We have been celebrating the holiday of Sukkot this week here in Israel. Sukkot is really one of those holidays that was designed to be celebrated in Israel. The festival, which lasts 8 days in Israel (including Simchat Torah) and 9 days outside of Israel, involves putting up a Sukkah and eating meals in the Sukkah for the duration of the holiday. If the weather is 30 C during the day and still more than 20 C at night, you can have some wonderfully enjoyable Sukkot meals, particularly your evening meals. These are the conditions that we are enjoying this year. If you are in Canada and the weather drops down to 10C, you can start to see that the holiday of Sukkot may not be pefectly suited to Canadian weather. (These are the reports I am getting from family members).
The roof of a Sukkah is supposed to be made out of branches and leaves (as a very general summary description) called schach. Some people use a reusable bamboo branch roof. We have one of these but it is not very authentic. Probably the equivalent of a plastic Christmas tree for people celebrating Christmas. We decided to build our schach roof this year out of palm branches and leaves, freshly trimmed from palm trees. As I wrote about last year Sukkot 2011, the City of Ra'anana trims its palm trees each year just before Sukkot and posts information about where and when you can go to collect the freshly cut branches. However, some "entrepreneurs" arrive early at these sites, collect the free branches and then turn around and sell them later for 10 N.I.S. a branch. You could easily require 20 or 30 of these branches for a medium sized Sukkah - so this can get quite expensive and leave you feeling very ripped off since the City of Ra'anana was giving it away for free. But if you don't arrive at the City distribution sites on time - or even before the appointed time - you cannot get the free schach.
So we travelled to the Rehovot area this year to collect some branches from very freshly trimmed palm trees. Cutting and using fresh palm branches can be very risky business. The lower parts of the branches have very sharp, pointy, thorns that can cause serious infections. Some people are highly allergic and have been known to require urgent medical attention after losing a battle with a palm branch. So the first step after trimming the branches - very carefully - is to cut away the thorns. Here are some pictures of a palm branch with the thorns and after being trimmed.
Once you have cut away the thorns, you can carry the branches fairly easily without worrying about getting poked since upper leaves are not sharp at all.
To cover the roof of our Sukkah properly, we needed about 25-30 of these leaves. So we gathered them in a pile and had to figure out how to get them from the Rehovot area to Ra'anana - about 50 km away (highway driving).
We loaded them up...on the roof of the car...(they are too long to fit in a trunk or inside the car) and drove back to Ra'anana. This might look a bit strange but we were not the only ones on the road driving around with a car covered in schach since so many Israelis build Sukkot.
Finally, back in Ra'anana, we were able to finish building the Sukkah and get our palm-branch schach onto the roof. There should be enough schach so that there is more shade than sunlight and that you can see some stars. But the schach must also allow rain to fall in the Sukkah if it rains during Sukkot. In fact, it rained a bit the first night. Here is a view of part of the roof from inside the Sukkah and another view from outside. Having a freshly trimmed palm branch Sukkah has to be one of the most kosher type of Sukkah coverings. It is very hard to get fresh palm branches in most places in North America.
The holiday of Sukkot includes a very central concept of "ushpizin" - entertaining guests in your Sukkah, particularly new guests who you have not regularly hosted. We were very fortunate this year to have some wonderful guests, familiar and unfamiliar, join us in celebrating the holiday, having some wine and enjoying the smell and sight of the fresh palm branches, while sitting the Sukkah enjoying the summer-like termperatures.
Now the festival is almost over and we will have the task of getting rid of this huge collection of palm branches. But the City of Ra'anana is prepared and will have extra pick ups of branches just after the holiday ends.
For those celebrating the holiday, Chag Sameach!