re messing with the dominant theme of the holiday.

After Yom Kippur, which is all about being indoors and focusing on our individual shortcomings and fasting and, in general, feeling deeply immersed in internal space, the first thing we do is drive the first nail to build the sukkah. And Sukkot is all about bursting out of the internal! It’s about harvest and the sweat of collecting the Fall harvest. It’s all about relating to our ancestors who wandered in the wilderness and had no permanent place to call home for a long time. It’s all about the glory of the Universe and the fact that we have been given a new year in which to find our best selves.

But… and here’s the rest of the theme of Sukkot: the roof and therefore, the sukkah itself is impermanent. And so are we. We look up at the stars and celebrate the beauty of the world. And through the very same spaces between the s’chach we can get rained on. This life is filled with awe and majesty and beauty, and it’s filled with sweat and sadness and pain. It’s never either/or; it’s always both/and.

The sukkah reminds us that it’s up to us to appreciate every blessing that comes our way, whether we deserve it or not. Life can be precarious and mysterious. We can just sit in the rain and moan. Or we can look up through the s’chach and give thanks for this crazy world and our chaotic, fabulous lives.

Shabbat Shalom


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