Sisterhood Blog

Sukkot Customs I'd Like To Change

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

As a parent, I love the holiday of Sukkot, which begins Friday night. It’s a great family time – lots of al fresco dining, sleeping outdoors, enjoying fresh air, singing, cooking favorite foods, and experiencing a welcome escape from the weightiness of an excessively material life.

There’s nothing like spending eight days inside four walls of canvas to remind us of the value of simplicity.

As a woman, though, I find Sukkot to be one of the most difficult holidays we’ve got. It is laden with messages about gender differences and where women truly belong, and these messages seem to intensify each year.

I used to think it was just the children’s books – you know, pictures of men and boys banging the hammer and nails juxtaposed against pictures of women and girls in aprons or serving soup – which conveyed these messages.

Certainly there are some fantastic authors who challenge these assumptions – such as Ellie Gellman and Shauna Mooney Kawasaki in “Tamar’s Sukkah” and Latifa Berry Kropf and Tod Cohen in “It’s Sukkah Time.”

But there are still enough he-man (bang chest) versions of the Sukkot story out there to make me bristle. They remind me of a story my friend Jessica told me, about how after her mother got divorced, the first thing she did was buy a hammer and nails and hang up her own pictures. As if to say that the hammer was a tool of physical empowerment and thus became her personal symbol of freedom.

Indeed, children’s books are more than just play. They send powerful messages that both reflect and mold society. Two years ago, my students at a local college – Orthodox young women in their early 20s who were studying for a education degrees – were examining a popular Sukkot workbook that did not have even a single picture of a woman in it.

The book showed men building the sukkah, as well as purchasing the “four species” lulav and etrog, exchanging money and praying.

I asked my students about the message that only men handle affairs of ritual, synagogue, and money, and their responses astounded me. “But why would a woman want to handle a lulav?” one responded, completely dumfounded by my questions. “Or money?” asked another as the rest of the class laughed. I was speechless.

Actually, I found this whole conversation frightening. I also found it very hard to undo their perceptions. These young women, most of whom were already married and some of whom were mothers, had spent some 15 years in the religious educational system in Israel inundated with images such as these.

Even if a woman decides to practice the ritual of holding the four species, perhaps she should not make a blessing or even respond “amen” to a man’s blessing, they were taught, because a woman’s commitment, even when dutifully practiced, is not as significant or meaningful as that of a man.

Faced with the outcome of religious education among my students, I found trying to challenge the deeply embedded messages of gender difference daunting indeed.

In some homes, all Sukkot practices highlight gender differences. When space in the Sukkah is tight, women often stay inside – or worse, go back and forth serving. (My mother always says Sukkot is harder on her than Pesach, and I imagine that this is why.) Or, where part of a Sukkah is not “kosher” because it’s under shade, the women are given the “unkosher” spots.

Men buy their sons lulavs and etrogs. Last year, the salesman looked at my daughter and handed her an etrog – one that wasn’t kosher. How cute, he smiled, as if for girls fake is fine.

It’s an entire living reminder that men are doing life and women are watching or serving.

But the personal really is political, and the private is ultimately public. Last year, Sukkot became the focus of an escalated level of gender difference as signs around Jerusalem called for women to walk on the “other” side of the street. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this call came on Sukkot. The holiday is so laden with messages of separation that it’s almost a natural extension.

The message of Sukkot should be an equalizing one. We are all stuck in the huts, all equally exposed to the elements. Living in the desert, no one family had a bigger house, job, or paycheck and everyone relied on God’s generosity and compassion.

I’d like to bring back some of that equality. That’s why I sleep in the Sukkah with my kids. We should all breathe the same air and wake up with the same cricks in our backs. Now that, to me, is the Jewish way.

Alissa Wed. Sep 30, 2009

While I agree with you in theory, it's not fair to paint all Orthodox Jewish tradition with the same brush. I have built our succah for years - full on wood, hammer, nails, drill. My husband is happy to have me do it.

