The Jewish holiday of Sukkot (the Festival of Booths) begins tonight at sundown and has always been one of my favorites because its central custom is essentially a ritual mobile home, the Sukkah. Sukkot commemorates both the fall harvest and that 40-year detour in the desert and so it is traditional to spend as much time as possible during the eight days of the festival in one of these temporary structures. In the past, that meant building your own. Today, one can come to you.
You see, there are many strict Jewish laws, or halakhot, that dictate just how a Sukkah must be constructed, from the number of wall panels (at least 2 and “a bit”,) and the kind of vegetation fit for roof duty. This is all very important to many Jews, who try their best to eat every meal during the week in their Sukkah. Though the rules are stringent, there is one thing that is surprisingly allowed that couldn’t have existed back in the days of the Talmud. It turns out that a mobile Sukkah is totally acceptable.*
But who could have conceived of such a thing after thousands of years of these little booths staying put? It turns out that Chabad Lubavitch, a stream of Hassidic Judaism headquartered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn would be the ones to finally disrupt Sukkah-dom and take the show on the road. Their Sukkah-mobiles, totally kosher, hit the road to help Jews without their own Sukkah fulfill the commandment of “to sit in the Sukkah,” which is an important part of the holiday’s traditions. It might seem weird that a group in New York City would be at the front of road-based Jewish innovation, but when you look at their track record though, it starts to make sense.
Chabad, a movement founded in Liozno in what is now Belarus, was led in the mid-to-late 20th Century by Rabbi Menachmem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe or more simply just as “the Rebbe.” After the horrors of the Holocaust, the Rebbe charged his followers to reach out to Jews around the world and help them understand their religious heritage. As part of this effort, the Rebbe sent official emissaries, or shluchim, to communities around the world. These emissaries would typically start their own synagogue and form a Jewish community often where no infrastructure for Jewish practice ever existed, or where it may have disappeared either because of persecution or just because of the decline of community institutions.
Of course, if you’re from New York or another large city with a significant Jewish population, you may already be familiar with these emissaries, the guys on the street corner with beards and fedoras who might ask you if you’re Jewish. Chabad as a movement has always stressed the significance of observing Jewish rituals even for Jews who might consider themselves totally secular. While they aren’t interested in converting anyone new (Judaism doesn’t believe in proselytism), these shluchim would always be happy if a Jew passing by laid Tefillin or took home candles for Shabbat.
Now, in New York City, this usually means posting up at the entrance to the subway, but not every Jewish community is accessible by public transit so in 1962, the Chabad movement created its first Mitzvah-mobiles, which evolved into the “Mitzvah Tanks” you might still see in Manhattan and Brooklyn from time to time, and can be found all around the world if you look in the right places.
But what does this have to do with Sukkot? The Mitzvah Tank model might have been a success year-round, but the concept really takes off around Sukkot, where Jews looking to observe the holiday traditionally need access to a Sukkah but space and materials can be difficult to come by in urban areas, or on a college campus, or perhaps even on a battlefield. The solution to this problem put forth by Chabad is the Sukkah-mobile.
As I said before, the issue of whether such a contraption is allowed under Jewish law is actually not too difficult to work out. The laws don’t talk about whether the Sukkah needs to be in place the whole holiday. In fact, if you think about the origins of the holiday, the Israelites in the desert were on the move for the entire 40-year journey, and farmers in the fields living in Sukkahs would have needed to move them often to get from field to field. The very nature of the holiday is on the move, so it really makes some sense that the huts could catch a ride in a pickup or on a trailer.
And that’s exactly what Chabad emissaries did. They built entire Sukkahs for use on the go, bringing them into the city where many Jews don’t have space for one at home (Sukkah-ready apartments do exist, but in Manhattan they can go for in excess of four million dollars) so the commandments of the holiday can be fulfilled by all, including shaking the four species (yes, including that lemon thing).
While the biggest sukkah-mobiles have been on the back of semi-trailers, not all of them are motorized. In fact, one of the more common types of Sukkah-mobile these days is the pedi-Sukkah. These bike-based machines bring tiny one-person Sukkahs into places a larger Sukkah can’t go, and also happen to give off zero emissions. Sukkot, being a holiday with a heavy natural component (it’s about the harvest, remember?), has come to take on a new environmental significance for many Jews, particularly in progressive streams, and these pedi-Sukkahs are a great way to reinforce that new tradition.
All of this meaning and obligation seems difficult to digest and even harder to put into practice, but there’s an important thing to remember about Sukkot. An important commandment necessary to fulfill on Sukkot is fun. That’s right, fun. It is mandatory to have a good time on Sukkot. Seriously. If you’re not happy, you’re not doing it right. And if goofy vehicles driving around town with roofs made of sticks and leaves and colorful decorations inside are part of the plan, I think we’re in shape there.
It might seem like this is a lot of effort for a vehicle that could get used only a few days a year, but the truth is that when Sukkot is over, there is another holiday coming up a few months from now that will need its own vehicles. That’s right. Menorah-mobiles. But that’s for another weekend. Until then, it’s Sukkah time.
*There is one caveat to this though. You can’t use it on the first days of the holiday, where interacting with most kinds of vehicles is forbidden as a form of labor activity. You know, like how Walter in the Big Lebowski won’t “roll on Shabbos.”