(Courtesy of SMGH) Sukkot is a seven-day festival, also known as the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. It is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (shalosh regalim) mentioned in the Torah. Sukkot commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land and celebrates the way in which Hashem protected them under difficult desert conditions. The word Sukkot is the plural of the Hebrew word sukkah, meaning booth. Jews are commanded to “dwell” in booths during the holiday. This generally means taking meals, but some sleep in the sukkah as well.
Today, Sukkot is a socializing holiday, where friends and family gather for meals and to celebrate the festival. “When I converted to Judaism in 2005, and enjoyed my first Sukkot, it became our favorite Yom Tov,” said George Matyjewicz, PhD, Community Liaison with St. Mary’s General Hospital. “We built the largest non-shul sukkah in the Passaic-Clifton kehillah and have had 60+ people at a meal! This year will be a major challenge as we struggle through this COVID-19 pandemic. How do we socialize? It’s hard to eat a meal with a mask on. And having the vaccine does not guarantee you are safe—you can still get COVID-19! And the risk of COVID-19 goes up when associating with other people in poorly ventilated spaces at close distances for long periods.”
Please discuss any of this with Your LOR. (Local Orthodox Rabbi)
Shuls which would normally make their sukkahs available for those who do not have their own to fulfill the mitzvah to eat in the sukkah, may implement registration systems this year, allowing members to sign up for time slots online to avoid overcrowding and potential exposure in the sukkah. Don’t be surprised if your shul, that would normally accommodate 200 people, limits their capacity to 40 or less for social distancing. They may have a waiting list to book a time slot for the first two days. Don’t be misled in believing that because a sukkah is outdoors it is safe.
Reconstructing Your Sukkah. This year, since it will not be as cold as in past years, it may be necessary to reconstruct your sukkah so everybody can breathe more. Traditionally, a sukkah needs to have at least two walls, plus a third wall approximately two feet wide. And the walls do not have to be solid—in warm climates, like Florida or Texas, sukkahs are made of screening or lattice with screening. Add a couple of fans and you have excellent ventilation within your sukkah.
It may be as simple as only putting up two walls and an abbreviated third wall this year. Check to be sure that your s’chach will be supported by fewer walls. And, check with somebody who understands construction if you do alter your sukkah. Or maybe your seating arrangement has to change. Can you use two folding tables that are 36” wide so that they become 6’?
Or maybe you need a mobile sukkah.
Eating in a Sukkah. Obviously, you cannot eat in a sukkah with a mask on. If you are in a well-ventilated sukkah six feet apart with your mask off while eating, it is considered a safe and reasonable activity. There is no activity which is absolutely safe, but people have markedly decreased their risk if they are six feet away.
With social distancing, either your sukkah has to be larger or you have to have less guests. One should not be closer than six feet to anyone else unless they’re part of the same group or household. So, if your sukkah normally seats 60, when each chair is 18-24” apart (go ahead, measure), it now means that you may only have 15-20 people, depending on how your seating is structured.
Keep in mind that if someone you’ve dined with and sat closer than six feet to becomes COVID-19 positive, that is considered a high-risk event, and you have to quarantine. If you were more than six feet apart, then that would be a low-risk event, so that even if the other person develops COVID-19, the people around them would not need to quarantine. So, the solution is simple: be at least six feet away at all times.
Preparing Food for Others. If you are cooking for guests, you should have the food cooked or baked to greater than 180 degrees. That should sufficiently kill off any virus. If there’s handling of food that is not going to be cooked, it should be prepped with gloves and masks on and served with gloves and masks. All serving platters should be covered—do not have open plates of food which can be breathed on by guests.
Exceptions. One who is ill is not obligated to dwell in a sukkah. This is because one is supposed to dwell in a Sukkah the way they would dwell in their home. Since hospitalized patients are not dwelling in their homes, they are exempt. This exemption not only applies to one whose life is in danger, but also to a person suffering from a mild ailment, who need not eat in the sukkah if eating elsewhere is more comfortable.
One who is assisting a patient is also exempt from dwelling in a Sukkah during the time that the patient requires him or her. If the patient’s life is in danger and they need constant supervision, one who is attending to them would remain exempt at all times.
What If? What happens if you take all of these precautions but you start to show signs of COVID-19 illness?1 Take action immediately! While the hospitalizations for the new strains of COVID-19 are lower, you should still not take any chances. If you come to the ER at St. Mary’s General Hospital, you will be tested, and if the results come back positive, you will receive a dose of monoclonal antibodies, which have been shown to be very effective. Monoclonal antibody therapy is given through intravenous (IV) infusion, which requires about an hour to administer, followed by an hour of observation and monitoring.
Chag Sukkot sameach and stay safe!
St. Mary’s General Hospital—nationally recognized, locally preferred—is among the top hospitals in America for health, quality and patient safety. A center of excellence for maternal-child, the hospital has over 550 physicians and 1,200 employees, with every staff member committed to providing respectful, personalized, high-quality care—to satisfy patients’ needs and exceed their expectations. St. Mary’s General is a proud member of Prime Healthcare, which has had more Patient Safety Excellence Award recipients for five consecutive years (2016-2020) than any other health system in the country including a “Top 15 Healthcare System” by Truven Health Analytics. To learn more about St. Mary’s General Hospital visit https://www.smh-nj.com/ or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/StMarysGeneral.
For more information, please contact George Matyjewicz, PhD, Community Liaison at [email protected]
1 Symptoms: Fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea.