Columns - 1996

    The true origin of Sukkot

    Some scholars will have you believe that Sukkot is a harvest holiday described in the Torah. Nope. Not true. Gather the kids, get a glass of warm milk, and lend me your friendly Roman countryman ear and decide for yourself what's more believable.

    Rosh Hashanah means different things to different Jews. To children, and moreso to teachers, it means two days off from school. To Cantors, it means services will be so crowded that people in the usually-empty front row will notice if he's asleep during the sermon. To Rabbis, it's time to try out the premise for their newest books, and to unleash their latest jokes (the ones that are repeatable in Temple). To the domesticated, Rosh Hashanah is time to make sure the air conditioning in the kitchen works.

    At services, most men pray for forgiveness (the amount of forgiveness needed always exceeds the amount of time there is to ask for it). The cooks among us pray for the messiah to come... to help with the dishes. In fact, the dishes from Rosh Hashanah are why so many people who never go to Temple during the year spend so much time in services. Anything to avoid the messy kitchen for about a decade.

    Then comes Yom Kippur, most famous for the reading of the book of Jonah (someone told me it's a whale of a tale, but I think it's just a big fish story). On Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness for letting the dishes sit for a week, and that when we finally do them, no little creatures will jump out at us. Of course, we ask forgiveness about the dishes because it lets us ignore the other things we've done wrong through the year (skip board meetings, downplay the importance of religious school for our children, call to solicit funds during dinner).

    Many of us make a dent in the dishes before Yom Kippur. But the Last Supper and the Break Fast (Aramaic for "hey, we're starving!") negate these efforts. After Yom Kippur there's too many dishes piled not only in the kitchen, but the dining room, dinette, and along the walls separating the rooms.

    The Rabbis wrestled with this problem at the Temple for many long, sleepless nights. They had to. Their wives stacked dirty dishes on their sides of the bed and in their studies. Enter Sukkot.

    With the house inundated with dishes, they needed a place to eat. People couldn't go out to eat, because they would be spotted by the other people whose houses were lost to the High Holy Day dish plague. And Chinese restaurants hadn't opened yet. So the Rabbis decided they would use the old sheds in their back yards as a temporary dining room until the dishes were done.

    Of course, the sheds were not in good condition. The walls needed painting, and the roofs had decayed away. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah decided to put branches across the top, offering romantic moonlight on clear nights.

    Five days of heated debate passed. Other suggestions were debated, including building a Jewish Community Center (which was rejected because it was too close to the Federation's annual campaign). The Rabbis agreed to try the backyard shed theory. It worked. The kids loved it.

    However, the Rabbis didn't anticipate one thing. The wives, a step ahead of the men, as always, were delighted that the Rabbis would now have time to help with the dishes.

    Defeated and smelling of Palmolive, the Rabbis met the next morning for minyan. Rabbi Tarfon suggested they could simply destroy the dishes. Rabbi Ishmael pointed out that not only would it be wasteful, destroying many nice china sets received as wedding gifts, but the Greeks already had this tradition after formal meals and keg parties. That morning there was a Torah reading. One Rabbi, whom history has graced with anonymity, was suddenly inspired. He left, took a bath, then ran through the streets shouting "Eureka!" (Aramaic for "we're off the hook").

    Since that fateful day when Sukkot was approved as a Federal holiday, eating in the tool shed has been associated with the hardship of living in the wilderness during the Exodus. They made the holiday last eight days -- enough time for the wives to do the dishes while the men were at services all day. They also arranged to finish the Torah every year at this time, so they would have to roll all the Torahs at once, leaving little time to help dry the dishes.

    The moral of the story: Next time you want to get out of doing the dishes, invent a holiday. Government employees will be grateful.

    Three-time Grammy winner Doug Brook is the person who wrote this column. Any reproduction or rebroadcast of this column without the expressed, written consent of Major League Baseball is prohibited.

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.