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Before Chabad, there was the IDF

By Nati Gabbay, National Library of Israel

Mobile sukkahs have become popular with Chabad, but a dive into the National Library of Israel collection reveals an earlier manifestation of sukkahs on wheels, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

A sukkah on an IDF vehicle, October, 1973.
The Nathan Fendrich Collection/Pritzker Family National Photography Collection/National Library of Israel)

The war took its name from the sacred fast day on which the deadly conflict broke out and surprised the State of Israel.

The sirens first wailed on Shabbat, Oct. 6, at 1:55 p.m., but the war was still underway during Sukkot.

Thus, soldiers found themselves “celebrating” the harvest festival on the frontlines in both the Sinai Desert in the south and the Golan Heights in the north.

“IDF soldiers are exempt from the sukkah commandment,” then chief military rabbi Brigadier-General Mordechai Piron stated in a special proclamation in the midst of the war.

“Their duty at this time is to completely defeat and destroy the enemy,” the rabbi stated, “and whoever is unable to perform the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah is exempt.”

Despite this unequivocal declaration, there were soldiers who nevertheless tried to observe the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, even at the front. What probably drove the battle-weary soldiers was their desire for even a little of the holiday atmosphere, a brief respite.

A reporter for the Al HaMishmar newspaper who accompanied the soldiers in the difficult battles along the Suez Canal in the south reported in Hebrew:

“Despite the bitter fighting, there is no forgetting that civilian life goes on. On the frontline we discovered an improvised sukkah: a half-track vehicle decorated with branches, completely kosher.”

In the collections of the National Library of Israel we found several rare photographs documenting soldiers erecting improvised sukkahs on jeeps and other military vehicles.

It’s unclear whether all of these creative sukkah booths fulfilled the requirements according to Jewish law, but it is possible that for the soldiers at the front they provided some joy and a sense of home during difficult days.

Among the photos that stand out in particular are those taken by the photographer Nathan Fendrich. The 39-year-old Jewish American tourist had come to Israel to document historical and archaeological sites.

Finding himself “stuck” in Israel at the outbreak of the war, he decided to travel between the various fronts armed with his camera.

Among hundreds of fascinating photographs, we found a handful documenting some improvised sukkahs.

The Sukkot holiday of 1973 began under the shadow of desperate battles on both fronts, with real concern for the survival of the Jewish state; but by the end of Sukkot the turning point had come, and IDF forces moved from defense to offense.

A journalist for Maariv reported on Oct. 17 from deep in Syrian territory:

“On the main road approaching Hushniya — in between two damaged tanks, a yellowing thatch blows in the wind covering an improvised sukkah. A soldier from the Combat Engineering Corps tells us: ‘The guys from the armored division set up the sukkah. Yes, they managed to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in it, before they were called to destroy the last enemy pocket at the Hushniya junction.’”

A longer version of this post with more photographs can be seen on the National Library of Israel The Librarians blog.

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