Sex in the sukkah: redefining the mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah

I love Sukkot – and not just because it means that Yom Kippur is over. I love the ritual of it, the strangeness of it.

Sukkahs* are like great big, green, sweet-smelling cubby houses; refreshing, delightful and enchanting in  their quaintness and oddity. They’ve got that rustic charm thing going on; that outdoorsy nature thing; that crazy, crass, colourful noy sukkah (decoration) thing. Best of all, they’ve got that let’s squeeze in together for a yom tov meal under the stars and get little thrills from accidentally touching elbows and pressing legs against the person who’s squashed in beside you – all the while taking in the fragrances of recently cut vegetation and the aroma of the actual night air around you. It is positively erotic. (Well, almost.)

I don’t sleep in the sukkah. I never have, which is a pity in some ways. The fact that this is a mitzvah that it is only incumbent on men doesn’t get me feeling all feministy. I don’t get worked up about not having to camp out for a week in Tishrei with the bugs and the spiders. I just say goodnight and wish the sukkah sleepers well.

But really, this makes no sense.  Sukkahs conjure up images of the desert, when Bnei Yisrael was encamped like one big dysfunctional family and Moshe was trying to keep things together – even though, frankly, not much made sense and the rules were being made up as they went along. Sukkot transports me to a time in our national memory when late at night, as the sluggish desert wind brushed tents and the hand of sleep stroked brows, one might catch the delicate sound of a neighbour being pleasured by her husband. The half-stifled cry that is neither sigh nor moan but somewhere in between, calls for him to stop and continue forever at once.

When I think of sukkahs at night, this is what comes to mind.

So, I wonder….When our sukkahs today are guaranteed modesty by garden walls, wrapped tight and secure by canvas, tarpaulin or wood, why are we not all diving for the one (tznius) chance we have each year to make love under a blanket of stars in the perfume of night? Why are we not pulling out mattresses and pillows and curling up together for a midnight tryst in the moonlight, so that starlight breezes can stroke our backs while lovers trace our contours in the darkness?

Surely, the mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah should not stop at sleeping? If we are truly to pause and realise the impermanence of life, to try to connect, once a year, to remember wandering in the desert without a home, without a land, it makes sense that we should be encouraged to live and love under the cover of leaves and between the shimmer of stars.

So I say, let’s revisit the mitzvot of Sukkot.

I will if you do.

Chag sameach

*For purposes of clarity, I have referred to sukkah in the plural as ‘sukkahs’ (rather than the Hebrew plural, ‘Sukkot’) in order to reduce the possibility of confusion between the use of the plural for the structure and references to the festival, Sukkot

This essay was first published on Jewrotica.


Banning tzniut from my Yom Kippur discourse

Yom Kippur makes you think about a lot of things. Usually I am thinking about how hungry I am (or am not), how all this standing hurts my back or how heavy my machzor (book of liturgy) feels. But I also spend the day trying to be conscious of the thoughts I have about the people around me.

The first Yom Kippur I tried this – years ago, now – I was horrified to discover just how often I thought unpleasant things about the people (women) around me at shul. While I believed I was spending my Day of Atonement in the midst of introspection and self-cleansing, I soon realised I was running a critical commentary on my side of the mechitza than was just plain mean and grumpy. It was a bit of a shock, in fact.

There I am in the women's gallery trying not to have unpleasant thoughts about people.
There I am in the women’s gallery trying not to have unpleasant thoughts about people.

Since then, most Yom Kippurs I try to have an awareness about what my mind is saying about other people. And occasionally, as I slow myself down to this new sense of self-consciousness, I do so with an intent to think positive things (or nothing) about the person who catches my eye and my brain – and to carry this mode of operation into the rest of the year (although, until now I haven’t had much success with this all-year thing).

So in 5775 my Yom Kippur self-awareness resumed but this year I added a new angle: I was not going to assess the clothing of the women around me.

I’m not talking about from a fashion angle – that’s not my thing. But perhaps unsurprisingly, I do find it fascinating to observe the various interpretations that women in my community have of tzniut. Hemlines, necklines, kisui rosh (head covering), tightness, sheerness, heel height: Shabbat and yom tov are spectacles of delight for me, because there is always someone who’ll surprise me.

I love the parade and the process of building conclusions about what each woman’s tznius choice says about her: about her mood, her spiritual journey, her level of knowledge, her husband, her family, her communal persona. It’s fascinating.

I don’t care much how frum or tznius a woman wants to dress – it’s her life, her journey. However, I do like to analyse those choices and to contemplate what that means for her, what it says about her. But if I am being honest with myself, it’s difficult to draw these conclusions without bringing in an element of judgment.

So this Yom Kippur I tried to abstain. I tried to look at the woman and not her hair or her pantyline. And frankly, I chose not to think too much about what I was wearing either. Was it appropriate for shul? Yes. Was it ironed? Yes. I didn’t bother with pre Yom Kippur make-up; there was no faffing about with jewellery – no fuss, just me and my machzor. I wouldn’t say it was nice. It just was.

Did I manage? Yes. I have no recollection of who was wearing what or how they looked – other than of the women who were sitting beside me – friends/family members, with whom I had conversations about the weather and new clothing. But for the rest, I have no idea. It was good not to notice. It felt simple – if a little lacklustre.

So, with that little achievement in my pocket, did I have a meaningful Yom Kippur? A day of genuine personal introspection? I don’t know. I tried, but I never really know. The best I can say is I had a Yom Kippur.

But I do feel that somewhere out there, in the ether of my spiritual narrative, something good happened. Even if don’t really know what it was. And even if I shouldn’t be having these thoughts in the first place.

L’at, l’at as they say in Hebrew. Slowly, slowly.

Shana tova. Wishing you only good things for the coming year.