Weekly Chasidic Story #1346 (5784-03) 11 Tishrei 5784 (Sept. 26, 2023)

"The Floating Sukkah"

The police increased their surveillance. Anything that might be construed as a possible start to building a sukkah was immediately halted.

Connection: SUKKOT Festival

Story in PDF format for more convenient printing

The Floating Sukkah

In the year 1915, the governor of the Kiev district in Ukraine was General O.R. Drentein, a nasty anti-Semite of German origin.

[Wikipedia provides a list of all the governors of Kiev from 1700-1917! General Alexander Romanovitch Drentein is recorded as the governor from 1881-1888. If so, the episode above likely took place about three decades earlier than what is written. --YT]

As the festival of Sukkot was nearing the general sought ways to interfere with the preparation for the festival by the Jews living in his district.

He was familiar with the Jewish tradition of eating and spending time in the sukkah [1] that they built in their gardens.

After deliberating and consultation with the circle of his acquaintances of like mind, he decided on a malevolent course of action.

Approximately a week before the start of the festival, he publicized a proclamation that it was forbidden to build sukkot in the district of Kiev. The sukkot constituted a fire hazard was the official reason provided. Severe punishment was threatened to those who would transgress the decree.

The farmers of the district received separate orders not to bring wood and branches into the city in the near future.

The city of Kiev was in upheaval; whoever heard of such a thing! To prevent the Jewish people from celebrating the festival of Sukkot according to halacha (Jewish law)?!

That same day a delegation was organized, among them one of the richest Jewish citizens, one successful business man and one well known and talented lawyer. They requested an urgent meeting with the governor. But General Drentein, realizing why the meeting was being called, refused to meet with them, giving a transparent excuse.

The overwhelming opinion among the greatly indignant Jewish people was not to give in to the decree. But transgressing it was also impossible. One cannot build a sukkah inside or in other ways hide it from notice.

The police increased their surveillance. Anything at all that might be construed as a possible start to building a sukkah was immediately halted by them.

The city's rich and its dignitaries called a meeting to find a solution. Abruptly the owner of the local shipping company spoke up. "Many ships sail on the Dnieper River," he said, "We will build a big sukkah on one of the ships, and the Jewish citizens of the city will be invited to eat their meals there."

After some thought the lawyer remarked that this idea wasn't a transgression of the governor's edict. After all, he forbade to build sukkot on the ground of his district, nothing was said about the water.
It also removed the reason for the decree: the danger of a fire hazard, since that was not a threat on the water as it was on land.

The participants of the meeting were delighted with this solution. They made the decision to go forward with the plan in total secrecy, so that not a whisper of it should reach the general. They had no doubt that he would do everything in his power to obstruct them.

Two days before the beginning of the festival a place was prepared on one of the ships, and two huge sukkot were built. One sukkah was built in the First Class section which was meant for the rich of the town. Another sukkah was built in the Second Class section for all the other Jewish persons.

The sukkot were built 100% in accordance with the letter of halacha. The staff of the ship made the kitchens kosher. Enormous amounts of food were prepared for the expected crowds of people. The owner made it known that the meals were free of charge for anyone who wanted to observe the mitzvah of "leishev be sukkah" - 'dwelling in the sukkah.'

The subterfuge was kept a secret till the day before the beginning of the festival. Only then did a rumor start making the rounds about sukkot that had been built on a ship, that the Jewish people of Kiev were invited to observe the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah.

Several hours before the beginning of the festival the police discovered the sukkot on the ship. The stared in astonishment at the sukkot, at a loss what to do. The orders they were given had no instructions about what happened on the Dnieper. Neither did they have a justification to order the dismantling of the sukkot on grounds of being a fire hazard.

The Chief of police ran to the governor to inform him of the unexpected turn of events. General Drentein, stunned, couldn't believe his ears. He demanded to go see for himself the sukkot built on the river.

The evening had begun and crowds of Jewish people were making their way to the river in order to observe the mitzvah of Sukkot according to the letter of the halacha.

The festive meal began with much joy till the whispers started "Drentein is here!"

The latter was beside himself with fury. He threatened to send everyone there to Siberia.

At that point, the Rabbi of Kiev stood up to speak. "Sir, honorable Governor," he said, "you should be aware that there is nothing that can cause a Jew to betray his religion. There is no power in the world that is capable of uprooting from our hearts the mitzvot of the Torah which we received from the Creator more than three thousand years ago. Our holy Torah instructed us to sit in the sukkah, and even though we have been in exile close to two thousand years, we will not desert its commands."

The general listened attentively to the words of the Rabbi. When the Rabbi finished his emotional address, the general went over to him and, much to the surprise of everyone present, shook his hand. Immediately after he silently departed, together with the police officers.

That Sukkot was celebrated by the Jewish people of Kiev with special joy. They celebrated the festival itself as well as the victory over the people who wanted to prevent them observing the mitzvot and instead were overcome.

From that day on a change was noticeable in the governor. He stopped trying the cause trouble for the Jewish people. He even annulled previous decrees he had passed against them.

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the excellent first-draft translation by C. R. Benami, long-time editorial assistant for AscentOfSafed.com, from Sipureitzadikim@walla.com, Sukkot 5778 (Oct. 1, 2017) mailing.

Footnote: [1]Many communities have the tradition of sleeping in the sukkah as well.

Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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