Hut for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkah)

Austria or southern Germany, mid 19th century

Painted conifer, 220 x 285.5 cm

Acquired with the aid of the Fonds du patrimoine and Claire Maratier

Hut for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkah), Austria or southern Germany, late 19th century

Hut for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkah), Austria or southern Germany, late 19th century

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is celebrated five days after Kippur. It recalls the divine protection of the Hebrews during the forty years they wandered in the Sinai Desert after the Exodus, living in temporary shelters. During the seven days of this harvest festival, it is written in the Torah (Leviticus 23, 42) that all meals must be eaten in a sukkah, a hut with a roof of branches and decorated walls built outdoors. Each day, participants wave a bunch of four plant species (lulav), bound together: citron (etrog), date palm (lulav), myrtle (hadass) and willow (aravah), symbolising the unity between the different components of the Jewish people.

The sukkah’s roof must provide only a makeshift shelter through which one can see the stars, protecting from the sun but not from rain and recalling the precarity of human existence and the necessity to defer to the almighty power. Yet the sukkah is one of the few objects cited in the Babylonian Talmud that must be made with a concern for Hiddur Mitsvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) to pay homage to God. It is therefore usually decorated with garlands of seasonal fruits and images related to the festival. Each family must begin building its sukkah at the end of Kippur. If no garden or courtyard is available it can be constructed on a balcony or terrace or, if this is not possible, inside a hut or loft, providing part of the roof is removed during the festival.

This type of dismantlable sukkah enabled the rapid construction of a beautiful and comfortable hut. Exceptional in its painted decoration, it was made for a wealthy family in the Lake Constance region, on the borders of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, in the mid-19th century.

It is composed of thirty-seven planks numbered in Roman numerals, held together by a frame at the top and bottom and with a door on hinges with a lock and two windows with shutters. Contrasting with its nondescript blackened exterior, the upper half of the interior is ornately decorated with a landscape above a central frieze depicting animals and fish, symbols of fertility, with a lower border of drapery. The cable-moulded pillars on either side of the door (panels 32 to 34) evoke Yakhin and Boaz, the two pillars supporting the entrance porch of the Temple in Jerusalem. The panels are adorned with a vase of flowers, a very frequent motif in Germanic folk art and which in a Jewish context can also symbolise the “Tree of Life” associated with the Torah. On the wall to the left of the hut’s entrance (panels 1 to 10) there is a symbolic view of Jerusalem, because Sukkot is one of the three major “Pilgrimage" Festivals during which Jews went to the Temple before its destruction. In keeping with classical depictions of Jerusalem, in the middle of the fortified city we can the Temple’s west wall or “Weeping Wall” (HaKotel HaMa'aravi), depicted as a yellow rectangle. To the left the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Omar, and to the right the El-Aqsa Mosque, built on the site of the former Temple. In both its composition and details, this image is very similar to a lithograph by the German artist Yehoseph Schwarz dated 1837. The hills surrounding Jerusalem continue on the rear wall (panels 11 to 18) with an undulating landscape showing a village on the shore of Lake Constance. The right-hand wall (panels 19 to 28) has two small windows framed by foliation, on either side of a large imitation marble medallion with a drapery border surmounted by a crown, symbol of the royalty of the Torah, inscribed with the first words of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew in two columns.

Technically, this sukkah is comparable to the countless beach huts on the Channel and the North Sea coasts in the 19th century. But from a typological point of view it is extremely rare: there are very few surviving examples, one more modest and more recent, dated 1882, from Schwäbisch-Hall in Bade-Würtemberg (Hällisch Fränkische Museum) and another from Fischbach in Bavaria dating from the mid-19th century (Israel Museum), also composed of wooden panel numbered in Roman numerals and with quite similar decoration (a pastoral scene with a village and a view of Jerusalem inspired by the same source).

Late in 2018, the mahJ succeeded in acquiring the only missing panel (no. 16), thereby completing this masterpiece of Jewish folk art and its Germanic landscape thirty years after it entered the museum’s collection.

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