There’s a story told about an uptight and unhappy rich man and a poor but joyous man, a Chassid, who lived on the same street in a small Eastern European shtetl. The rich man had a much larger house, of course, with finer furnishings and all that. Sukkot, however, was somewhat of an equalizer. Both families ate their meals outside their homes in a temporary Sukkah covered with tree branches. The rich man’s Sukkah was made of solid sturdy wooden walls, the poor man borrowed a motley assortment of wall pieces from neighbors and acquaintances, so it looked a little shabbier, but the end result was pretty much the same. They both ate the holiday meals under the same stars.

The rich man was more formal, stuffy and stern, so the atmosphere in his Sukkah was more subdued. But the poor man was jovial and full of spirit, and his Sukkah was brimming with joyful song and celebration. This bothered the rich man to no end. The singing from the poor man’s Sukkah would waft up the street to his Sukkah, and he could not help but jealously hear the joyful sounds of his poor neighbor. All year long he had the upper hand, and everything he had was better than his neighbor, but on Sukkot the tables seemed to turn and he was envious.

One year he decided to put an end to it. This was a small town, and the rich man did some kind of business with nearly everyone who lived there. He went and spoke to everyone in town, and sternly warned them that if they were to dare lend that poor man any boards for his Sukkah, he would never do business with them again that year. The townsfolk were good people, but few could risk the wrath of their wealthiest citizen, so they went along with it. That year the poor man went around asking people for spare parts to make his Sukkah, but no one would give him anything.

He was desperate and frustrated. He looked forward to Sukkot all year. How would he make his Sukkah? It was already the afternoon before the holiday and time was running out. Then he had an idea! The gravedigger’s synagogue!

Even nowadays many Jewish cemeteries have a small chapel on the premises, a holdover from years past when cemeteries were a long distance from communities and travel could be difficult. Most gravestones are made of stone, but in a poor town like this they prepared tall, thin wooden planks that would be sunk into the ground inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased. All the boards were already etched with the words (or acronym) for “Poh Nitman” (here lies buried) and they would customize it as needed.

Our poor Jew remembered that the gravedigger’s synagogue had a large pile of such boards on hand. It was almost the holiday. They wouldn’t miss the boards for a week. He rushed to the gravedigger’s synagogue and made a few trips carrying these boards to his home. Joyfully, he built his Sukkah and finished it in the nick of time.

That night, he and his family were gathered around the table of their Sukkah, singing joyfully on top of their lungs. The rich man was infuriated! He couldn’t believe it. Who lent them boards for a Sukkah? What is going on here? He could not help himself. He rushed out of his Sukkah and ran down the block and into his neighbor’s Sukkah. He looked inside, and on every single board, all around the Sukkah, he saw inscribed “Here lie buried.”

I don’t remember exactly who said this punchline, whether it was the rich or poor man, or a third person, who wisely observed: “The rich man took the life out of the joyful Sukkah holiday, while the poor man made cemetery burial boards come alive with the joy of the holiday!”

Sukkah de Vivre, a Sukkah of Life!


This Sukkot 2015 we are joined by a family from Maryland who came up for a family funeral (her father) on the eve of Sukkot and couldn’t get back to MD in time before the holiday. Despite their personal loss, they’ve made much effort to celebrate the Sukkot holiday here with us in a positive way. Without diminishing their grief, like this story, they’ve – in some way – transformed cemetery boards to holiday celebration.


Here’s an alternate ending from online Hebrew sources to the above story that my brother-in-law shared with me:

The rich man burst into his poor neighbor’s Sukkah, incredulous that he managed to muster up a Sukkah. The poor man explained:

I was desperate to find boards for my Sukkah. I went from one house to another, from one store or another. Everyone refused me. I couldn’t believe it. Then I met the angel of death coming up our street. I asked him what he is doing in our neighborhood. He said he was coming for you, the rich man. I told the angel of death not to bother wasting any energy on you, after all, you are so lethargic and unhappy, you are pretty close to death anyways.  The angel of death was grateful for my saving him a trip, he asked how he could help me. I told him my Sukkah dilemma and he told me about the boards in the cemetery.

The rich man felt inspired and uplifted by his poor neighbor. He asked for the source of his inspiration and joy, and the poor man told him of the Chassidic Rebbe he traveled to and invited the rich man to come along with him. Indeed he did, and in time there were two very joyous Sukkahs on that street.