According to my very observant, very strict rav and teacher, women are obligated in the mitzvah of succot. Which, to him, means shaking a *kosher* lulav and etrog, and - at least in Israel - sleeping in the succah. My husband buys the lulav and etrog for our household, which we share, because I can't be bothered to deal with shopping.

I know many observant families where this is true, or where the tasks are equally shared. Yes, there are communities where women are pushed to the side, or shrugged off as not being equal or not being obligated in the mitzvah, and this is not right, but that doesn't mean that all observant communities believe that way. Or teach their children to believe that way.

dmmd Wed. Sep 30, 2009

Like it or not we are born with gender differences. Each gender does what it is best suited for physically and emotionally. Judaism always recognized this and did not fight reality. Each of us had an important but different role in our worship and in our family life. When it comes to equality, who is better the musician or the artist? Both are talented. Men and women together play essential roles in our culture although they are not the same roles.

Ilana Thu. Oct 1, 2009


Are you saying that women are better suited "physically and emotionally" to serve food than men?

Leah Thu. Oct 1, 2009

Ilana - Nice one!

Elana - loved this piece! I was working on a post for Jewesses with Attitude about gender and symbols in Jewish tradition, and your post added relevance to what I was trying to say. I quoted you too!

Sue-Rae Thu. Oct 1, 2009

A few interesting observations/comments. I agree with you, but there are people and women who have been protesting this for many years 1. About 25 years ago my sister and her friend went shopping for a luluv and esrog on the lower east side. The man tried to sell them an unkosher esorg and seemed shocked that they called him out on it. 2. My father has been buying me my own luluv and esrog since I moved out of the house, this includes the 10 years I was single. 3.Several years ago part of the shul's sukkah was deemed un-kosher, and the women were asked to move. They did not! I wish I would have been there to see it, but at the time we (my daughter, my husband and friend Dulcie) were in our very own sukkah that we built ourselves.

Hershel Thu. Oct 1, 2009

When I was 17 I asked my rav about why women dont have to do certain (time bound) mitzvot and he simply claimed that it is because they are busy with the kids and the house. Later when I continued asking him if women could do some of the mitzvot that were done by males ie tefillin, he looked at me with all seriousness and said " If a frog wants to be a rabbit, no matter how much he paints himself white and eats carrots he will never be a rabbit". I smiled and went on my way. I really wish I had the guts to respectfully tell my rav that what he said was simply stupid!

Rahel Fri. Oct 2, 2009

When I was a student in an Orthodox high school over 15 years ago, I was one of three girls in my grade of over 100 who brought her own lulav and etrog to school on hol hamoed sukkot -- the vast majority of the boys had one. I grew up in an egalitarian Conservative home, so there was no question in my family that I would have my own once I was Bat Mitzvah. The other girls were eager to use my lulav and etrog, and did say the bracha -- it was the most liberal Orthodox school in the area -- but is was certainly not expected that they would get their own. So I was very pleased to find out from a young family friend who just started at that school that now boys and girls are expected to bring lulavim and etrogim, and the school is offering them at a very reasonable price. All of which is to say, I don't think sexism is in any way inherent in Sukkot -- every holiday presents opportunities to include women in mitzvot from which they had previously been excluded.

Elana Sun. Oct 4, 2009

Sukkot in Meah Shearim: Women are asked to stay away from the entrance altogether. For photos and blog, goto "Shearim" --

Leslie Martin Sun. Oct 4, 2009

I loved this piece. I had no idea how many sexist rules I'd been breaking all these years! I yearn for equality for all women, everywhere.

Michael Makovi Sun. Oct 4, 2009

To quote my reply to this article:

The Haredim do indeed tremble, but not before G-d. It appears that the Haredim are afraid of humans, in more ways than one.

Professor Haym Soloveitchik, in "Rupture and Reconstruction", notes that when the Haredim become acclimated to the surrounding non-Haredi culture, a fear sets in, and a reactionism, almost akin some sort of OCD sets in. They feel an instinctive and impelling need to differentiate themselves from the surrounding community, to mark themselves off. All this is not for the sake of preserving Torah or Judaism, because in many cases, the secular culture in question does not seriously threaten either. Rather, the Haredim seek differentiation and distinction for their own sakes, as values in and of themselves. The Haredim don't fear G-d; they fear man.

