Although Sukkot is months away, it’s not too early to start thinking about decorating your sukkah.
Here’s a way that I have discovered to combine sukkah decorations with an awareness of our Creator and the created natural world around us. I do this by adding biblical quotations (or other meaningful words) to my own digital photos. Summer vacations, or even just weekend breaks, give us all the opportunity to open our eyes to see the beauty and inspiration derived from nature.
Then I have those photos and captions printed out, and I hang them in my sukkah.
You can do it too.
I have been creating and hanging pictures to which I’ve added biblical quotes for 29 years, ever since my father, Alfred Kissileff, died. His yahrzeit is the first day of Sukkot. He loved the natural world and loved to praise its Creator, so this project was dedicated to his memory.
Using your experiences to create these decorations does not necessarily have to be a one-time adventure; instead, it can become an ongoing activity that you do year after year. All of it can help fulfill the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem — of loving God — as proposed by Rambam.
To begin, first you can take pictures of natural scenery and objects, such as trees, flowers, rocks, vistas, and the people engaged with them. Then, put quotes from Tanach — our holy scriptures — the Torah, Nevi’im, or Prophets, and Ketuvim, or Writings to describe them. For example, the line from the penitential Psalm 27, “he lifts me on a rock,” could show a family member, a friend, or anyone else sitting on a rock amid a beautiful natural setting. You can fit a sunset or sunrise to several quotes from Hallel, “from the rising to the setting of the sun.”
A beautiful flower can connect to a verse from Isaiah about the flowers of the field. Two verses from Ashrei, Psalm 145, can be illustrated with pictures of insects or birds on flowers.
There are two ways to approach this project.
2. Text to picture: Search for scenes to fit texts that you like and save those images in a separate album. Look consciously for natural objects to fit pre-selected texts or create scenes. For example, you can illustrate lines from the 23rd Psalm: “He leads me beside the still waters,” He leads me on paths for righteousness,” or “He lays me down in green meadows.”
This project is ideal for group studies too, in a summer camp, at school, or with family.
1. Find textual sources. A good place to start is in our morning prayers. Birchat ha Shachar includes several psalms with descriptions of the natural world that can easily be pictured. (For inspiration, look at Michael Haruni’s Siddur Nehalel BeChol. It’s on Amazon.) You can use online sources such as Mechon Mamre, at mechon-mamre.org, or Sefaria, at sefaria.org, for the texts. I also recommend using the haftarah of Shabbat Nachamu and Hallel. There are many others as well.
2. To place the texts on pictures, use labeling programs such as Keynote for Apple products or Power Point for Microsoft office; try canva.com or postermywall.com, or find an easy-to-use labeling app from the from the app store, or Adobe Photoshop. It is best to save the file as an Adobe PDF. Retain a half inch margin around the picture and indicate whether you want it printed with or without a border.
3. Get it printed. I use a local printer who manages professional quality printing on banners as small as 8 ◊ 10 inches or as large as 3 ◊ 4 feet. I have them printed on waterproof vinyl sheets with grommets for mounting. Search the web for local sources.
4. Check the resolution of the photos you take. It is important to determine how your picture will look when it is enlarged; you can check it with zoom functions on your display. There are formulas you can use to determine whether the original density of pixels from your cell phone or camera will look good when it’s enlarged 10 times. Usually, a typical iPhone 6S plus or higher can be enlarged to 8 ◊ 10 without loss of resolution, but anything bigger could make the image look fuzzy. Newer phones have better cameras, but it’s always best to check with your printer to determine how the picture will look when enlarged.
5. Mounting and arranging in the sukkah. If your sukkah has canvas or plastic flexible walls, you can use large safety pins on the grommets. Sticky back will work on hard surfaces. Both methods allow you to remove the photos easily; if your sukkah is made of canvas or vinyl, you can just leave the images on from one year to the next. Arrange the pictures as you please — by date, by theme, or just randomly. Be creative to make a pleasing arrangement.
This project will preserve wonderful memories and connect participants with the Creator. It is also a way of fulfilling hiddur mitzvah — of expanding the beautification of the sukkah. It will lead to new ways of seeing the text actively in your life. It will become a springboard for looking at the world through eyes of the Creator and the Creator’s poets. Finally, using the internet and social media, participants can share their photos with quotes with family members who can print them locally.
Harry Kissileff of Teaneck, who retired as an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, now is an assistant professor in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, conducting research on appetite control and eating disorders. He is also an avid outdoor and environmental enthusiast. He and his wife, Karen Stein Kissileff, are members of Congregation Beth Sholom; Dr.Kissileff also is a member of Rinat Yisrael, his next door neighbor.