This year, I built the most passul sukkah I’ve ever built in my life. And I built it in June.
Every year, my kids’ school has some kind of academic fair, which is when you do a craft project at home with the help of your kid. Or not. And then he brings it into school in a flimsy box or the bottom of his knapsack, and then all the parents come in and look at their own kid’s project and that’s it.
So toward the end of the last school year, my wife and I had to make a sukkah with our third-grader. You’d think June would be a weird time for this, but it was actually supposed to be built in time for their siyum on Mishnayos Sukkah.
The idea was that each kid in the class had to bring in a passul sukkah. For those who don’t know, almost half of Mishnayos Sukkah talks about the different ways you can screw up building a sukkah. And I don’t just mean because most Jews don’t know how to build anything, even indoors, that can survive a slight wind.
What you have to remember is that in those days, you didn’t just go to The Sukkah Outlet and get a pile of pre-made pieces with instructions. You had to look around your backyard on Motzoei Yom Kippur, in the dark, and try to figure out what you were going to make your sukkah out of this year, because you had to use last year’s walls as firewood.
“Um… What about some fence posts, a bike with a broken chain, a dead lawn mower, and a humane animal trap?”
“I don’t know; let’s check the Mishna.”
And as a result, the Mishna includes cases that to the untrained eye, look like people were going out of their way to build questionable sukkahs just to keep the Tanaim on their toes.
“Can I build one on the back of a wagon – just going down the highway at 60 miles an hour, schach flying everywhere?”
“What if I built one on top of my downstairs neighbor’s sukkah?”
“What if part of my body doesn’t fit in the sukkah?”
We always think these people were trying to be difficult, but that last case, for example, comes up all the time. We’ve all been in a situation where someone invited one too many guests, or we were with a crowd of sukkah hoppers, and one guy is hanging halfway out of the sukkah. Or he’s sitting in the part of the sukkah where everyone’s like, “The men don’t sit in that part of the sukkah. We put the women in there so they think they’re eating with us. Our upstairs neighbor’s sukkah is hovering over that side.”
So my initial thought for this project was that I want to build the sukkah from the first Mishna – the one that’s less than 10 tefachim high.
But it turns out that everyone was assigned a specific sukkah. Ours was the haystack, from the Mishna that talks about how, if you hollow out a haystack, it’s a passul sukkah.
So my first thought was: How do we hollow out a haystack? And then transport it to school? The Mishna doesn’t seem to talk about the patience and skill it takes to actually hollow out a haystack and not have it collapse on you or blow away in a light breeze. One breeze on the way to school and we’re done. I have to drive there with the windows closed. And then I thought: Who says our sukkah has to actually be hollow? The rebbi’s not going in there. It’s a tiny sukkah. It’s shorter than ten tefachim, although we have to downplay that part.
And then I thought: Why do we have to build the sukkah at home? Just send him in with a Ziploc bag of hay, and when he gets to school, he can make a haystack out of it! Though knowing our little underachiever, we’re going to show up to find a Ziploc bag of hay.
And to be honest, we could have gotten harder Mishnayos. I had no idea how to illustrate a sukkah gezulah, for example.
Actually, I do -- just write another kid’s name on it.
So we took a paper bowl and cut a little door in it, and then we dipped the bowl in glue and then in clipped grass. My son was very concerned about this, because in his mind, clipped grass was not hay. So I tried to convince him that hay is actually dried-out grass. I don’t think there are any farmers out there who, when you ask them, “What do you grow?” say, “Hay.”
“Hey. So what do you grow?”
But here’s something I did not know: Cut grass stuck to a bowl takes forever to dry out. We had the bowl sitting out for a couple of weeks directly under a lamp, and it was not drying out. My son was worried that the grass didn’t look like hay – he’d wanted to use raw spaghetti, which would have been impossible to stick to a round bowl anyway – we would have been better off with cooked spaghetti, which I don’t think is mentioned in the Mishna – but I’d told him, “Once it sits around for a while, it looks like hay.” I have no idea how long that takes. Definitely longer than the advance notice we had on this project.
So my wife, at the last minute, found hay at a local women’s clothing store that is currently doing construction. I’m not sure what they need with hay, but they have several bales lined up. Probably to make cement, if I know my Chumash. So she walked in and asked, “Can I have a little bit of hay?” and they said, “Why?” and she said, “We’re building a passul sukkah!” And they said, “In June?” So they gave her a little official store baggie to carry it home in, like this was our fancy hay.
Then we cut the fancy hay into tiny pieces and glued it on over the grass, which was still green, and to be honest, it did not quite look like a sukkah. It looked more like a yarmulke that a scarecrow would wear.
As it turns out, our sukkah was smaller than almost any other sukkah in the class – even smaller than the one that was less than ten tefachim. And actually, all the sukkahs were less than ten tefachim, except for the one that was supposed to be twenty amos tall, which was actually about ten tefachim.
But most of the sukkahs were pretty creative, and introduced new shaylos that do not seem to be brought up in a simple reading of the Mishna, such as: What about a sukkah made out of graham crackers? What about a sukkah made out of Clics? What about a sukkah in a shoebox?
We still have our sukkah. We’ve been keeping it on the parsha table in our dining room since Shavuos, and it’s been shedding like crazy. I sweep a little bit of hay off the floor almost every day, which is why I have no real desire to put it away in the arts and crafts box. It’s also covered in challah crumbs.
I have no idea how people used to sleep on straw. That stuff gets everywhere.
And as I write this, I’m looking at my grass straw through my wife’s professional-grade straw and I’m thinking that it might not actually be the same thing. I think it’s very different when your straw is dried professionally. We were probably supposed to toast it or something.
We’ve mostly been keeping the sukkah around as a conversation piece, because none of our guests know what it is. Most people think it’s Har Sinai. With a door in the side, for some reason. But then, a couple of months ago, we had this family from Brooklyn at our house for Shabbos, and the father took one look and said, “You have a sukkah too?” He knew what it was.
And I said, “Yeah, we had to make a passul sukkah from the Mishna.”
And he said, “So did we! We had to make the haystack. What’s this?”
So I asked, “How did you make your haystack?”
And he said, “Well, we live in Brooklyn, so we had to order the hay online.”
The annoying thing is that the schools never do this at a time of year when it’s easy to get hay. We could be sneaking it off the hay rides in our pants when we go apple picking.
“How much for the hay?”
“The hay isn’t for sale.”
“How much for that scarecrow?”
“I don’t think you people understand what apple picking is.”
“What do you mean ‘you people’?”
“There was a guy here from Brooklyn last week.”
And apparently, you can’t really buy small amounts of hay. They had to order a 5-pound bale, which is way too much hay. I think an entire haystack is five pounds. So after they did their project, they had to find a place to store 4.9 pounds of hay in their tiny Brooklyn apartment. Luckily, they had a pet rabbit that their landlord wasn’t crazy about, and he just loved the hay. And, when they were done, the sukkah.
I personally can’t believe that someone out there is actually selling their cut grass to city folk by mail. I could make a killing, if my grass would ever actually turn into hay.