If we wish to compare this Haredi trembling at the feet of man to what an authentic Torah-true Jew would see, we might note Daniel Elazar's words in The Special Character of Sephardi Tolerance: "It is difficult for Sephardim to understand the isolationist trend that is dominant among so many Orthodox Ashkenazim, who see the salvation of Judaism only in separating it from those who do not meet current religious standards, which seem to be always moving to the right. Sephardim see no hope or virtue in isolation; to them, the result is a warping of Jews and a distortion of Judaism. Sephardim always have sought to balance their lives both as Jews and as a part of a larger human society. Isolation is not and was not a Sephardic goal -- that would have been a violation of their sense of proportion and balance. Rather, they seek to accept involvement with the larger world and its challenges. Historically, in the world in which most Sephardim lived, there was little occupation and segregation between Jews and non-Jews and often little residential segregation. Living and working together prevented the development of an isolationist spirit."

Similarly, the Haredim are deathly afraid of women. Subverting the very intention of the laws of tzniut - which are, after all, meant to emphasize the humanity and spirituality/intellectuality (depending on how one defines b'tzelem elokim) of women by encouraging a deemphasis of physical beauty and sexuality - the Haredim rather emphasis the physicality and sexuality of women, painting them as naught but sexual attractions, and they emphasis the sexually-drawn nature of men, depicting them as naught but sexually-desiring hounds. Both men and women are hyper-sexualized by the Haredim, which is of course precisely the opposite of the intention of the laws of tzniut. The Haredim thus fear women, and come to think of it, fear themselves as well. One should not be surprised if any day now, Freudian sexual neuroses, once known almost amongst dualistic Euro-Christians, become known amongst the Haredim as well. Of one who is overly stringent, the Yerushalmi asks, "It wasn't enough what I prohibited you, that you have to prohibit more?" The Haredim will indeed answer that what G-d prohibited was not enough, for their fear of men exceeds their fear of G-d, and man is more stringent than G-d.

Yes, the Haredim tremble at his word, but not at His word.

Michael Makovi Sun. Oct 4, 2009

In the above, my URLs did not come out correctly.


To quote my reply to this article: --->


Daniel Elazar's words in The Special Character of Sephardi Tolerance -->


Michael Makovi Sun. Oct 4, 2009

See for an elaboration of what I write above.

Michael Makovi Sun. Oct 4, 2009

"Men buy their sons lulavs and etrogs. Last year, the salesman looked at my daughter and handed her an etrog – one that wasn’t kosher. How cute, he smiled, as if for girls fake is fine."

If the Talmud prohibits a Jew to sell treif meat to a gentile if the gentile thinks the meat is kosher, then presumably, it is just as prohibited to do likewise with a treif etrog. But if it's permitted (according to this fellow) to sell a treif etrog to a Jewish girl, then apparently, gentiles are considered more Jewish than Jewish women are. There you have it: these sexist Haredim are actually questioning the Jewish bona-fides of Jewish women, and I'm not exaggerating. Of course, if they question the Jewishness of the women, they thereby question the Jewishness of the men as well (matrilineality), but since when was intellectual honesty and consistency and perspicacity the hallmark of the Haredi value-system (Da'at Torah)?

APC Sun. Oct 4, 2009

Thank you, Alissa. I really, really needed to hear that. Thank you for posting. Also thanks to Michael Makovi for the interesting comments.

yisrael feuerman Wed. Oct 7, 2009


just to point out that sephardim lived in lands where their distinctness was left intact. They had rights, but as second class citizens -- for the most part there was no doctrine to convert them -- this could be the major reason for their openness and their emotional security as Jews in the midst of a larger more powerful and very different culture.

chloe Tue. Oct 27, 2009

wish i could remember R. Angel's quote on Ashkenazic vs. Sfardi nigunim

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.