Every year, Scott Rekant of Monmouth Junction, N.J., hauls a tidy pile of 21 2-by-4s from his garage and puts together a sturdy sukkah that stands on his back porch.
"It takes me about an hour to assemble it with a bit of adult help. Two hours with my kids," he said.
He's been building a sukkah, which he designed himself, every year for the last 12 years or so and always invites a large number of friends to enjoy dessert.
"I wanted to leave the sides open so we could see the backyard and the woods bordering our property," he said. "I also wanted something I could easily store and then reassemble each year."
Building a sukkah doesn't need to be something only the few can do. If you have a place to put a sukkah, there is a design or kit to fit your level of handiness, time commitment and budget. Besides being an integral part of the holiday of Sukkot, building a sukkah is a great way to create shared family memories and to start a family tradition. Decorating a sukkah can also take in the whole family -- the completed "masterpiece" creates an opportunity to share the holiday.
In the Torah, Sukkot is referred to as Hag ha-Asif -- the Holiday of the In-Gathering. This is the time of the final harvest in Israel, as well as in many other parts of the world. This is therefore the time that we thank God for what we have received.
The sukkah has two symbolic meanings. First, it represents the dwellings of our ancestors as they lived in the wilderness during their journey to the Promised Land. Secondly, it reminds us of the huts our forefathers would erect in the fields during the harvest so they could watch over their produce.
The Bible commands us to live in our sukkah just as our ancestors did. Ideally this means eating, drinking, sleeping and spending leisure time in the sukkah. At the very least, traditional Jews try to have their meals in the sukkah. Dispensations regarding these mitzvot are allowed in cases of rain, illness or severe discomfort, such as very cold weather.
A sukkah basically consists of two parts -- the walls and the skakh, or roof covering.
The Basics: The Walls and the Roof
All material is appropriate for the walls of a sukkah as long as it can stand up to the weather. The sukkah must have at least three walls. When the sukkah is built adjacent to a permanent structure, one or more of the walls of that structure may be used as part of the sukkah. By the way, the sukkah itself is a temporary structure. Therefore, you cannot take a permanent structure, an arbor for example, and turn it into a sukkah.
The roof covering should be placed after the walls are finished. It should be made of vegetable matter that was not previously used for anything else. It cannot be rooted in the soil, such as the canopy of a tree. Severed tree branches, strips of wood, straw, bamboo and the like are all suitable. Things that are edible cannot be used as skakh. It must provide more shade than sunlight, yet the roof materials must not be so thick that they do not let in rain. It must be open enough for stars to be seen, but no opening can be more than 11 inches in width or length.
The beauty of a sukkah is that you are free to create your own design within the limits of the aforementioned guidelines. I use two rectangular sides that remain assembled throughout the year (stored outside by my shed) and then I add three 1-by-2-by-12-inch pieces of wood to attach them and the same for the structure of the roof. For those who want to create their own design, there are numerous plans on the Internet. And for those who don't want to bother with all this, there are a number of companies that sell ready-to-assemble kits.
How you decorate your sukkah will depend to some extent on where you live. In Israel, and other areas with warm climates, palm fronds are a favorite material. For those living in more temperate climates, corn stalks and pine boughs are more common. Since Sukkot is a harvest holiday, it is nice to have some symbolism representing the harvest. If you have a garden, all the better -- then you can use things from your own harvest. Display or string some of the vegetables for decoration. Put some flowers in a vase.
If you don't have your own garden, you can always get vegetables from the supermarket, such as string beans, cranberries, peppers or whatever, to string together and hang from the walls or roof. Small gourds are also usually available during the time of sukkot and even large gourds or pumpkins can be placed in the corners to add some color and soften the angular nature of the sukkah.
If you have potted flowers, they can be moved near to the sukkah during the holiday to add color and also help blur the line between the ground and the sukkah, so it looks more natural.
Hospitality is an important and fun part of Sukkot. Inviting guests into your sukkah to share food allows those without a sukkah to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in a sukkah. This hospitality goes back to Abraham, who was well known for his generosity toward guests.
Once again, in keeping with the harvest origins of the holiday, think about serving some food that incorporates produce that is plentiful at the time of the holiday. In our area, apples are in good supply and local tomatoes are usually still plentiful. Two foods we make every year that incorporate these ingredients are apple raisin nut cake and tabouleh -- a Middle Eastern salad.
3 tablespoons margarine or butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 medium apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks
1/2 cup raisins (soaked in water for 15 minutes)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, mix together sugar and margarine or butter, then eggs and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add the liquid ingredients.
Lastly add apples, nuts and raisins.
Mix all ingredients thoroughly and pour into an 8-by-8-inch pan. (Double the recipe for a 9-by-13 pan.)
Bake at 350 F for about one hour. You will know it is ready when a knife you insert into the cake comes out clean.
1 cup bulgar wheat (fine)
1 cup chopped chives, or a mixture of chopped chives and onions
1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley (preferably flat leaf type)
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
3 medium-sized tomatoes, diced
salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine the wheat with enough cold water to cover and soak for 10-15 minutes. Drain and squeeze out excess water.
Mix the wheat and chives (or onion mixture) and squeeze together so that the juice penetrates into the wheat.
Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.
Michael Brown is author of "The Jewish Gardening Cookbook: Growing Plants and Cooking for Holidays and Festivals" (Jewish Lights, 1998) and lives in New Jersey.